From Bomba to Hip Hop

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From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity

Juan Flores (2000)

Columbia University Press

Written by Juan Flores, Professor of Black and Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College/Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, this 272 page book presents a number of essays on identity, sense of self, place and culture for those who might identify with, or refute, such labels as Puerto Rican, Latin/a/o, Hispanic etc. You can read about him in this article.

Why you might buy it:

Flores is one of the best known writers in relation to Puerto Rican culture and identity and his writing has a following, that, on reading this, you can understand the reason for. He is a very clever writer and can pitch his work equally well to a reader requiring an academic discourse as to the reader who perhaps wants to be informed without needing to know all the sources. In this book Flores manages to provide for both, though clearly leaning more towards the academic reader here, who is catered for extremely well by top quality writing. Of particular note are the engaging and thought provoking chapter “Salvacion Casita” and the informative and entertaining “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”.

Why you might leave it:

A number of the chapters have appeared, albeit sometimes in an altered version, as articles in other books or in journals – so if you are an avid reader you may well have read much of this before. After the prelude and introduction you quickly hit intellectual notions that are couched in thoroughly academic terms, perhaps too ‘heavy going’ for those who may have been drawn to the book by its  title alone and expecting to read solely about the musical connections between bomba and hip-hop, or who may have read one of the more accessible pieces, “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”, in another form. This is at times a challenging read, but that of course may make it a good purchase for your needs.

Contents:

Prelude: From Bomba to Hip-Hop
Introduction
1. “pueblo pueblo”: Popular Culture in Time
2. The Lite Colonial: Diversions of Puerto Rican Discourse
3. Broken English Memories: Languages in the Trans-Colony
4. “Salvacion Casita”: Space, Performance, and Community
5. “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”: Songs and Stories of Latin Boogaloo
6. Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia
7. Pan-Latino/Trans-Latino: Puerto Ricans in the “New Nueva York”
8. Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions
9. The Latino Imaginary: Meanings of Community and Identity
10. Latino Studies: New Contexts, New Concepts
Postscript 1998: “None of the Above”

Selected extracts (from):

1. “pueblo pueblo”: Popular Culture in Time

Midway through its two-hundred year life since the late eighteenth century, the idea of popular culture began a gradual shift of focus from this traditional, collective creativity, commonly called “folklore”, to the domain of the mass media, the “mass culture” of technical reproduction and industrial commercialization. This shift has intensified over the course of the twentieth century, as new means of reproduction and diffusion came into place in the cultural sphere, such that by the 1940s and 1950s, especially with the advent of television, the mediated culture for the people came to eclipse and replace, in most theoretical assessments, the expressive culture of the people which had been the object of knowledge of popular culture and folklore studies in earlier generations.

4. “Salvacion Casita”: Space, Performance, and Community

The worlds of the casita and the plena are thus symbolically related as forms of performative expression of working-class Puerto Ricans, especially those of Afro-Caribbean origins from the coastal areas of the Island. Both are rooted in the everyday life of the participants, and their improvisational quality make both optimally inclusive as to the terms of involvement. Just as anyone of good will is welcome as casita events, so taking part in plena jams is open to any newcomer who can keep a beat. One of Chema’s compositions says it clearly: “Oye todo el que llega / sin instrumento desea tocar / coge hasta una botella, un cuchillo de mesa / y pega a marcar” [“Anyone who shows up wanting to play / even without an instrument / pick up a bottle and a knife from the table / and keep the beat”].

It seems that this affinity between architectural and musical expression goes back a long way, to the origins of both practices at the beginning of the century. Old photos of Barrio San Anton in the southern coastal city of Ponce, considered the birthplace of plena, show unpaved streets lined with casitas. The structural concept is the same as that evident in New York today, most notably with the front porch facing out onto an open public space. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to place a group of pleneros behind the porch railing and people socializing and dancing in the front yard.

5. “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”: Songs and Stories of Latin Boogaloo

Though some changes were obviously required for the studio recording of the tune, “Bang Bang” remains very much a party. Like the other popular songs of boogaloo, such as Hector Rivera’s “At the Party,” Pete Rodríguez’s “I Like It Like That,” and Johnny Colón’s “Boogaloo Blues,” it reenacts a bawdy happening at the peak of its emotional and sexual energy, with instrumentals and vocals playing in full, wild association with the crowd. Joe Cuba recalls, thinking mainly of “Bang Bang,” that “when I recorded in those days I always left a big boom mike overhanging above all the musicians to put in a little live effect.” The musical texture of the song is a patchwork of noises, emotive outbursts, cries of glee, short musical phrases, and the recurring, abiding counterpoint of the crowd chorus and the leitmotiv piano lick. The lyrics, though of no consistent narrative or dramatic significance, nevertheless do have a meaning, which is the interplay of Black and Latin festivity and culture, the playful mingling of African-American phrases and cultural symbols with those from Puerto Rican daily life. Musically, this same message is carried across with the collage-like mixing of familiar trappings from mambo and r&b styles. The perspective is clearly that of the Latino, and Latin music is the main defining sound of the piece ; but the traditional features and structuring principles of the Afro-Cuban model are consistently overridden by their conjoining with qualities from the r&b and soul traditions. The overall effect of the recording is one of collective celebration, gleeful partying where boundaries are set not so much by national and ethnic affiliation, or even language or formalized dance movements, but by participation in that special moment of inclusive ceremony.

As “Bang Bang” illustrates, the defining theme and musical feature of boogaloo is precisely this intercultural togetherness, the solidarity engendered by living and loving in unison beyond obvious differences. Its emergence coincided with the historical moment of the Civil Rights movement and the coming-of-age of the first generation of Puerto Rican youth born and raised in New York City. Latin music expert and producer René López calls boogaloo “the first Nuyorican music,” and a consensus has gathered in concurrence with that description. It is the sound that accompanied the teenage years of the Young Lords and of the Nuyorican poets in the later 1960s ; Piri Thomas’s groundbreaking memoir Down These Mean Streets was published in 1967. Like those experiences, it attests to the guiding, exemplary role of African-American culture and politics for that generation of Puerto Ricans growing up in New York. “Bang Bang” is an explosion of excitement arising from that cultural conjunction, the linking of Puerto Rican backgrounds with the African American influences so prevalent in all aspects of social life, including of course their music and dance.

6. Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia

By the early 1990’s, hip-hop had finally broken the language barrier. Though young Puerto Ricans from the South Bronx and El Barrio have been involved in breakdancing, graffiti writing, and rap music since the beginnings of hip-hop back in the 1970’s, it is only belatedly that the Spanish language and Latin musical styles came into their own as integral features of the rap vocabulary. By the mid-nineties, acts like Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost, Gerardo, and El General became household words among pop music fans nationwide and internationally, as young audiences of all nationalities came to delight in the catchy Spanglish inflections and the guaguanco and merengue rhythms lacing the familiar rap formats. Melow  Man Ace’s “Mentirosa” was the first Latino rap record to go gold in the summer of 1990; Kid Frost’s debut album Hispanic Causing Panic instantly became a rap anthem of La Raza in the same year; Gerardo as “Rico Suave” has his place in the inevitable Latin lover sex symbol; and El General has established the immense popularity of Spanish-language reggae-rap in the Caribbean and Latin America.

8. Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions

There are few Puerto Ricans in The Mambo Kings, and when they do appear it is usually as underworld mobsters, typically garbed in “tan suits”. Toward the end of the book, as a kind of afterthought in the endless love life of the protagonist Cesar Castillo, there is Lydia, a working-class Puerto Rican woman whose caring relation to the aging but ever libidinous musician is marred by an undertone of personal opportunism. Otherwise, though, the Latin New York of the first Hispanic Pulitzer is entirely Cuban, even though it is set at a time when Puerto Ricans far outnumbered other Latino groups and was written when the Cuban population in New York had declined to relative insignificance. Even the Latin music scene in New York, which in the 1950’s was already heavily populated by Puerto Rican musicians, is basically a Cuban affair in Hijuelo’s novel, renowned Puerto Ricans like Rafael Hernandez, Noro Morales, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez getting frequent mention and an occasional cameo appearance but no formative role in either the music or the narrative. It is worth recalling in this regard that Machito’s “Afro-Cubans,” the supreme orchestral achievement of the whole “mambo kings” era, were almost all New York Puerto Ricans.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

New York Times by Suzy Hansen (2000)
In his eloquent essay collection, ”From Bomba to Hip-Hop,” Juan Flores has compiled a decade of research and meditations on ”America’s fastest-growing minority,” Latinos. He details the struggle of Puerto Ricans in New York, from the mass migration of the 1950’s to the Puerto Rican flag-burning incident on the television program ”Seinfeld” in the 1990’s. Although they can be intimidating and dense with theory, most of the essays are colorful and engaging, like ”Cha-Cha With a Backbeat” and ”Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia,” which discuss the transformation of Latino music from Tito Puente to the hip-hop pioneer Charlie Chase. In a searing analysis of ”The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” the first novel by a Hispanic (the Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos) to win the Pulitzer Prize, Flores contends that the search for a ”Latino identity” exacerbates tensions among Latinos (for example, the very label ”Latino,” usually used by non-Latinos, because it ignores the diversity of its Spanish-speaking members). Flores, who teaches Puerto Rican and black studies at Hunter College and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, passionately advocates sensitivity to people with multiple identities, those American citizens who declare that ”If I’m Latino or Hispanic, then I am Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or Mexican-American first.”

From Library Journal by DGwen M. Gregory (2000)
Flores (black and Puerto Rican studies, Hunter Coll.; sociology, CUNY Graduate Ctr.) has written widely on Latino and Puerto Rican culture. In this new book, he focuses on the progression of Puerto Rican culture in the United States over the past half-century. He analyzes developments in music, literature, and other elements of popular culture and compares Puerto Rican culture to that of other Latino groups in the United States. He follows some interesting trends, such as the building of casitas, shacks modeled after the traditional rural homes in Puerto Rico, as cultural centers in urban U.S. settings. Flores also discusses aspects of Puerto Rican musical influence, including the Latin Boogaloo craze of 1966-68. He celebrates Puerto Rican cultural accomplishments while encouraging further achievement. While academic in format and tone, Flores’s writing is accessible to the interested lay reader.

Amazon.com by Thomas Pena
The title of Mr. Flores’ book might be a little deceiving for those who are not familiar with the subject matter. Mr. Flores uses music as a jumping off point for some very thought provoking themes that pertain (in my opinion) to all Latino’s. Juan Flores goes from scholarly themes like colonialism to thoughts on the funeral of Cortijo and the history of the Boogaloo phenomena in New York City.
Mr. Flores makes you stop and think, then think again about issues you may have had preconceived notions about. I really enjoyed being challenged intellectually as I read this book. I recently attended a lecture/performance (at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City) of “From Bomba to Hip-Hop” conducted by Mr. Flores, music historian Rene Lopez and Mike Wallace (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Gotham.”) True to form, it was a very unique, educational and entertaining experience.

Amazon.com by Edrik Lopez
As a beginning graduate student in Latina/o Studies, I have been asking myself a simple question over and over: “Where have I been?” I have gone through public education in the United States for 17 years of my life, and have only recently found that there have been people writing since the start of the 1900s about the issues, experiences, struggles, and passions that I have thought were uniquely mine. Piri Thomas published _Down These Mean Streets_ in 1967. I just read it this past summer, my mother–right after I gave it to her. And the thought that has wondered in is, “why wasn’t I told about his book earlier?” Is Piri Thomas’ experience, a bond with African American culture that Juan Flores addresses in his book, such a marginal experience in American life, that it took a suggestion by Amazon.com for a man with 4 years of university education to be aware of the book? As the population of Latino/as in the United States grows to the levels of being the largest minority group in the country, there will have to be a shifting of Latina/o literature, theory, and any cultural products from the margins of American life to the center contemporary discussion. It is these products that Juan Flores probes and analyses with keen insight that places the Puerto Rican aspect of the Latino experience into mainstream intellectual thought. From “the Madonna incident” in Puerto Rico, to the ties that Puerto Ricans have with Hip-Hop, and the current status of Puerto Rico that he sadly calls a “Lite Colony,” Flores’ book is one that should be read by anyone interested in the affairs of American culture.

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