Friday Sept. 26: Musicology Lecture: From Contradanza to Son: New Perspectices on the Prehistory of Cuban Popular Music – Dr. Peter Manuel (CUNY Graduate Center)
5:00 pm; Burton Memoral Tower, Room 506

What do we generally associate with Cuba? The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs or maybe a highly militaristic and shady detention center? If we take a look, however, at the country through a fine arts lens, a rich culture with an especially interesting style of music and dance is visible.

Contradanza is what Peter Manuel, a professor of ethnomusicology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, calls the “Caribbean form of line dancing.” It will be the subject of his upcoming speech at the Burton Memorial Tower this afternoon. Contrary to the typical U.S. dialogue about Cuba, Dr. Manuel prefers to talk about the distinct art and music that comes from the country.

Dr. Manuel, who started out as a sitar player traveling around India in the 1970s, is an expert in both Indian and Caribbean music. He has published six books, dozens of papers and traveled all throughout the region learning about music and researching what lies beyond the surface of big bands and salsa music.

The music of contradanza, as it’s performed throughout the United States, is often simplistic and appreciated mostly for the dance it inspires. However, the form is taken much more seriously within Cuba and inspires complex and sophisticated classical pieces. Scholars have historically cited the 1920s as the starting point for this type of music, but Dr. Manuel has found evidence that suggests otherwise. In his research of popular Cuban music from as far back as the 1850s and ’60s, he found what he believes to be examples of contradanza as well as the popular “son” movement. “Son” is the genre that spurned modern-day salsa — more of a Cuban-American invention — and is one of the most popular movements in Cuba today.

Ethnomusicology is a discipline that lies at the intersection of music, history, ethnography and anthropology. According to Dr. Manuel, ethnomusicologists “humanize people around the world. They are not faceless cultures, but rather creators of beautiful art and music.” He intends for his work to be apolitical, but it’s impossible to deny the overtones present in studying a culture that is so traditionally and politically taboo in the United States. Dr. Manuel concedes that he and his colleagues would like to present a nuanced version of cultural differences and to hopefully show people that there is “pretty good music that comes out of the axis of evil.”

A frequent visitor to the Caribbean, Dr. Manuel recognizes the importance of his role as an academic ambassador from the United States. Books on topics as specialized as the historical evolution of contradanza in Cuba may have difficulty finding an audience here, but with an American specialist in the field as one of the key authors, it makes the topic more accessible. But that’s not to say there isn’t this level of work coming out of Caribbean countries. Dr. Manuel, with this new perspective on the history of contradanza, is merely adding to and elaborating on the evolution of a movement that remains vibrant in Cuba today both in practice and theory.

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