Recently, the new biopic and telenovela Celia, La Serie on the life of Celia Cruz reminded me of how her iconic call “Azucar!”(translated as sugar) engaged audiences to feel the sabrosura of her music. The soap-opera included documentary footage of the larger iconic events in Celia’s career that could not be recreated, scenes that captured how Cruz and the audience connected. The scenes that best captured this are when Celia performs with Fania at Yankee Stadium in 1973 and in Zaire in 1974. When she felt the audiences’ joy in her performance she’d share that expressive sentiment of the sweetness in the moment, taking audiences to a deeper ecstatic place.
I also felt and witnessed this myself when I saw Cruz perform at the Hollywood Bowl decades ago. It’s akin to what I sensed when also hearing Damaso Pérez Prado’s guttural “Maaam-bO” in his “Mambo No 5.” While watching Celia, La Serie, I asked my mom if she had ever watched Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. Her response included a dislike for Arnaz, while I remembered enjoying his performance of “Babalú Aye.” Our exchange raised the question: can Arnaz’s performance, like Cruz’s expressive phrasing or Pérez Prado’s musical cue, unify a Latinx and African diaspora through sound and affect?
I posit that Arnaz’s televised performances of “Babalú Aye” like Celia’s “Azucar” or Prado’s “Mambo” exemplify what Alejandra T. Vazquez calls in Listening in Detail “vocal armament and ornament” (132), a sound that cultivates an afecto caribeño among Spanish-speaking diasporic migrants and their descents. My use of afecto here is a key sonic detail, playing upon the Spanish meaning to show tenderness and emotion. I also appreciate affect theory as it provides a framework by which to explore the emotionality and connection to experiences that have not been named. For example, in “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” Eric Shouse writes about affect as “the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. The body has a grammar of its own that cannot be fully captured in language.” I attempt here to cultivate a language that address how Arnaz’s physical and sonic articulation sets an entry to examine contributions by members of the Latinx Caribbean diaspora and its reach to those of us hearing and seeing them in a US context.
Growing up bilingual and bicultural in Los Angeles, I saw how my mom retained a bit of her homeland by watching a variety show called Siempre en Domingo. Many of the artists who performed were also heard on the local Spanish language station K-Love. The ritual gathering on Sunday nights as we watched the show metaphorically united my mom with her family.I believe that viewing and hearing her Mexico made the distance away from her family soften. For me, listening to the songs I heard on Siempre en Domingo then replayed on the radio helped codify something more than Mexican; it was pan-Latino. These moments of engaging with television shows mediate my experience of sound and affect, which I’ve named afecto caribeño (translated to “caribbean affect”).
My fondness of Desi Arnaz stems from a familiarity of Spanglish when I saw my first episodes of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) on Saturdays on KTLA. Its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, played a married couple, and the comedy of errors would inevitably involve “Lucy Ricardo” trying to scheme something. In real life, Ball and Arnaz were a Hollywood power couple who produced their show, establishing a practice of syndication rights paid to the actors. Arnaz played “Ricky Ricardo,” the owner of the Tropicana nightclub where he was also the bandleader. When scenes featured him at the club he would always play the congas, thus creating a continuum of his earlier career as a musician to now television star.
Hearing Desi Arnaz speaking inglés with a Cuban accent was familiar to my ears. I knew that sound of English blended with español because it was what I heard from my parents and their acquaintances. In the show, misunderstandings happened because one could not decipher what “Ricky” meant or said. The mistranslations led to some comedic moments and the establishment of a long-running comedic television trope at the expense of Latino characters and actors, as explored by Dolores Inés Casillas and Sebastien Ferrada in “Listening to Modern Family’s Accent.” However, in Life on the Hyphen, Gustavo Pérez-Firmat describes Arnaz’s nilingüe–someone who speak neither Spanish nor English—and argues his nilingüe-ism was personified through “Ricky Ricardo” as “Spanish utterances shot through anglicisms so that the monolingual viewer can understand what he was saying” (43). But, Arnaz did not reach only “English-only’ ears. To my pocha ears Arnaz spoke a familiar—and not incorrect—spoken Spanish. As a young viewer, I had no reference for his mistakes. Sonically “Ricky’s” familiarity came through when he complained about “Lucy” in Spanish. Hearing the español I spoke at home on “I Love Lucy” is how I connected to the hyphened Americano via tv. Nowhere was this more pronounced than with Ricardo’s frequent performances of “Babalú”.
Before his film career, Arnaz was known as the mambo king. Due to his lackluster rise as a “Latin Lover” in Hollywood, Arnaz returned to work as a musician and began singing his signature “Babalú” around 1943. The song is attributed to Margarita Lecuona and published in 1939. “Babalú” conflates the popular 1940s-50s big band sound with a Cuban folksong (or son) sung to the Orishas (deities or gods). Babalú is an Orisha deity who oversees health and is revered because of his power over life and death, and is also known as San Lázaro within the pantheon of Catholic saints. By the time Arnaz made the song popular in the United States, the song had also been associated with Miguelito Valdés, who was known as “Mr. Babalú.” Other musical contemporaries like Damaso Pérez Prado were also making a name for themselves by developing a new sound that Latinized dance music in the U.S. According to Ed Morales in Living in Spanglish, it is in the 1950s that Prado creates his signature sound in Mexico City by “mixing North American swing and bebop” known as mambo (152). However, it is Arnaz’s performance that I reference because of its reach to a multi-generational audience through syndication of the “I Love Lucy” show.
Each time Arnaz performs “Babalú” it serves as an offering to the Orisha to heal the longing for a homeland he left long ago, as experienced by many musicians like Cruz who live in exile. With each performance on the “I Love Lucy Show,” Arnaz reconnects to his cultura. Performing this on national television it’s not about the Anglo viewer who only sees Arnaz as the “Rhumba Rhythm King” (sic) (Pérez-Firmat, 52) made famous in movies; rather it is about Arnaz creating a space of agency through a prayer and healing ritual in song, thus an expression of Afecto Caribeño connecting the Latinx diaspora to something beyond national borders and generations.
For example, in Season 2 episode 21 “Lucy Takes a Job at the Bank,” Arnaz (as Ricky Ricardo) brings out his son Ricky Jr. to play the congas alongside him. Ricky as proud father shares his joy in this moment. The camera pans out to Lucille Ball and her co-star Vivian Vance sitting at the table. Arnaz instructs his son to “say thanks” and he replies in Spanish “gracias.” This exchange is profound because it accentuates the bilingualism and bicultural exchanges that happen in the home space now introduced to many via television. Arnaz continues, “Even though Little Ricky was born in America, there’s lots of Cuban in his heart.” The Cuban in his heart plays out in sonic beats through a father-and-son performance on the congas and the calling upon “Babalú Aye.” Both Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are happy parents, not just stage parents, who revel in this moment. As Ricky Jr. plays, his mother bangs on the table too and Arnaz looks up to the sky as if in gratitude for this moment to the Orisha Babalú.
Upon reflection, I am aware of how television informed my childhood search for something that reflected how I spoke and heard the world. In these linguistic-sonic moments I reconnected to my mother’s homeland and sought to make sense of my pocha identity when I heard English spoken with a Spanish accent. In Relocations, Karen Tongson names these moments of connection that occur through a technological network as “remote intimacies” that can “account both technically and affectively, for the symbiosis that can happen between disparate subjects. . .I like to think that these imaginary correspondences sometimes have to happen across greater distances, both conceptually and topographically with other ethnicities, accents, nations (130)” The conceptual and topographical correspondence informs afecto caribeño as a means to enable critical connections to a Latinx diaspora centered en el Caribe highlighting the mestizaje of African and Spanish heritage, thus expanding upon Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “black Atlantic” on how the Atlantic slave trade also impacted culturally el Caribe. Upon singing “Babalú Aye” Arnaz’s performance not only is a disruption to Anglo American viewers, but also “disrupts the myth of Cuban whiteness” (Vasquez, Listening in Detail, 150).
I am drawn to sonic experiences that can help unpack Latinidad and the multicultural roots that are informed by other migrations of Africans, Asians, and Spaniards to the Américas. I am a descendant of these mestizajes, as Gloria Anzaldúa writes in her canonical text Borderlands / La Frontera. A concept like afecto caribeño addresses the social and emotional exchanges that emanate from the complexity of these migrations and how they reveal themselves in momentary connections. When Arnaz performs as “Ricky,” he breaks that character upon playing the congas. Here he does not act as the nightclub owner; the reverberation of the conga mediates an embodiment of his true self exemplifying un afecto caribeño.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and adjunct lecturer in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Liberal Studies Department at CSULA and in the Critical Studies Program at CALArts. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
Featured Image: Desi Arnaz performing with Diosa Costello, 1948.
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In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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In the early 1960s Native American women had few opportunities and rights as citizens. During this politically charged era, a young Navajo woman, Kay Bennett, or “Kaibah”, defied those restrictions by recording and releasing her own albums. Almost fifty years later, we present this conversation with Rachael Nez, a Navajo scholar and filmmaker, whose research explores “Songs from the Navajo Nation” through Kaibah’s records. Kaibah self-published her own albums until she was signed by Canyon records, wrote and published her own books, and traveled the world performing Navajo music everywhere from the Middle East to Europe. Rachael looks at how Kaibah’s music acts as a site for the circulation of Indigenous knowledge, oral history, and resistance.
In this podcast Marcella Ernest speaks with Rachael about the scarcity of materials relating to Kaibah’s history. Although there is no archive of her work, and no coherent trace of her story in one site, she explains how we can piece together a story of Kaibah based on her albums and songs. This dialogue considers the ways in which Indigenous erasure can be recuperated through sound. The project of finding the lost sounds of Kaibah is a fascinating story of how sound can be used to reconstitute indigeneous identity. What social and cultural norms conspire to obfuscate a Navajo woman of such prestige and talent? Finding the lost sounds of Kaibah is a conversation about (re)searching to find a lost sound.
Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.
Featured image is used with permission by the author.
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