How does a melody, a certain arrangement or song seem to enforce or even create a sense of identity for people at a certain time and in a certain place?
I’ve recently been involved with a fascinating new six-part BBC World Service radio series which focuses on this question. The series takes six historical moments in six countries where music and identity seem to be inseparable – listening to the music, talking to the people who shaped it and looking at responses to it.
It places the music in its cultural, political and economic contexts, and considers the interactions between music, identity and social change at key points in history. It asks how music, society and politics interact and influence each other, and what role music may serve in the development of a society and in creating identities.
The first episode, about music in Cuban national identity, goes out on Saturday 5 August – a description of the programme follows below.
Other episodes, which will be broadcast over the coming year, will focus on Japan and the impact of American occupation on its music culture, the music that came out of the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Jamaican reggae and dancehall, music and Chilean identity, and the role of music in the Indian independence movement. I’ll post further information about these as they are scheduled.
Episode 1: Cuba
Broadcast Date: Saturday 5 August 2017 @ 11’06 GMT
Broadcast Channel: BBC World Service Radio
BBC Producer: Arlene Gregorius
OU Academic Consultant: Helen Barlow
Cubans love their famous and irresistible music called “son”, and consider it a part of their identity and “the DNA of Cuban culture”. This style of music, which spawned the likes of salsa, has been very popular in Cuba for a hundred years.
Musicologist Dr Lucy Duran, a specialist in Cuban music, returns to the island to ask why, and what the Cubans’ enduring passion for son tells us about them.
She focuses on one particular song: Lagrimas Negras, “Black Tears”. Composed in the 1920s by Miguel Matamoros, it’s universally known. Musicians can sing or play it on the spot. Some of them perform for Lucy’s microphone: from Buena Vista Social Club legends Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo, to singer Anais Abreu and tres guitar virtuoso Pancho Amat.
They and many others from the pinnacle of Cuban music explain why son is a key part of Cuban identity. They describe how son evolved from the same mix as Cuban society: Africa (rhythm) and Europe (melody and harmony). Songs like Lagrimas Negras, constructed as a “smiling tragedy”, embody the Cuban philosophy of life: to face hardship with a sense of humour. The lyrics are about being left by your lover. But the insistence of the danceable chorus that “you want to leave me but I don’t want to suffer”, shows that son, like Cubans, turns difficult circumstances into something light-hearted. The song typifies how Cubans always find a way of smiling through their own misfortune.