Fernando Ortiz is recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American authors of the 20th century. Amazingly prolific, his publications written between the 1890s and the mid-1950s engage with a vast array of subjects and disciplines. Perhaps Ortiz’s most significant accomplishments were the creation of the field of Afro-Cuban studies and major early contributions to the emergent field of Afro-diasporic studies. Almost everyone else associated with similar research began their investigations decades after Ortiz and in dialogue with his work. Ortiz was one of the first to seriously examine slave and post-abolition black cultures in Cuba. His studies became central to new and more positive discourses surrounding African-derived expression in the mid-20th century that embraced it as national expression for the first time in Latin America.
This essay considers Ortiz’s academic career and legacy as regards Afro-Cuban musical study beginning in the early 20th century (when his views were quite dated, even racist) and gradual, progressive changes in his attitudes. Ortiz’s work on music and dance have been underrepresented in existing academic literature, despite the fact that most of his late publications focus on such topics and are considered among his most valuable works. His writings on black heritage provide insight into the struggles within New World societies to overcome the racial/evolutionist ideologies that justified colonial subjugation. His scholarship resonates with broader debates throughout the Americas over the meanings of racial pluralism and the legacy of slavery. And his changing views over the years outline the trajectory of modern Western thought as regards Africa and race, specifically the contributions of Afro-diasporic peoples, histories, and cultures to New World societies.
On the one hand, Cubans from Havana tend to paint themselves as the quintessential representation of Cubanidad (Cubanness) and often enjoy all the visibility, especially from a global perspective. This trend has become even more pronounced since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014. On the other hand, eastern Cubans often view their culture and history as absolutely crucial to the development and identity of the nation. The central role of Oriente (eastern Cuba) in both the late 19th-century Wars of Independence and the 1959 Cuban Revolution buttresses this alternative discourse. In terms of Cuba’s musical history, Oriente has contributed in major ways to the development of national genres, particularly with son, but also in terms of the 19th-century social dance contradanza and the Haitian influence in popular and folkloric Cuban music. The most recent contribution has been the introduction of reggaeton into the Cuban context by a Santiago-based rapper.
In this study of the discourse of eastern Cuban musicians, as well as the work of Cuban and foreign scholars, the centrality of regional traditions to the development of national genres is considered. Unlike hegemonic representations of Cuban musical history, these narratives often foreground the links to and influences from other Caribbean islands, particularly Haiti. This discursive emplacement of eastern Cuba at the center of Cuban musical creativity is clearly a reaction to the common marginalization of the region within the national production of knowledge, represented by scholars from the capital and some foreign researchers. Havana-centric perspectives are counterbalanced by foregrounding those of eastern Cuba.