Analyzing Afro-Latino Music

“…analyzing musical afromestizaje among Black and Chicana/o subjects, in particular allows for a fuller understanding of the interconnections among communities on the margins of society in the United States.”

                                                                                                            -Marco Cervantes

Celia Cruz (1925- 2003) will be forever known as the “Queen of Salsa” and “La Guarachera de Cuba.” Her music is inspired by not only the sounds of Caribbean and Latino music but also African music. Her trademark catchphrase, Azucar, meaning sugar in Spanish hold more historical significance than what most people know. When Celia Cruz cried out Azucar during her performances she make a reference to the African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations.

Above is a performance of Quimbara by Celia Cruz. Quimbara is indeed an African word, for what the word means I am not sure, but it does represent one of the many songs that showcases African influence in Celia Cruz’s music. I mention Celia Cruz because I was reminded of her and her music while reading the article, “Squeezebox Poetics: Locating Afromestizaje in Esteban Jordan’s Texas Conjunto Performance” by Marco Cervantes.

In the article, Marco Cervantes observes the performances of Esteban Jordan (1939-2010), a conjunto artist, using an Afromestizaje lens.  This approach observes the fusion of African American and Mexican American cultural expressions in social spaces.[1] His argument is that Jordan “engages in afro-mestizo performance and displays blackness as a component of Tex-Mex culture”[2] by blending the blues, soul, and jazz genres with conjunto and ranchero music styles which all represents class and a history of two marginalized groups in the United States in the mid twentieth century.[3] By blending different styles of music, Esteban Jordan  and other artists, challenged the music industry’s tradition of labeling music by race.


My problem with the article is that I feel that Cervantes limits the approach to just only analyzing Mexican-American and Tejano music, he stated that he only employs the approach to observe fusions within Mexican American and African American cultural expressions despite the quote above, Cervantes doesn’t state or allude to how we can apply this approach to other racial groups that are marginalized in the United States.  I also feel that this approach could also be applied to examine other kinds of Latino music that exist in various Latino cultures such as reggaeton, which became popular in the early 2000s. You can also use this approach to look at other Latino or African American artists today who are crossing genres.

What do you think of extending the approach to artists outside of the Tejano and other Mexican American genres?

[1] Marco Cervantes, “Squeezebox Poetics: Locating Afromestizaje in Esteban Jordan’s Texas Conjunto Performance,” American Quarterly 65 (December 2013): 856.

[2] IBID, 860.

[3] IBID, 860.


15 thoughts on “Analyzing Afro-Latino Music

  1. Celia Cruz is a beast! I did not know that her saying ‘Azucar’ was her alluding to the sugar plantations in which slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work on. I think it is very powerful that her catch phrase was indicative of the African influences both in Cuba and in the musical genre salsa. Also, I admire that she ties in Yoruba into her songs. To answer your question, I think the approach can definitely be extended to other Latino genres to challenge the labels placed upon artists and the different music genres.

    1. Like Araya, I did not know that Celia Cruz’s catchphrase “Azucar” was an allusion, so thank you for sharing, Jeanette! We actually listened to quite a lot of Cruz’s music in my high school Spanish class, and it would have been nice to have gotten some cultural context along with the catchy language lesson. I think that such labeling goes beyond just music. Though my Spanish textbook showed pictures of people of many races, their history and culture was for the most part portrayed as a universal “Latin American” experience, from the Caribbean to Argentina. Clearly, the real stories are more complicated and interesting than that.

      I also agree that the approach can be used on other genres of music, and possibly even to other art forms as well.

      1. I would also agree that it is possible to observe cultural fusions in other pieces of genre. But to be honest, I don’t know if I would necessarily recognize it (just a result of my personal ignorance). Britney, I was curious what you meant when you suggest applying it to other possible art forms?

  2. I wondered the same thing, Jeanette, especially when he wanted to establish the difference between “afromestizaje” and “creole.” That opens up a whole other can of worms, but he was purposefully avoiding creole to identify something he thought was distinctly different. Do scholars consider Celia Cruz and her style to be a descendant of Creole music? Bachata crosses that blurry line between Latino and creole, just as conjunto crosses the lines between Middle European and Tejano music.

    So yes, I think we can apply it to other artists. Much of salsa arose from conjunto cubano, especially with Arsenio Rodríguez.

    The horns take up the role of Jordan’s accordion, and in his later music they experiment more just as Jordan did with blues scales. Thanks for posing the question, Jeanette!

  3. Jeanette, honestly before the readings this week I have never really looked at or even listened to Afro-Latino music. Both “Squeezebox Poetics: Locating Afromestizaje in Esteban Jordan’s Texas Conjunto Performance” and your blog post really made me think more closely about the origins of music today. I would be interested to continue research into other music genres that blending different styles and see if those genres challenge your notion that “the music industry’s tradition of labeling music by race.”

    1. Yes, thank you for sharing an example of Afro-Latino music. I confess I didn’t get much out of this article because I had no history with the topic. My sister listens to latino music all the time because she is fluent in Spanish, but I think her primary interests are in Spain and Mexican artists. I could be wrong though. I’m going to share this artist with her and see what she thinks. I wonder how many other artists out there have a trademark catchphrase that reflects deep historical meaning?

      1. I, like Stephenie and Michelle, had no prior experience with Afro-Latino music. It’s nevertheless interesting to me that music can often blur the line between recreation and resistance- what might be easy listening to some can have subtle or not-so-subtle nuances of “fighting back” to another. Just listen to anything Flogging Molly has ever done.

    2. It is interesting how the origins of music are not known or have combined with other styles in ways that we were not aware. Elvis was heavily criticized for stealing the style of many African American artists at the time. References to this are still made in African American music today. Eminem alludes to it in his song “Without Me.”
      “I am the worst thing since Elvis
      To do black music so selfishly
      And used it to get myself wealthy”

    3. I think Jeanette raises a valid point in her analysis that the music industry has traditionally labeled genres by race. I think it continues today. As I was reading Cervantes’ article, and somewhat topical to Jeanette’s thesis, I thought about bluegrass and its African roots. Bluegrass is certainly a genre that has been racialized and was done so by the industry in a calculated manner by playing up hillbilly and Appalachian stereotypes. Today, more African American artists are taking ownership over the genre by playing in black string bands. However, their styles tend to blend the traditional, what many may associate with white bluegrass artists, and new styles. I think Cervantes shows that no one genre is “pure” and always incorporates some kind of fusion even though the music industry tries to categorize things with neat labels.

  4. While trying to research a little more about African influences in music from other Latin American countries I realized how hard it was for me to distinguish what made each style different. I could hear differences between various Afro-Latino artists (from Daddy Yankee’s Puerto Rican reggaeton, to Cubaton group Gente de Zona), but I do not have enough knowledge of these styles to distinguish them by ear. I think other people who know little about Latin American music are likely to make false assumptions that all of these styles are the same as Mexican American music. While Esteban Jordan’s music challenges the tendency for music to be labelled by race, this labeling is hard to eliminate among people who are not familiar with the intricacies of a particular style.

    1. I think you could say that about many music genres, Keith. For instance, most people recognize Classical music, but they may not know the difference between Romantic and Baroque compositions. I think that there’s definitely a knowledge base necessary for understanding the nuances and differences between sub-genres. It is interesting to think about how those levels of understanding play out among different ethnic or socioeconomic groups. People often think of music as universal, but there are definitely signifiers embedded in specific genres that people who come from a different background than the composer may not pick up on.

      1. I agree, Kirsten! A lot of genres require background knowledge when defining specific style characteristics. To an untrained ear, a piece of music may sound like one era or genre, when it is actually another.

        I wonder if the ethnic background of a singer or a composer or an instrumentalist truly matters in the big picture. Does one need to be of a particular “race” to sing or play a particular genre of music? Does the listener need to be of a particular “race” in order to understand a piece of music? I tend to think not. Certainly, in times when groups of people have been marginalized, it is great to pay particular attention to musicians who had to work harder to gain respect and consideration than perhaps other musicians did. (Though one might also argue that it has never been particularly easy to make a living as a musician.) But I wonder if the labels that we put on music genres need to be carried over to the musicians themselves– I think perhaps they don’t, especially in the 21st century.

  5. I kept thinking about zydeco while reading the article and wished that it had been explored a bit more. Especially when Cervantes looked at “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot.” I would like to know how zydeco music and tradition were incorporated (or not) in other musical forms.

  6. I love the questions of intersectionality that the quote you began your post brings to mind. Understanding the multiple identities that people embody can help us to more effectively unpack privilege and oppression. I am also interested in constructions of race in the United States versus Central, South and Caribbean American cultures. Specifically, many people in the United States see race as black and white whereas other cultures in the Americas have a more fluid construction that employ many different categories. The connection between these differences and the structures of slavery that formed them are important to keep in mind.

  7. I like how Cervantes brought in other scholarship on stylistic trends and how they communicate social identity. He connects the album cover–specifically, Jordan’s attire–that you’ve included in your post, Jeanette, with other forms of entertainment. In particular, I’m thinking of the film, “Superfly” and (as Kobena Mercer noted) its “defiant dandyism.” This makes me consider the question I posed in Jillian’s post about effective ways museums can communicate the role that resistance plays in music. Maybe the answer is that it doesn’t need to be strictly aural and that the images that appear in the marketing and branding of music have just as much to say as the lyrics.

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