Music and the Formation of Black Identity in Colombia

September 25, 2007

During my fieldwork in Colombia, I found that music and dance were important to understanding patterns of racism and racial identity formation. In the early 1980s, when working in the village of Unguía, near the Panamanian frontier, it was evident that racial and ethnic identities were linked to musical preferences.[1] Although racial identities were not clear cut in this context, with people of many types of physical appearance and regional origin interacting fairly freely, I could see that, for example, the local bailaderos (dance halls) were run and frequented predominantly by (younger) blacker people from Colombia’s Pacific and Caribbean tropical coastal regions who danced mainly to international salsa music and local Colombian vallenato (accordion music from the Caribbean coastal region of the country). In contrast, bars playing Argentine tangos and Mexican rancheras were dominated by lighter-skinned mestizos from the highland interior of the country who congregated to drink and talk rather than dance.

As Marisol de la Cadena pointed out in an earlier issue of this NACLA series on race and racism in the Americas [“Reconstructing Race” in Vol. 34, No. 6,] Latin American forms of racial thinking are based to a large extent on cultural differences.[2] This does not mean that ideas about biology, physical bodies, heredity and “blood” are absent, but rather that they are intertwined in complex ways with ideas about culture such that the two are not easily separated in practice.

Music is an interesting realm in which to examine the formation of racial identities partly because the slippage between nature and culture is quite evident in people’s ideas about music and the dancing that frequently goes with it. On the one hand, music and dance styles are recognized as specifically cultural practices, acquired through learning and particular to specific regions or categories of people.On the other hand, it is widely held that some people have “natural” propensities in relation to music and dance, whether in terms of a person being said to have an individual gift or a whole category of people being thought to have a generic predisposition to prefer certain types of music or be good or bad at performance.

But music is not just an expression of identity; rather it helps to form and constitute that identity.[3] Instead of a group of people having a ready-formed identity which they then signify, to themselves and others, with a given form of music, identities are in a constant process of formation and change and generally do not easily correspond to clearly defined categories or groups of people. Music—listened to, danced to, performed, talked and written about—is part of the process of formation and change. As such, particular styles are not tied in a simple fashion to specific groups: Instead, music is integral to the complex relationships between changing and overlapping sets of people.

In Unguía in the 1980s it was apparent that patterns of cultural expression and consumption interwove with the town’s political economy. Black people were generally subordinate to the highland mestizos who dominated the region’s cattle-farming and commercial economy. According to these farmers and merchants, los negros (the blacks) wasted their time and money on dancing and such leisure pursuits. Music and dance were seen as linked to sexual encounters and los negros were also supposedly uncontrolled in their sexual and family lives. At the same time, the very style of dancing that could be observed in the dance halls was thought by many highland mestizos to be licentious, with too much close dancing and grinding hip movements. In this way, music, dance, (im)morality and poverty were all linked together in a vicious circle by the local mestizos to explain the position of black people in the local economy. At the same time, many thought that black people had a “natural” predilection for music and dance and were often “naturally” good at dancing. Rhythm was supposedly “in the blood”—a stereotype about black people that is probably familiar to many both within and beyond the Latin American context.[4]

Some years later, I moved to the city of Medellín—located in the region of origin of many of these highland mestizos—and studied black migrants to the city. Many of them came from the Pacific coastal region, an infrastructurally underdeveloped and very poor area, populated predominantly by black people, descendants of slaves taken there by the Spanish to mine gold.[5] Again, music and dance were vital aspects of racial identities and interactions. Certain bars in the city center became haunts for these black migrants, especially as Sunday meeting places for the female domestic servants and the male construction workers who constituted many of the migrants. These bars played only salsa and vallenato. In the low-income settlements that formed on the outskirts of the city, or sometimes as invasions in marginal interstices of the more central areas, some residential concentrations of black migrants formed and often one or more of them would set up an informal dance hall, perhaps only at the weekends in a private residence that became an open house. These places became meccas for other black migrants, but they also incurred the wrath of local mestizo neighbors who were appalled by what they saw as excessive noise, music and rowdy behavior. On occasion, such disagreements led to physical violence and stone-throwing. Generally, the migrants, being in a minority, adapted to some extent, but it was plain that these musical and festive expressions were a vital part of black identity in the city.

Black people in Unguía and Medellín were often aware of the negative views non-blacks held of them and the way they chose to enjoy music and dance. Their reactions to this awareness were complex and double-edged. To understand this, it is useful to outline briefly what “black identity” meant in Colombia in the 1980s. At this time, a politicized view of black identity among black people was very incipient, confined to a small minority among urban, educated black people, often university students, inspired mainly by the black movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Among other black people, ideas about blackness were very varied. Often the term was avoided, as potentially derogatory. People might prefer terms such as moreno (brown); frequently, regional labels, such as costeño (coastal dweller), were used, as Colombia’s coastal regions have concentrations of dark-skinned people.

On the other hand, people might refer to themselves personally and to whole categories of people as los negros with little sense of embarrassment or shame. Indeed, although this did not equate to a politicized sense of “black is beautiful,” there was a certain sense of pride about aspects of black culture. These might include the idea that black people were hard workers, that they were open and hospitable, that they were more peaceful and less aggressive than mestizos from the highland interior (an important claim in Colombia’s violent society), and that they were expressive and realized the social and emotional value of festiveness—in which music and dance played an important role. While black people recognized that, in many ways, they were at the bottom of the pile in a society dominated economically and politically by non-blacks and aesthetically by representations of white people in the media, they also took pride in who they were and what they did. And they recognized that amongst non-blacks there might also be a certain element of admiration, even envy, of aspects of black culture.

In Unguía and Medellín, I found that music and dance were key aspects of sociality among black people. The presence of certain types of music, and where appropriate dance, was a vital means of opening and defining spaces where blackness was a dominant presence despite the overall non-black context of the village and the city. These spaces were often black bars and dance halls, private parties or open houses. As one young black student told me in Medellín: “If you go to an Antioqueño house [i.e. a non-black house] you feel timid, you’re watching everything you do and you do everything timidly.[6] But when I’m with three or four paisanos [compatriots, i.e. other blacks] I feel good, I feel happy, free, like without any clothes. In the Suizo [a city-center black bar] or among one’s own people you can shout, behave as you’re used to, use nicknames, call out to a friend from the other side of the room, and all that: You feel in your element. I think the people go there [to the Suizo] because they feel good there.” This conveys a sense of relief, rather than pride, a feeling of security in a hostile environment, rather than a feeling of personal or collective self-respect.

Yet other black people I knew—often men—clearly enjoyed and were proud of their personal reputations as music-lovers, good dancers and party-lovers and this was integrally linked to their own identities as blacks.[7] There was here an element of scorn for those seen as clod-footed and less moved by music—traits often stereotypically associated with non-blacks. Partying was seen as part of the good life, as part of a way of life that was relaxed, open, honest and straightforward.

There is a difficult balance to be struck here, because these images of black people as “naturally” open, relaxed, musical and party-loving are as easily part of a primitivist, romantic view of blackness, from the point of view of white society, as they are part of black people’s images of themselves.

There is a sense in which some of the black people I knew in Unguía and Medellín deployed what they saw as white people’s romantic understandings of black culture in order to gain a sense of superiority in specific contexts: It was a case of black people looking at white people looking at black people in an ever-repeating series of mirrors. Other black people, while recognizing that music and dance were important features of black culture and sociality, were also critical of what they saw as the negative aspects of these features, which they thought eroded self-discipline and impeded upward mobility, and critical of the stereotypes non-black people might purvey about these features of black culture. In sum, music and dance played a complex role in constituting black identities in Colombian society in the 1980s. They could be seen in different ways by both black and non-black people, without a simple link between racial identity and views about music and dance.

The music itself was intricately involved in these complex social dynamics. What constituted “black music” in Unguía and Medellín was not an obvious matter. The most popular styles among black people there were salsa and vallenato, but these were by no means listened to only by black people. Salsa is an international genre that, while it has clear roots in Afro-Cuban music, is not straightforwardly a “black” style: While many famous salseros—Celia Cruz, Ismael Rivera and Oscar D’Leon, for example—are classifiable as more or less black in both North American and Latin American schemes, others, such as Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe and Eddie Palmieri, are not. Some salsa song lyrics make reference to black roots: “sin negro no hay guaguancó” (without blacks there is no guaguancó) or “moreno soy, porque nací de la rumba y el sabor yo lo heredé del guaguancó” (I am brown [or black] because I was born of the rumba and I inherited the flavor from the guaguancó).[8] But most others do not.

Vallenato also has an ambiguous racial identity. It comes from the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, which has some notable concentrations of black people, but it originates—or is said to originate—from a specific area, around the town of Valledupar, which is not particularly black. As with salsa, it has some famous black exponents, but most artists are not easily classifiable as black. Its lyrics make very little reference to blackness or black roots, instead glorifying partying as a lifestyle and bewailing the misfortunes of love. As a musical style it is best known for quite slow, romantic songs (although it does have more upbeat sub-genres) and, while it is a dance music, it is very different from salsa which shares the polyrhythmic syncopations and overlapping call-response elements that are common to much New World music of black origin.[9]

In the context of Unguía and Medellín at the time, however, these musical styles were associated with black people, because they were the preferred music of many black people in these two locations, as well as in their regions of origin, and because they were evident features of the places and times that were being defined as “black” (e.g., a city center bar on a Sunday afternoon). In short, the music was “black” as much because black people were listening to it, as because of some objective musicological traits.

Another way of grasping the relationship between music and black identity at the time is to ask what other kinds of music might have been contenders in the identity game. For example, a “traditional” style in the Chocó province in the northern Pacific coastal region of the country, whence many black people in Unguía and Medellín had come, is chirimía, a term that refers mainly to the small brass bands, with snare drum, bass drum and cymbals that play a variety of European-derived tunes—mazurkas, polkas, jugas (from fugues) and contradanzas. This is heard especially in times of carnival-like patron-saint festivities. Yet this style had no place in Medellín. Another contender might have been cumbia, a style, with clearly African origins in the powerful drum rhythms that underlie it, that originates in the Caribbean coastal region. This could certainly be heard in Medellín, but more likely in non-black and perhaps middle-class parties and dance halls. Why did neither type of music come to constitute black identity in the city? In the case of chirimía, I think it is because it was seen as too provincial by these urban black migrants, too “folkloric.” It did not chime well with their urban aspirations.

In the case of cumbia, I think this music was seen as overly whitened and commercialized. Cumbia started as a traditional peasant music of the Caribbean coastal region, but from the 1940s, it was taken up by urban “jazz-bands,” as they were known, and turned into a national commercial pop music, purveyed increasingly by non-black musicians.[10] Many black—and non-black—people in Colombia looked down upon this music as too plastic and rhythmically bland and over-simplified. While chirimía was too rustic, cumbia had long since gone over the cusp of fashion. Cumbia had once been identified as a black music, however. Some middle class commentators in 1940s Bogotá decried the arrival in their city of this “primitive” and “licentious” black music from the Caribbean coastal region—even if it was increasingly played by non-black musicians.

By the 1980s, in any case, working class urban black migrants sought out newer styles more strongly associated with their class position and racial identity in order to constitute their identities. Salsa and vallenato, in contrast to cumbia, were both, at the time, still seen as fashionable urban popular music, with connotations of working class status and blackness. Although salsa was increasingly popular among the middle classes, it still had a strong working-class following, while vallenato was looked down upon by the middle classes as trashy and quintessentially working class. Both musical styles could thus work in the formation of black identity, in the sense of helping to constitute particular spaces in the city center, in low-income settlements on the weekends and in private parties, where blackness was the order of the day.

I do not want to argue that salsa and vallenato were “music of resistance,” in a simple sense. Both were then, and are now, highly commercialized genres, strongly controlled at the production end by big record companies. But as commercial products, they were available to multiple audiences and, by listening and dancing to them—often at high volume and more or less unmixed with other styles—black migrants in Unguía and Medellín created for themselves spaces that were distinct from non-black working class spaces and, even more, non-black middle class spaces. The lyrical emphasis in both salsa and vallenato on having fun, partying and dancing interwove well with the other key lyrical theme of both genres—romantic love, commonly portrayed as a star-crossed experience, reminiscent perhaps of the tough and difficult lives of many urban migrants. Black migrants were at the bottom of the pile in both places (although they were not alone there in either place) and, in Medellín, they were an embattled minority. They could hardly deny their blackness or, for most of them, their working class status as domestic servants and construction workers, yet they not only created refuges for themselves and their ways of life, they actively asserted their presence at certain times and in certain locations, and music was a key part of this assertion.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the situation is distinct from what it was two decades earlier. In many Latin American countries, blackness has recently achieved a greater public and political profile than before and is increasingly recognized by black and non-black people alike—and especially by governments—as a legitimate part of the nation. In Colombia, as in several other Latin American countries, there has been an official recognition of cultural and ethnic diversity in the nation, ever since the revised 1991 constitution. Black communities in Colombia have received particular recognition, including rights to apply for land titles in the Pacific coastal region.[11] This official recognition has spurred the growth of the black social movement, leading to the proliferation of black organizations; it has also increased the public attention paid to black culture. Meanwhile, the migration of black people from the rural areas and towns of the Pacific coastal region to cities such as Cali, Bogotá and Medellín has increased apace, fuelled partly by the intensifying interest of capitalist business and the state in the region, and more recently by the associated rise in violence as paramilitaries and guerrillas vie for control of the area.[12]

In this context, music is as important as ever to the formation of black identity. Rap music, for example, has enjoyed a boom among young urbanites. Not all Colombian rappers are black, but many are. In the city of Cali, near the southern Pacific coast, there are scores of black rap crews which vary enormously in their outlook. For some, the music is part of a project of anti-racism, community development and the affirmation of black identity. The rap crew Ashanty, for example, located in the Aguablanca district—a huge and recent settlement of migrants—has such an agenda and, for them, blackness is linked into globalized representations of Caribbean, U.S. and African blackness in the form of such figures as Bob Marley, Michael Jordan and Nelson Mandela. U.S. rap and Jamaican reggae and raggamuffin (a reggae offshoot) interweave with salsa in their musical world to create an assertive version of black identity that draws on global commodity circuits, city council funding schemes for community projects and local social relationships with other rap crews.[13]

The role of commercialization in all this is double-edged. On the one hand, rap crews such as Ashanty fuel themselves in part on the images of blackness that circulate as global commodities. Other images that are not so obviously “black”—such as the Nike logo—acquire that meaning as a result of being repeatedly shaved by razor blade into the hair stubble of numerous young black men. On the other hand, commodification can also exploit symbols of blackness for money, turning them into spectacles for non-black audiences. In 1997, for example, I saw a Cali-based group, Los Generales, fronted by four young black singers, make use of Rasta colors, dreadlock wigs and black hip-grinding female dancers to entertain with merengue, salsa and raggamuffin a mainly non-black audience at a gig that few black people could afford to attend. Yet the group’s black director told me that the commercial sound and style he was aiming for was, for him, a precursor to airing other more political themes about blackness and social problems. Commercialization can therefore both help foment broader and more politicized versions of black identity and also lead to the depiction of black culture as spectacle, with little political content. The key here is the effects that consumption of the musical product has: Bob Marley has been turned into a global commodity but, as such, his image can be both vital to such as Ashanty, in the formation of a self-assertive black identity which seeks to address racism and social inequality, and it can also be pigeon-holed conveniently into romantic ideas about individual black heroes which evade issues of racism and inequality. What matters is which effect is the predominant one.

The use of rap and reggae by young blacks in Cali is self-consciously a search beyond the Colombian context for ways to express and make an identity in Colombia. Such transnational tactics always intersect with a sense of regional rootedness and it was interesting to see, in 1997, these same young black people celebrating music from the Pacific coastal region itself. I found as many folkloric dance groups in the barrios as I did rap crews, and the same kinds of people were rapping as were dancing and playing the traditional marimba music of the Pacific region (generically known as currulao).[14] In 1997, too, the city council first sponsored a yearly festival of Pacific coast music, admitting both traditional folkloric groups and orchestras that played “modernized” versions of currulao (i.e., fused with jazz, salsa, etc.). This was the first time the city authorities had given a public platform to black culture and the venue—located in a middle-class and non-black part of town—was packed with black people, young and older. Bands such as La Contundencia, which played updated versions of currulao—and of the chirimía music that had so little place among black migrants to Medellín in the 1980s—were feted. Identity for black people in Cali was thus being shaped as much by music that was regional—for which public space had been given by the local state—as by music that was transnational. The increasingly prominent national profile of the Pacific coastal region, in the wake of Colombia’s legislative recognition of its black population, has translated into the possibility for regional cultural forms to play a more central part in black identity formation.

Both in the 1980s and since 1991, there is a sense in which Afro-Colombians, especially of the younger generation, have sought musical styles that are not mainstream, whether these have been transnational styles, such as salsa and rap, that, at least initially, were outside the Colombian musical mainstream or styles that have a particular regional identity.

Often the genres that seem to express and form black identities end up becoming more mainstream. This is true of salsa from the 1980s and, more recently of vallenato, which, mainly through the medium of actor-singer Carlos Vives, suddenly lost some of its vulgar image and became acceptable to a middle-class market. Mainstreaming does not mean that the music ceases to figure in expressions of black identity, but these expressions do seem to have an elective affinity with musical styles that are less middle of the road. It is almost as if the idea is to keep one step ahead of the rest, listening to and performing music that can express a sense of difference. This dynamic is surely, in part, a question of generational identity, but there is also a clear racial dimension to it.

A good example of this is the champeta of the Caribbean coastal region, which has become increasingly popular, although it dates back to the 1970s. This is a mixture of West African and Caribbean styles, based initially on imported records and later on local black musicians creating their own versions.[15] Champeta was derided, including by local blacks who prided themselves on their respectability, as vulgar, overly flamboyant and erotic, and associated with criminality and violence—champeta means a kind of machete—yet the music was a very clear expression of a forceful and assertive black identity, linked symbolically to Africa, even if it did not have the more overt political meanings linked to rap. It may have been associated at first with a particular sub-group of young, black fans, but it quickly became popular among the black working classes of the region more generally. It was as if, with the mainstreaming of salsa and vallenato—their adoption not just by the middle classes but also by the rest of the country—the potential of these styles to signify a regional-racial identity was diminished, leaving space for a new style to do the job. The fate of champeta is as yet uncertain. In 2001, it was suddenly taken up by national radio stations and music producers as the new fashion and began to feature in the parties of middle class kids in the cities of the interior of the country. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on its role as an emblem of Caribbean coastal working-class identity.

The formation of black identity in Colombia, and in Latin America more generally, has been a process conditioned by two powerful and linked forces: the resistance or at best indifference of non-black people to the idea of blackness as an on-going, dynamic aspect of national identity; and stereotypical views held of blackness, in which, when blackness is recognized as present in the nation, it is seen as marginal, uncouth and vulgar and/or exciting and alluring by virtue of supposed “primitive” powers, expressed particularly through sexuality and musicality. The role of music in the formation of black identity has been strongly conditioned by this last aspect. A key element in the constitution of black identity is also a key element in the restrictive stereotyping of black people by others.

One outcome of this tension seems to be a continuous process of invention and appropriation. Black people define musical tastes for themselves, which are often neither unique nor exclusive to them, which may draw from both local and global musical networks, and yet which manage to express a black identity in a given context at a given time. These tastes often enter the mainstream and in so doing thrust black identity onto the national scene, creating new opportunities for broadening and perhaps politicizing notions of blackness and, at the same time, threatening to confine blackness to an enjoyable spectacle, divorced from the contexts of racism and poverty in which these musical styles found their resonance. Colombia’s recent redefinition as a multicultural society has, I believe, given a new twist to this dynamic, rather than radically changing it.

Peter Wade is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His publications include Blackness and Race Mixture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (Pluto Press, 1997), Music, Race and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia (Chicago University Press, 2000), Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Pluto Press, 2002).

1. Peter Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
2. Marisol de la Cadena, “Reconstructing Race: Racism,Culture and Mestizaje in Latin America,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 34, No. 6, 2001, pp. 16-23.
3. Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996), 108-127; Richard Middleton, Studying Popular Music (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1990); Martin Stokes, “Introduction: Ethnicity, Identity and Music,” in Martin Stokes, ed. Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place (Oxford: Berg, 1994), 1-28.
4. Many studies have noted the connections made between black music, or music seen as “black,” and supposed immorality. See, for example, Carolyn Cooper, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘“Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993); Peter Manuel, Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey,Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple UniversityPress, 1995); Marta E. Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).
5. Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia.
6. Antioquía is the province of which Medellín is the capital city; central Antioquía is populated mainly by light-skinned mestizo people.
7. See Peter Wade, “Man the Hunter: Gender and Violence in Music and Drinking Contexts in Colombia,” in Peter Gow and Penelope Harvey, eds., Sex and Violence: Issues in Representation and Experience (London: Routledge, 1994), 115-137.
8. The first song, by Angel Lebrón, can be heard on The Lebrón Brothers, Super Hits (Philips 8485822, 1991); the second, “Moreno soy” is by Bobby Valentín. Guaguancó and rumba are both styles of Afro-Cuban music. Sabor is rendered literally here as “flavor,” but might be translated as “spice” or “heat.”
9. See Alan Lomax, “The Homogeneity of African-Afro-American Musical Style,” in Norman Whitten and John Szwed, eds., Afro-American Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1970).
10. Peter Wade, Music, Race and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
11. The key piece of legislation is Law 70 of 1993, also called the Law of Black Communities. On this and the black movement generally, see Jaime Arocha, “Inclusion of Afro-Colombians: An Unreachable Goal,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1998, pp. 70-89; Peter Wade, “The Cultural Politics of Blackness in Colombia,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1995, pp. 342-358; Michel Agier and Odile Hoffmann, “Les Terres Des Communautés Noires Dans Le Pacifique Colombien. Interprétations De La Loi Et Stratégies D’acteurs,” Problèmes d’Amérique Latine, Vol. 32, 1999, pp. 17-42.
12. Mieke Wouters, “Derechos Étnicos Bajo Fuego: El Movimiento Campesino Negro Frente a La Presión De Grupos Armados En El Chocó,” in Mauricio Pardo, ed. Acción Colectiva, Estado Y Etnicidad En El Pacífico Colombia

Tags: Colombia, race, music, identity, dance, vallenato

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