Listening for Africa explores Afro-modernism between the 1930s and the 1950s, critically assessing why the African origins of black music and dance mattered during this period of rising racism and fascism in Europe and the Americas, colonialism in Africa, and the onset of the Cold War. Garcia focuses upon key individuals who investigated the African origins of New World Negro music and dance in order to refute erasure of Africa as an obsolete past within the context of a modern world. He asks, “When black music and dance sounded and embodied its African origins … exactly how, why, and for whom were those soundings and embodiments materializing?” (p. 5). He pursues answers to this question in five diffuse chapters that present an array of archival material and draw on theories and methodologies in anthropology, sociology, comparative musicology/ethnomusicology, folklore, African diasporic studies, and dance history. The book argues that for some “academics, performers, and activists, listening to, analyzing, sounding, embodying, and even resisting black music's and dance's African origins enabled their holding modernity's promises of freedom and equality to the fire[,] usually as their acts of faith in modernity but also as acts of stepping inside and outside of its regimes of truth” (p. 6).
Chapter 1, “Analyzing the African Origins of Negro Music and Dance in a Time of Racism, Fascism, and War,” examines correspondence and laboratory analyses of field research by Melville J. Herskovits, Fernando Ortiz, Erich von Hornbostel, and Mieczyslaw Kolinski, who used scientific methods to document the survival of the music and dance of the African “bush” in New World Negro cultures in the Caribbean, people of the “bush” functioning as “spatial and temporal substitutes for Africans of the past” (p. 24). This chapter also dissects Herskovits's complicated relationship with his student Katherine Dunham, whose applied anthropological fieldwork and ethnographical publications on the Maroons of Accompong, Jamaica, and the “Bush Negroes” of Suriname expanded geographical sites for the historical African past, but conflicted with her creative aspirations as a professional dancer and choreographer.
“Listening to Africa in the City, in the Laboratory, and on Record,” chapter 2, explores three case studies involving listeners to music “performed by bodies racialized as black” (p. 75). The first historicizes the public debates by Fernando Ortiz, cofounder of the Society for Afro-Cuban Studies, and other Cuban intellectuals in Havana in 1936–37 over the reinstatement of comparsas and congas (previously banned performing groups of slave origin) in the city's Carnival celebrations as examples of folk culture. Ortiz arranged lecture-concerts to address an African presence in Cuba's national music, thereby empowering other Afro-Cubans and municipalities to form alliances to promote “the reconciliation of the African primitive past with, or its condemnation as a detriment to, Cuban society's modernizing present, which for either perspective hinged on the desire for a culturally assimilated or racially homogeneous nation” (p. 82). The second study shifts to the United States in the 1940s and Richard Waterman's transcriptions and analyses of Herskovits's Trinidadian field recordings at the Laboratory of Comparative Musicology at Northwestern University. That research led Waterman to develop his theory of “hot” rhythm in African music, which “enable[d] listeners to access the unconscious mind of African musicians now temporalized in order to hear how their descendants, including jazz and boogie-woogie musicians, have perceived music for generations, all the while remaining physically in their own present” (p. 108). The third study focuses on record companies that promoted the commercial distribution of recorded traditional music from the African diaspora, blurring boundaries between actual field recordings and recordings made in the studio, as well as reinforcing the distance that separated the consumer and listener from the time, place, performance context, and origin of the performance. Garcia identifies three seminal albums recorded in 1947 as examples: Harold Courlander's Music of the Cults of Cuba (DISC Ethnic Album 131), Katherine Dunham's Afro-Caribbean Songs and Rhythms (Decca A-511), and Miguelito Valdés's Bim Bam Boom: An Album of Cuban Rhythms (Decca 344).
Chapter 3, “Embodying Africa against Racial Oppression, Ignorance, and Colonialism,” presents three case studies of collaborative lecture-performances by African Americans, Afro-Cubans, and immigrant African dancers and musicians in the United States. The first concentrates on three topics: the activities of Nigerian nationalist Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe, founder of the African Academy of Arts and Research, whose productions demonstrated the influence of African music upon jazz, boogie-woogie, tap dance, and calypso; the collaborations of Afro-Cuban singer Zoila Gálvez, who, with her husband Enrique Andreu, sought to forge pan-African ties with African Americans through performances of the Negro spiritual; and the activities of singer-dancer Modupe Paris from French Guinea, who gave lecture demonstrations on the development of black music and portrayed native Africans in films. (Garcia also compares Paris's performances in films to movies that featured African American singer Paul Robeson and Afro-Cuban singer-dancer Luciano “Chano” Pozo, whose racialized black bodies lent credibility to their interpretations of African natives on screen.) The second case study focuses on the work of Sierra Leonean Asadata Dafora, who presented choreographed dances and musical dramas performed by native African dancers to demonstrate the opposition between the historical African past and the modern present. The third case study reexamines the pan-Africanist views of Mbadiwe and Dafora, who eventually came to associate their advocacy for the decolonization of Africa during World War II with the freedom struggles of African Americans in the United States.
Chapter 4, “Disalienating Movement and Sound from the Pathologies of Freedom and Time,” draws inspiration from the final chapter of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, which introduces the term “disalienation,” defined by Garcia as “the notion of scientific objectivity (analyzing) and the racialized body (embodying) as mechanisms of alienating individuals, black and white, from their present situations” (p. 173). In his introduction, Garcia posits that Duke Ellington, Katherine Dunham, and Harry Smith experienced fleeting moments of disalienation during the 1940s in their daily work, which may be attributed to their productions/performances, as well as “the interstices of capitalism's, sexism's, and racism's striations through the thicket of everyday living, through their daily actions and the actions of those around them” (p. 17). Garcia identifies specific moments when these artists took control over conceptualizing their artistry and remained true to “their own authentic (disalienated) selves” (p. 175). Katherine Dunham and Ellington created their artistic works under the influence of New Negro ideals, whereas Smith relied during his early career upon abstract and nonobjective films. Dunham never conceived her choreographies as authentic reproductions of Caribbean and Latin American dances, preferring to view them as creative choreographies based on original sources. Garcia speculates that Ellington may have expressed ambivalence in representing the “Americo-Liberian” elite in his Liberian Suite (1947) by writing an anticlimactic finale that employs an exotic bass figure, his signature wah-wah blues trombones, and seemingly misplaced rhythms, accompanied by slowly moving harmonic language and dissonant chords, instead of composing a more jubilant ending for the piece. By contrast, Harry Smith, the European American experimental filmmaker, manipulated time and space with abstract images, color, and rhythm, and often integrated music by bop and cubop musicians in his film clips as a way of transcending the limitations imposed by formal structures and narratives. Smith's rejection of the economics of racial politics dictated that he racialize musicians in his films (notably Pozo and “Dizzy” Gillespie) in order to represent universal human qualities that he believed were increasingly endangered by the modern world; from his perspective, bebop musicians possessed abstract, nonobjective qualities that were reflected in his rejection of the material world. Garcia questions, however, whether Pozo, Gillespie, Ellington, or Dunham could have created “nonobjective music and dance had they desired to do so as disalienating expressions of their selves in the world”; or was nonobjective space “a prerogative of the temporal and spatial privileges that came with (or determined) one's status as a racially unmarked or white modern body” (p. 219)?
In Chapter 5, “Desiring Africa, or Western Civilization's Discontents,” two case studies chronicle the national, international, and transnational reactions to the mambo craze of the 1950s, showing how capitalism and the Cold War blurred the logic of the African origins of black music and dance, as well as the extent to which the machines of Western civilization (identified as capitalism, Catholicism, psychology, and nationalism) attacked mambo musicians, dancers, and their audiences because of the excesses of the dance. “Mambo Madness,” the first of the two case studies, examines the Cuban reaction to the dance, using articles by Manuel Cuéllar Vizcaíno and Odilio Urfé that raised concerns about transformations taking place in the danzón (the national dance of Cuba) around the time that Pedro Aguilar (“Cuban Pete”) began his career as a professional mambo dancer in 1948. Both authors associated the mambo with Cuba's national heritage, but blamed African influences for the disappearance of eloquent dancing and the introduction of “primitive” and “rough sounding” conga drums (p. 231). They described the mambo as a revolutionary craze that brought Cuban youth freedom and liberation in sound and movement, but advised Cubans to regain their equilibrium and overcome “‘bewitching strains … and contorting their bodies’” (p. 231). Recordings of big bands expanded the popularity of the mambo beyond Cuba throughout the Caribbean, eventually reaching the United States, where mambo dance music was introduced into middle-class homes via the radio, sound recordings, performances in dance studios and ballrooms, print media, television, and films; the more mambo invaded public and private spaces, “the more strident, noisy, and pathological it and the metropolis seemed to become” (p. 238). Garcia observes that when bodies racialized as black performed black music and dance, the dance was racialized as being of African origin; however, transnational appropriation of the mambo required a new racialized and gendered social construction for the dance.
In the second case study, “The Existentialist and Lo Real Maravilloso Turns?,” Garcia examines critical transnational reactions to the mambo and its performances by the King of Mambo, Cuban composer Dámaso Pérez Prado, throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. In Venezuela, Cardinal Juan Gualberto Guevara threatened to deny absolution to participants in and observers of a mambo dance contest during Holy Week in 1951, and excommunication notices were sent that same year to Pérez Prado and Cuban-born Mexican actress María Antonieta Pons, who had starred in the film La reina del mambo (1950). In Mexico, on the other hand, that country's national identity of “whiteness” influenced erasure of race in the reception of the mambo in films and dance, where female bodies racialized as “white” danced the mambo to the music of Pérez Prado's orchestra, which had a predominantly black male percussion section:
What is ultimately significant here is the fact that the female dancing body racialized as white constitutes as important a political technology in the logic of black music's and dance's African origins as does the male and female body racialized as black. The temporalities of the past exerted in the performativity of the body racialized as black [coincide] with the temporalities of the present and future exerted in the performativity of the body gendered and racialized as female and white. This play in the mambo of temporalities within racializing and gendering technologies or machines helps begin to explain why the mambo could be unmistakably primitive, of African origins, and unhealthy, while at the same time be revitalizing, pleasurable, and modern. (p. 264)
As a textbook, Listening for Africa would be more suitable for upper-division graduate courses than for undergraduates. It is heavily saturated with theoretical jargon and includes many twists and turns that can make the narrative difficult to follow. The volume would also have benefitted from more careful editing and greater technical assistance during production. On balance, however, the scholarship is solid, and the book is valuable as a rare interdisciplinary and transnational study of black music and dance history. As such, it is a welcome addition to the literature.