Tag Archive | Havana

The Sweet Sounds of Havana: Space, Listening, and the Making of Sonic Citizenship

Unsettling the World SS ProjectWelcome to the third and final installment of Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a series in which we critically investigate the output of early acoustic ecology and assess its continuing value for today’s sound studies. In our first post, Mitchell Akiyama addressed the WSP’s ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada radio series from 1974 to situate the broadcast’s innovative work historically and explore how it attempted to represent a diverse nation by way of sound. In my follow-up post, I focused on the WSP’s Vancouver research, their only output since returning from Europe in 1975, assessing shifts in the ideologies and practices over its two official releases and arguing for the best path that future iterations of the project might follow.

In this final entry, Vincent Andrisani puts the “world” back into the World Soundscape Project by carrying his experience as the recordist for the WSP’s last archiving mission in Vancouver out into his solo doctoral research in Havana, Cuba. Andrisani lends an unsettled ear to one of the city’s most beloved sounds, the tune of the ice cream vendor, unpacking its social and historical significance to make an argument about the role that sound plays in local self-definitions of citizenship. Inspired by the WSP’s continuing quest to discover how people’s relationship to places can be defined through sound, Andrisani’s work offers an example of what contemporary soundscape research can be while demonstrating how to deal with many of the concerns raised about the WSP’s output over the course of this series.

It has been a great pleasure acting as editor for this series over the past few weeks and it is our hope that these posts will provide further fuel for celebrating, expanding, critiquing and rethinking the work of acoustic ecology in the broader context of contemporary sonic research.

— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan

To conceive of Havana in sound is to think not of the material spaces of the city, but rather, across them. From inside the home, residents participate in conversations taking place in the streets, while those in the streets often call for the attention of their friends or family indoors. Through windows, open doors, and porticoes, residents engage in interpersonal exchanges that bring neighbourhood communities to life. To listen across these spaces is to listen trans-liminally from the threshold through which sounds must pass as they animate the vibrant social life of the city. Such an act is made most apparent by the voices of vendedores ambulantes, or, mobile street vendors. “¡El buen paquete de galleta!” (“The good packs of cookies!”), “¡Se compran y se vendan libros!” (“I’m buying and selling books!”), and most famously, “¡Mani! ¡Mani!” (“Peanuts! Peanuts!”) are some of the pregones—the musical cries—heard through the streets and into the home.

But not all vendors are pregoneros. El heladero, the ice cream vendor, uses the jangly melodies of the electronic music box to make ears perk up, mouths water, and children’s shoes hit the ground running. The sound signals a respite from the sweltering Caribbean heat and is symbolic of a novelty food item for which Cubans have a strong cultural affinity. But most of all, the ice cream vendor’s melodic tunes bring people out of their homes and into the street, giving life to a moment that is as social, participatory, and convivial as it is savory.

Ice Cream Vendor in Cuba, 2008, Courtesy of Flickr User berg_chabot

Ice Cream Vendor in Cuba, 2008, Courtesy of Flickr User berg_chabot

For over a century, ice cream vendors have been heard on the streets of Havana. Throughout this time, the city’s spaces have been contested by external regimes of power that include the Spanish Crown, U.S. business interests, Cuba’s own socialist government, the Soviet Union, and since the 1990s, Cuba’s resurgent tourist economy. Yet, in spite of the exclusionary logic imposed by each of these systems of power, the sound of the ice cream vendor still remains. To listen to it is to listen to Havana according not to the agenda of outside interests, but rather, according to the collective interests of residents themselves.

Borrowing from the work of Saskia Sassen (2006) who maintains that “citizenship practices have to do with the production of ‘presence’ of those without power and a politics that claims rights to the city” (315), I regard the tacit, communicative, trans-liminal act of listening as a means through which residents assert their embodied presence amidst both the spatial and political landscapes of the city. Listening to the sound of the ice cream vendor, I argue, constitutes an act of citizenship—an act of sonic citizenship—that momentarily claims Havana’s spaces according to the aims, aspirations, and desires of those who live there.

Citizenship, in this sense, is conceived of not as an institution bound to the political-juridical architecture of the nation-state, but rather, as a place-based “practice and project” (Sassen, p281) that, over time, has the potential to condition changes in the formalized institution itself. It emerges in the everyday, rather ordinary moments during which the city’s spaces are produced and given meaning by those with unequal access to political power. Just as Jennifer Stoever (2011) and Michael Francis O’Toole (2014) have discussed elsewhere, I too contend that citizenship is articulated in sound, but in order to hear it, we must listen historically to—and through—the spaces of Havana’s built environment.

The above clip, which I captured while conducting fieldwork in Havana, represents a moment of everyday life in the municipality of Centro Habana. While speaking about it with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I came to realize that only recently had the ice cream vendor’s heralding music become part of the local soundscapes. “Where was it before that?”, I asked. “Before that,” they all said, “it was gone.” In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and brought Cuba’s economy along with it. Shortages of food, petrol, and material resources were so severe that satisfying basic needs took precedence over the delivery of frozen novelties. The result was the loss of the ice cream vendor—and its corresponding sound—which, for decades, was part of the ongoing, everyday life of the city.

Fittingly, the collective sentiment surrounding that loss is captured in song. “Helado Sobre Ruedas,” or “Ice Cream on Wheels” by Gema y Pavel was released in 1994, during the height of Cuba’s economic crisis. In it, the duo lament the disappearance of the ice cream vendor from the streets of Havana and reflect on what it meant not only to them, but to all residents of the city. They speak about the presence of the ice cream vendor as a ‘refreshing’ event on hot days; as a source of joy, pleasure, and happiness that offered much more than a simple respite from the heat, but as one that “made family problems disappear.” The “sweet melody” of the vendor was the cause for celebration in neighbourhoods across the city, and is a sound that the duo recalls with both warmth and affection.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, ice cream sales in Havana looked and sounded much like it did in the United States. Minnesota-based Nichols Electronics developed the technology of the electronic music box in the mid-1950s, and within a few years, its chime-y sounds were heard on the streets of Havana. The frozen novelty itself can be traced back to 1920 in Youngstown, Ohio. Harry Burt, the eventual founder of the Good Humor brand paired, first, the lollipop’s wooden stick with chocolate covered vanilla ice cream, and subsequently, ice cream sales and automobility. In Havana, brands such as Hatuey, Guarina, and El Gallito borrowed Burt’s developments, and by the time the city underwent its westward suburbanization in the 1940s and ’50s, mobile ice cream sales were booming.

But if we listen further still into Havana’s past, we can discern the ways in which the ice cream vendor’s music echoes the complex history of the city. During Cuba’s struggle for independence in the late 1800s, American traditions and customs such as baseball, Protestantism, and new habits of hygiene began emerging in Havana. At once a rejection of the perceived backwardness of Spanish culture and an appeal to modernizing the island, this cultural appropriation was, as both Louis A. Pérez Jr. (1999) and Marial Iglesias-Utset (2011) have carefully observed, a way for residents to perform acts of citizenship with the intent of defining the customs of the impending nation.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the practice of street side ice cream vending arrived in Havana at this very moment following its proliferation in cities such as Barcelona, London, and notably New York. These vendors performed a series of decisive functions amidst the city’s political geography, the most discernible of which was that they offered an opportunity for the working class to indulge in what historically was a bourgeois delight. Of equal importance however, was that ice cream vendors were also participants in Havana’s project of cultural modernization, and their street side presence enabled locals to inhabit the acoustic spaces of the city on their own terms and not those of the Spanish Crown.

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Ice cream vendor on the streets of Havana between 1890 and 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Archives.

This photograph, taken in Havana some time between 1890 and 1910, can be read not only as a silent image, but as an audiovisual text. Without any visible technology with which to herald his presence, it’s likely that this vendor relied on his own voice in the form of a pregón. We might imagine the slow rumble of the cart’s wooden wheels as they rolled over the unpaved road, glass cups jangling as the cart bounced along, and enthusiastic voices congregating in the street to buy what was known as a “penny lick.” Each of these sounds moved across the liminal spaces of the built environment, each marking a moment of savory indulgence and neighborly dialogue in the life of the city—as they do again today.

Listening to, documenting, and as historian Bruce R. Smith (2004) terms it, “un-airing” the history of Havana’s ice cream vendors offers a means through which to cultivate unexplored encounters with the city. It animates a narrative grounded not in political rupture, but in historical continuity; it locates a geography characterized not by unequivocal exclusion, but one that, quite simply, belongs to those who live there; and in so doing, it develops an account of the city not from the top-down, but rather, from the bottom-up. Such an approach renders audible the enactment of citizenship by listening for the sounds that firmly ground citizens in the very spaces that, time and again, have been destabilized by forces imposed from above.

To hear the ways in which citizens inhabit the city of Havana, we must simultaneously listen trans-liminally, across the open spaces of the built environment, and into the city’s history, which resonates through the sounds of neighbourhood communities, interpersonal dialogue, and social interaction. The heralding music of the ice cream vendor is one sound that does precisely that: for some, it offers a sense of childhood nostalgia, for others, it conjures the taste of a delicious frozen snack. But in every case, to listen to it is to enact a form of civic memory that orients residents according to both the spaces they inhabit, and the social and cultural history to which they belong. It comprises a moment, liminal as it may be, during which the city is lived, experienced, and imagined according to the interests of no one other than citizens themselves.

Acknowledgements: A sincere thanks to my extended family in Havana, to the academic community at Fundación Fernando Ortiz, and in particular, to Dr. Aurelio Francos Lauredo for his time, guidance, and for his attentive and compassionate ear.

Vincent Andrisani is a PhD Candidate and an instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has written and lectured on the topics of popular music, broadcast media, and the politics of audio documentation in the context of Soundscape Studies, and has presented his research in a number of artistic and academic venues; the most recent of which was at the Pan-American Mobilities Conference in Santiago, Chile in 2014. Intersecting the areas of Sound Studies, Urban Geography, and Cuban Studies, Vincent’s doctoral research explores the relationship between sound, space, and citizenship in the city of Havana. In addition to the ice cream vendor, the sounds of water pipes, international travelers, and street musicians performing “Guantanamera” and other likely tunes form the basis of the study. http://www.vincentandrisani.com.

Featured image:Ice cream vendor in Havana, courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, Cuban Heritage Collection.

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Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories — Alejandra Bronfman

Snap, Crackle, Pop: The Sonic Pleasures of Food — Steph Ceraso

Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-Language Radio — Doloris Inés Casillas

SO! Reads: Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda

SO! Reads3

Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (2012) presents an alternate story of Chicana music through a collection of case studies in Chicana/o music history centering on Chicana/Tejana musicians active between the early decades of the 20th century to the present.  Vargas assembles a mix of archival documents, interviews, images, songs, recordings, performances, ephemera, fragments, memories and engages intersectional feminist theory and queer of color critique to trace the music scenes her subjects inhabit.

A feminist oral historian, Chicano/Latino cultural studies scholar, and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Vargas’s research overlaps these disciplines and facilitates a conversation between popular music and sound studies that significantly considers gender, sexuality, and racialization in the construction of borderlands imaginaries.  With Dissonant Divas Vargas makes an intervention both theoretical and methodological that greatly expands the Chicana/o musical archive and as well as the audiences for sound studies research. Furthermore, Vargas’s reflective writing voice locates her own Tejana/Chicana story in relation to her project and offers helpful insights into her research process at key moments.  [The brief essay titled “Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author’s soundtrack” published on the Minnesota Press webpages for Dissonant Divas is a generous methodology piece that should be read along with this comprehensive, satisfying, highly readable and often riveting text.]

"Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music" copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

“Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music” copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

Vargas defines the term, la onda, in a general sense as “an umbrella term for Mexican American/Chicano/Tejano music (x).”  More critically, la onda also “operates to represent musics that have been prominent in academic and cultural sites that have produced dominant discourses of sexuality, gender, class, race, geography, and language in the constructions of Chicano music.”  “Dissonance” can be understood variously as “chaos, cacophany, disharmony, static” and “out-of-tuneness” that draws attention to “the power of music with regard to Chicana gender and sexuality (xiv).” Vargas’s main critique notes how the “limits of la onda” reveals the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings that construct dominant narratives of Chicano music historiography.  She argues that the force of these narratives have naturalized a way of thinking about Chicano music in terms of the various “fathers” of Chicano rock, conjunto music, and of the field of borderland studies itself. The distortions produced by the assimilating cultural nationalist logic of “la onda” have not only suppressed Chicana music histories and/or enabled their mishearing, but they also hide the complex ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality converge to produce Chicana subjectivities within and against the Chicano musical canon. In theorizing “dissonance,” Vargas thus productively sounds the Chicana histories in Dissonant Divas as alternatively gendered and/or queered against the heteromasculine concord of la onda.

The chapter “Borders, Bullets, Besos:  The Ballad of Chelo Silva” contains perhaps the most provocative pages, detailing Chelo Silva, a bolero singer with a distinct repertoire of songs that are still performed and kept alive by a diverse lineage of performers and audiences, yet whose renown is seemingly inseparable with her former marriage to Américo Paredes.   Ubiquitous in borderlands studies, Paredes’s name and legacy are defined largely by his study of the corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1970). Vargas strategically positions Silva and Paredes as “embodied representations” of the bolero and the border ballad, respectively, taking up Sonia Salídvar-Hull’s proposal to “imagine new corridos” by proposing Silva’s boleros as “feminist border ballads.” Vargas parses the constructions, aesthetics, and values carried in each song form, exploring how the border ballad has been the primary counter-site for narrating the injustice of Tejano/Anglo conflict (bullets) while the bolero, whose constant subject is love, luxuriates in all its jouissance (besos).  Vargas reveals that the border ballad “has allowed its authors, singers, and scholars to sound the borderlands imaginary into being,” illuminating how the contest over historical representation is tied to musical representation. Silva’s story cannot be found within this articulation of la onda without, in part, redefining the border ballad (54).

Vargas innovates and meticulously crafts an alternative archive better suited to narrating and hearing Silva’s fragmented story, what Vargas felicitously calls her archisme of knowledge. Engaging the silences in Silva’s story, the archisme sounds her presence in the recorded memories of her fans which include testaments to her unique vocal qualities, her powerful and evocative performances, her improvisations in music and in life,,along with a healthy amount of the chisme or gossip surrounding Silva.  Proposing the archisme as a “feminist project for historicizing nonnormative Chicana/o genders and desires” Vargas extends both Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s directive for Chicana scholars to look in nontraditional places for theory and Lisa Lowe’s theorization of gossip as a destructuring site of knowledge production (Saldivar-Hull, 1998; Lowe, 1996).

As I read through the first three chapters, a question that kept coming up concerned why we should not consider this study on more specific regional terms, or why this book isn’t titled, “Tejana Divas”?  Vargas finds the overdetermination of these Chicana/Tejana musicians as “regional” subjects a problem not typically encountered by musicians from a city like Los Angeles, for example, because of its construction as a global metropolis.  I cannot dispute Los Angeles’s status as a world center and I wondered how to earnestly engage Vargas on this point. What are the stakes of locating this study of Tejana/Chicana musicians within a broader Chicano/a musical context?

The final two chapters make the case for remapping Chicana music, advanced in part by the capacious notion of queer “diva-scapes.” In “Sonido de las Americas: Crossing South-South Borders with Eva Garza,” Vargas employs what she calls a “transfrontera musical compass,” a feminist methodology deftly juxtaposing the notion of a “musical scale” with the concept of “geographic scale.” Eva Garza’s career begins in her San Antonio hometown but she eventually came to embody the “la vóz de las  Américas” in a hemispheric sense via her participation in early Spanish language radio, recordings, and live performances in nightclubs and films that took her to Mexico City and Havana for significant periods; her genre-crossing repertoire mirrored her travels. Garza began as a singer of the appropriately feminine bolero, but through her contact with Cuban musicians, the Afro-Caribbean guaracha song–decidedly phallocentric and risqué in its subject matter–also became part of her repertoire. The song she was most known for, “Sabor de Engaño” adds a sensual register to her transfrontera compass, a lingering sabor or taste exceeding regional, national, formal, and gendered limits. This is most evident in the repeated examples of impromptu performances of a song verse or refrain of “Sabor de Engaño” by many Cubanos Vargas encountered in her research travels. Vargas employs the transfrontera musical compass as a “listening instrument” to trace Garza’s musical trajectory through spatial-temporal moments disrupting rigid and normative notions of community, nation, and Chicano music (147).

"Selena Live" by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

“Selena Live” by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

In “Giving Us That Brown Soul: Selena’s Departures and Arrivals,” Vargas addresses the multiple problems in the mainstream media’s designation of “crossover star” to narrate Selena’s story as a spectacular rise in fame marked by her violent death in 1995. Vargas seeks to correct the assimilationist narratives of Selena’s musical history that, in addition to figuring her as a marginalized Latina on the verge of “legitimate” status, problematically narrates a south-north trajectory “devoid of blackness and queerness.”  Vargas both critiques how “brown soul” has been musically deployed to stand in for cultural nationalist “brown power” and extends previous work focusing on blackness in Chicano/Latino music that includes R&B and Afro-Caribbean influences but not necessarily the Afro-diasporic. Cumbia, an Afro-Columbian dance form popularized in Mexico in the 1940’s – 50’s is central to Selena’s Tejano sound as are 70’s era disco and 80’s freestyle, particularly in the cultivation of her iconic diva look which together resonate a queer of color musical legacy on the sonic and visual planes.

Selena’s “brown soul” and style moves Tex-Mex cumbias in what Vargas calls “queer misdirections” by traveling north-south, for example, while sounding counterhegemonic femininities that continue to reverberate in the many tribute drag performances to Selena in and beyond the borderlands of Tejas.  In these ways, Vargas traces the “topography of Selena’s transformations and remappings of Chicano music (205).  Just as audio technologies have been key in circulating Eva Garza’s and Selena’s music in multiple directions, so are the memories, repeated performances, and queer embodiments of their music by their diverse audiences. For both of the these artists, sound expands Vargas’s engagement with spatialization theories so that we may hear these productive dissonances and in these ways begin to imagine alternative borderlands imaginaries.

Upon finishing, a question that remains in considering “diva dissonance” is the implied consonance of  Vargas’s theorization of “la onda.” At times, the term becomes too totalizing, and I would argue for the presence of heterogeneity and other musical diversities even within what Vargas denotes as la onda. We must both make and leave room to imagine the possibility of many unrecorded, captured, or yet unsounded transgressions for Chicanas whose paths may appear to follow a heteronormative logic.  For this reason I found the reiteration of such rich findings against la onda asomewhat repetitive distraction from the richer tales Vargas’s archival work tells. What would these histories sound like if they weren’t always positioned against la onda—if they were sounded instead more toward each other?

What Deborah R. Vargas richly accomplishes in Dissonant Divas responds to Alejandro Madrid’s call for musicologists to establish critical conversations beyond “the conservatory” and to engage larger intellectual dialogues (AMS Vol. 64, No. 3, 2011).Vargas’s intersectional feminist-of-color argument extends the body of feminist Chicana/o cultural studies scholarship and equally extends Chicano music histories that may engage gender to some degree but do not fully interrogate those categorical constructions. Her theorization of the title’s key term “dissonance” as “both a methodological and analytic device” and her construction of a differential archive combine to create “alternative sonic imaginaries of the borderlands (xii).”  More broadly, Dissonant Divas is an intervention to the problems of conducting research in marginalized communities and the racialized subjects often left out of official archives, institutional records, and studies of sound (Trouillot, 1995; Taylor, 2003). Each chapter reveals and addresses various barriers to conducting research on Chicana musicians whose uneven historical representation lead Vargas to turn to other sites, methodologies, and embodied practices where Chicana voices resound across temporal and spatial lines. In these ways, Vargas’s sustained engagement of race, class, gender, and sexuality with Chicana/o borderlands music is thoroughly new.

Featured Image: Pauline Oliveros by Flickr user Horacio González Diéguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wanda Alarcón is a doctoral candidate of Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley where she is writing a dissertation titled: “Sounding Aztlán:  Music, Literature, and the Chicana/o Sonic Imaginary”. Her research interests include Chicana/o cultural studies, U.S. ethnic literatures, popular music, sound studies, queer of color theory, and decolonial feminism. At Berkeley she has facilitated the working groups, “Decolonial Feminisms” and “Popular Music in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” at the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Wanda is originally from Los Angeles and before starting graduate school she created the poetry zine, JOTA (2002 – 2006) and is updating that project by creating an archive for queer Chicana writing in cyberspace. She is a fan of radio genres and podcasts and writes micro radio plays while on the road. She is suspicious of the MP3 format yet enjoys curating party, tribute, and mood themed playlists on Spotify immensely. You can find her on Twitter depending on writing deadlines @esawanda.  

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Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms— Monica De La Torre

Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?— Wanda Alarcon

Listening to the Border: “‘2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchezˆ— Dolores Inés Casillas

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories

Radio Accion2

This month Sounding Out! inaugurates a four-part series slated to appear on the Thursday stream into May entitled “Radio de Acción”: Broadcasting in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Cornell Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature Tom McEnaney.

Tom has been a key contributor to SO! over the years — check out his articles on Orson Welles and Twin Peaks, two excellent and vivid pieces I wish I could’ve written. We’re excited to have Tom as our guide to the many frequencies of Latin American and Caribbean radio, helping us “tune North American antennas South for a while,” as he proposes in his series introduction below. Gather round, dear listeners, I think the transmission’s about to start …

— SCMS/ASA Special Editor Neil Verma

It’s difficult to keep the radius of radio within national boundaries. Or so it has often seemed in the Americas. The first Argentine broadcast, on August 27, 1920, transmitted a performance of Wagner’s Parisfal that accidentally reached ships in Brazil. Border radio in Spanish and English has bled across the frontiers between Mexico and the United States since at least the early 1930s. And if listeners from Alabama to Washington State tuned their shortwave receivers right in the early 1960s, they would have heard the exiled civil rights activists Robert F. and Mabel Williams’ famous tag line: “You are tuned to Radio Free Dixie, from Havana, Cuba, where integration is an accomplished fact.”

In Spanish, “radio” can mean the sonic broadcasting it denotes in English, but also radium, the spoke of a wheel, a radius (and the bone of the same name), an orbit, or a sphere of influence. Our series title, Radio de Acción, plays on an inter-linguistic pun, which takes the “radius of action” or “area of operations” the phrase connotes in Spanish, and thinks of radio broadcasting as changing the cultural, historical and political fields it engages through particular types of “radio action.”

Acknowledging language’s role in widening or narrowing that radius, the four posts in this special series help tune our ears to a diversity of voices from Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the next few months Radio de Acción will explore the multilingual history of radio in the Caribbean, an Aymara / Spanish talk show in Bolivia, a Cuban-born writer’s radio dramas produced in German, and the Spanish / English radio program Radio Ambulante, which its creators describe as “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational.” Featuring posts from Alejandra Bronfman, Karl Swinehart, and Carolina Guerrero, our series sets out to turn North American antennas South for a while.

I’m especially excited to begin the series by welcoming University of British Columbia History Professor, Alejandra Bronfman, whose extraordinary story of radio in the Caribbean below serves as an ideal overture to Radio de Acción. Don’t move that dial.—

— TM

The most striking example of radio’s power in the political dramas of the Caribbean took place in Havana, Cuba in March of 1957. A group of student activists opposed to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime attempted to assassinate him and simultaneously occupied one of Havana’s most popular stations, Radio Reloj. Locking out the broadcasters, who usually spent the day reading the news and announcing the time every minute on the minute, the activists declared Batista’s death, and their victory. It may be that their plan depended precisely on the uncertainty they created. Whether Batista was actually dead mattered less than the reaction they hoped to incite with their declaration. Batista did not die that day; the students’ plot was foiled; and the attempt ended in death for most of the assailants. However, the failure was only temporary—another group of radio rebels would overthrow Batista less than two years later—and the 1957 takeover cemented radio’s undisputed role as bearer of truth and center of power.

In this post I consider radio’s relationship to violence in connection to its creation of truth, mendacity and illusion. Radio publics in the Caribbean emerged amidst conflict, and, as the 2000 assassination of the Haitian broadcaster Jean Dominique suggests, there is still much at stake in their existence as arbiters of political practice and cultural affiliation.

In the earliest years, radio competed for attention in Caribbean soundscapes full of talk and music rooted in the legacies of slavery. In Haiti, a US occupation (1915-1934) coincided with the development of wireless technology by the US military. Military officials understood the potential of wireless for communication among ships. When US marines landed in Port-au-Prince in 1915, they immediately landed a radio set as well. Although wireless linked the marines to their passing ships, it was not yet a cultural medium sustaining a connection to familiar songs and voices. Haiti was a confusing, disorienting place for many of them: some were disappointed to have been sent there rather than the European front of WWI, others raised in the American South were appalled at the power and status of Haitians of African descent. As remembered by one marine, the sound of Haiti could terrify: “No movies, no radio, none of the features of civilized life to which he was accustomed… Drums boomed continuously. …the drums seemed to him to be the voice of the evil one, always booming in his ears, threatening him, tempting him.”

John Huston Craige, "Black Bagdad" (New York: Minton, Balch and Co, 1933)

John Huston Craige, “Black Bagdad” (New York: Minton, Balch and Co, 1933)

Most confusing of all was the language. 90% of Haitians spoke Kreyol, which is not French, and not like anything the marines had probably heard before. Documents of the occupation record their efforts to turn what they heard as noise into comprehensible signals. They understood how crucial it would be to obtain information from market women, whose perambulations through the countryside, in weekly walks from their villages to market towns, allowed them to gather news and gossip. If they could convince these women to become informants, and then use radio to relay crucial knowledge between strategic points–the terrain was difficult, with paths rather than roads and frequent rain and flash flooding made travel unpredictable—they might somehow begin to locate and crush insurgencies. The installation of radios signaled the Marines’ efforts to exercise control and insert themselves into these circuits of talk and rumor. But results were paltry. Documents from the early phase of the occupation speak to unreliable technology, lack of knowledge about how to use it, its burdensome heft (radio sets had to be hauled by donkeys through the dense forests), and frequent sabotage.

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"Messages relayed to and from Cap Haitien via Ouanaminthe", Entry 173 Chief of the Gendarmerie D' Haiti, General Correspondence 1919-1920, Operations against hostile bandits, RD 127, United States National Archives

“Messages relayed to and from Cap Haitien via Ouanaminthe”, Entry 173 Chief of the Gendarmerie D’ Haiti, General Correspondence 1919-1920, Operations against hostile bandits, RD 127, United States National Archives

They also speak to desperation and macabre inventiveness in the face of fear. Some Marines discovered that they could try getting the ‘truth’ out of Haitians in novel ways. They applied wires from radio sets to Haitian people’s bodies, and shot electric current through them during interrogation sessions, hoping to use their “new media” to simultaneously terrorize bodies and extract information from them. Electrotorture enacted, literally, the relationship between technology, the production of knowledge and imperial violence.

"Rádio que Che transmitia programas revolucionários enquanto estava entocado na montanha" by Flickr user Marco Gomes, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Rádio que Che transmitia programas revolucionários enquanto estava entocado na montanha” by Flickr user Marco Gomes, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The histories of radio played out in different registers elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Haiti eventually acquired a broadcasting station in 1926, there was no local radio in Jamaica until 1939.. British colonial officials, distracted by their bloated empire and feeling the economic pinch in any case, had no appetite for building a local station, though Kingston’s residents frequently called for one. While wealthy residents of Jamaica who could afford shortwave receivers had the world at their fingertips—the BBC, US programs, music from Cuba’s powerful stations—the majority of Jamaicans listened instead to their own voices in songs and popular theater, mostly in Jamaican patois.

As the British Empire relegated Jamaica to the margins, capital, people, and many sounds came from the US. Indeed, strapped British officials conscripted amateur radio operators and their US-bought equipment for state purposes. When passing British ships needed to test communications, they asked amateurs to donate their time and expertise. The most prominent of those, the New Yorker John Grinan, achieved some fame in the ham radio world for his experiments with shortwave radio. A participant in the first exchange of transatlantic signals, and one of the operators who helped relay Tom Heeney’s 1928 boxing match against Gene Tunney between New York and New Zealand (via Jamaica), Grinan lent his technological expertise to the British. When striking Jamaican workers cut telephone and telegraph lines amidst labor unrest in the summer of 1938 colonial officials, lacking access to wireless equipment, asked amateur operators like Grinan to police the rebellion, relaying whatever information they could from their rural stations to Kingston.

In the aftermath, colonial officials hoped the new radio station, created with equipment donated by Grinan, would provide a means of calming the unruly masses through educational broadcasting. But the new station’s programming was so dull, and receivers were so expensive and so unreliable, that few listened. It was only in the late 1950s, through the contributions of people like the actress, writer, and radio personality Louise Bennett that the sounds of patois eased radio’s participation into voluble soundscapes long populated by sound systems, music and talk.

As Bennett joked and chided in patois and local musicians like Bob Marley finally got air time, their performances rescued radio from its elitist roots and people finally tuned in.

By that time in Cuba, both the government and its opposition knew that controlling radio meant wielding power, or at least creating the illusion of that power. Cuba’s commercial ties to the US meant that it took part in its neighbor’s vociferous radio culture. Ads, radios, programs and music crisscrossed the Atlantic and shaped transnational listening. By the 1930s, a large radio public tuned in regularly to radionovelas, music and news available throughout the day. So it seemed to make perfect sense when governments claimed airspace to propagate messages and dissenters tampered with communications networks or deployed underground broadcasts—often from outside of Cuba—to convey their discontent. It was this radio world in which students decided that in order to topple a dictator you needed to occupy a radio station.

General Electric Ad. "Before going to sleep, Pepito and Bebita listen to a story transmitted by their grandfather, from New York or Chicago." "Carteles," January 1923.

“Before going to sleep, Pepito and Bebita listen to a story transmitted by their grandfather, from New York or Chicago.” “Carteles,” January 1923.

Understanding Caribbean radio as a regional history—defined more by circuits and soundwaves than national borders—brings new dimensions to bear on radio histories more generally. Spanning the Caribbean allows me to think about how various listening publics came to be and the contingent nature of those publics. Imperial politics, machines—as instruments of curiosity, desire and violence—and voices converged and diverged in distinct ways to conjure particular publics in particular moments. In order to overcome disturbing origins, radio needed to take part in pre-existing publics. In Jamaica, the inclusion of programs in patois resuscitated a feeble medium. The voices of people like Louise Bennett rendered radio a welcome attraction rather than a patronizing nuisance. In Haiti, radio publics also grew as Kreyol radio plays replaced US-sanctioned programming. Francois Duvalier understood that he could use radio to appeal to many people, drawing them in with celebrations of Haiti’s African roots and Kreyol language. When he became dictator soon after, the publics were already captive. On the other hand, Cuba did not have such a stark linguistic divide. So as soon as radio blanketed the country it could take part in fuelling political rifts. Listening in Cuba meant choosing sides, as all sides spoke through the radio. As the oppositional 1950s turned into the revolutionary 60’s, the battle of voices—the Voice of America, the Voice of Martí, the Voice of Fidel, continued. Understanding the region as a transfer point for empire and capital places the Caribbean at the center of many aspects of the history of communications technologies. It also colors that history with troubling tones whose listeners are long overdue.

Alejandra Bronfman is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Latin American history, historical theory and practice, race in the Americas, and media histories. She is currently working on two projects: A Voice in a Box: Media, Empire and Affiliation in the Caribbean, which records the unwritten histories of sonic technologies in the early twentieth century, and Biography of a Sonic Archive, which draws from the extensive career of Laura Boulton to interrogate the use of recordings in the making of a sonic, exotic Caribbean. http://alejandrabronfman.wordpress.com/

Featured image: “Cuba 1619 – 10th Anniversary of Radio Havana Cuba” by Flickr user Joseph Morris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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