Sacred Roots of A People’s Music

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Kim D. Hunter

Secular Devotion
Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz
By Timothy Brennan
London and New York: Verso, 2008,
320 pages, $29.95 paperback.

THE GOAL OF Timothy Brennan’s Secular Devotion is an ambitious one, to create an historical map of African culture’s influence on the social politics of the Americas in general and the United States in particular.

Pat Robertson’s racist, superstitious blaming of Haitian victims and survivors for the disaster that struck them came while I was drafting this review. In that context his comment came, ironically, like a clarion call validation of much of the book’s premise: Brennan discusses the influence of Haiti on U.S. cultural history (the “Roaring Twenties”) via the U.S. occupation of Haiti in the early years of the last century.

The influence of Haiti on the United States is just one example of the author’s innovative approach, deconstructing, changing the center, finding a new context for the U.S. relationship to Africa and the Diaspora. This book is as multi-layered and fertile as its subject. Though music is Brennan’s primary focus, he also uses literature, the evolution of mass media and aspects of consumer culture to make his point.

Brennan works to show that the levels, depth and complexity of African opposition to the Puritanical cosmology and myriad facets of consumer capitalism are grand. This opposition is manifest in many paradoxical ways, including an African tendency toward oral/musical record rather than written record and a steadfast valorizing of the past — deities, ancestors, artists and their music — and reflected in what Brennan rightly calls Neo African music (broadly speaking, Afro-Caribbean music and blues/jazz).

The book details Brennan’s assertion that while there are times when the lyrics to son (Afro-Cuban roots music which later evolved to salsa), calypso, blues and hip hop and their various offshoots are overtly opposed to the oppression being suffered by their creators/audiences, it’s the inherent structure of African music that’s at the root of the rebellion.

Further, Brennan contends, this structure manifests a world view expressed through African religion. The music’s more overt religious aspects have long been sublimated, but opposition remains and fuels the popularity or devotion to the music — hence the term and book title “secular devotion.”

Two great African-American writers/works are present in this book. One is barely mentioned and the other quoted extensively: Amiri Baraka’s (then LeRoi Jones) Blues People (1963) and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) respectively. Brennan extends Baraka’s premise that Black music runs counter to the Euro-U.S. ethos. While Baraka traced this opposition to political oppression, Brennan adds that it is also the African world view expressed in music that helps fuel the resistance. Though he is not explicit on how much he believes or supports it (very little, I suspect), there is a metaphysical aspect to much of what Brennan cites in support of his premise.

That is largely where Reed’s work comes in. Secular Devotion begins with an excerpt from Mumbo Jumbo describing Papa La Bas, the book’s main character, how his contemplativeness is mistaken for laziness, how his valuing of basic humanity and the natural world comes from an ancient tradition that is at odds with U.S. culture.

An entire later chapter is devoted to the Reed novel to illustrate, among other things, how white people and people of color who would emulate them have not only lost their way, but are desperate, shallow imitations of true human civilization, a culture rooted in ancient Egypt. As I said, the book does get rather problematically metaphysical and there may not be enough reviews to describe let alone elucidate the aforementioned chapter. Better you should read (or re-read) Mumbo Jumbo.

Most books about music would benefit from having an audio/visual component. But Secular Devotion needs it like a musical score needs a musician or at least as much as a play need actors. It is alive on the page and full of serious, provocative insight. But many of its most salient points depend directly upon displaying the nature and power of the music Brennan explores.

Audio Component Needed

Much of this book relies on the notion of African-based musical structure in general, and Cuban son in particular, having a certain power. The closest Brennan comes to describing the power of son is when he discusses how the music’s polyrhythms create, for lack of a better term, a holistic opposition that is at satisfied to be an opposition and alludes to an absence, a missing part.

Not only do you need to hear examples to have clarity on this, you really also need to see people doing traditional and relatively modern dances to the music. A video of a master drummer like Chano Pozo or Richie Flores demonstrating the “invisible hand” drumming technique (which must be seen to be believed) would be most helpful as well to illustrate the “missing” part that is nonetheless felt or present.

Brennan’s work, however uneven, deserves even more than video/audio elucidation. It should be a textbook as a counterweight to white supremacy, capitalism and their underlying assumptions.

In detail, Secular Devotion’s main premise is that the African/European culture rift comes primarily from the music, that in the very heart of Latino Neo-African music (son, salsa, meringue, reggae, bomba Afro-Puerto Rican roots music, etc.) and to a lesser extent blues and jazz, there remains a powerful if latent ethos from African religion that runs counter to the workaday world, consumer culture (with some serious caveats and paradoxes with regards to hip-hop) and capitalism’s worship of the commodity and its resultant regimentation.

Brennan maintains that although for most audiences and in most instances the music is no longer explicitly religious or linked to its West African religious roots, the African ethos is so powerful that it still has a disruptive effect on U.S./European culture. The very seductiveness of the music is that it offers a joyous alternative to the mechanized pseudo rituals of the workday treadmill. This is most succinctly declared in the book’s introduction:

“Buried within its sound was the architecture of African religion preserved at various levels of intensity. It was popular given its ability to mount a protest that was not just mixed with fun but in which fun was the protest itself.”

This may come across as a more scholarly rendering of John Sinclair’s promulgation to white youth of Black music’s joy and celebration as a counter to joining the capitalist war machine. But this book runs broader and deeper than that.

Brennan goes so far as to say that African cultural opposition to U.S. culture was at the root of Cuba’s opposition to capitalism. While admitting (not nearly enough) to the persistence of racism on the island, he maintains that the identification with African roots is central to the revolution.

Brennan clearly loves Afro-Cuban culture and admires the Cuban Regime for, if nothing else, its resistance to U.S. imperialism, cultural and otherwise. He states in the chapter “Global Youth and Local Pleasure”:

“Cuban socialism has an Afro-Cuban center, not because its leaders have always appreciated or understood Afro-Cuban religion or the popular music that emerged from it, but because the dynamics of the liberation movement extending from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century demanded it.”

Packaging & Lumping “World Music”

One flaw is that some of Brennan’s ideas can only be supported by live musical example or can best be supported by such audio examples. Ideally, this would include a seminar with live and recorded musicians and dancers.

There is no other way to demonstrate the hold this music has on people even as we all realize that this material, transmitted from enslaved people and their descendants, is the core of a multi-billion dollar industry.

But there are some points Brennan makes quite well. He gets it right to protest the lumping together of disparate forms of music under the rubric of “world” music.

Hindustani and Pakistani devotional music forms can’t be put in the same book or audio compilation as Algerian rai music or Jamaican dancehall, especially since the later two take pains to be anything but reverent. But for purposes of marketing to the industrialized world they are effectively packaged together as a group.

Years ago, in this very publication I basically put forward the notion that the term “world music” was a Euro-American marketing term to describe what was “other,” outside of the industrialized world. Critiquing the “world music” term as a marketing invention rather than a truly useful term is just the start for Brennan.

He recognizes that the true “world” music forms are European Classical music and Jazz. Economic, cultural and old-fashioned military imperialism have made them so. Not that these forms are undeserving of the audiences they have garnered, but their promulgation throughout the world has very often been literally at gunpoint.

Whose Jazz Is It?

This may lead you to conclusions about the “imperial jazz” of the subtitle. But Brennan’s use of the term is more nuanced than that. Though he acknowledges jazz being spread in no small part, consciously and unwittingly by (primarily) African American soldiers, the imperialism to which he refers is the claim of jazz being exclusively a creation of the United States, or “Usonian” (a term he borrows from Frank Lloyd Wright).

Caribbean culture dominates this work. The author’s love of Cuba (music and socialism) and Haiti (music and Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo) are really the two legs that make this book walk. Brennan is one of the few scholars to place jazz directly in the Caribbean cultural pantheon. This is a point he doesn’t need music samples to prove. History and geography do it for him.

New Orleans had been a French and Spanish colony/city much longer than it had been a U.S. “possession” by the time jazz was created. Cuba was visited extensively by early jazz musicians including W.C. Handy, the so-called “father” of the blues. Cuban and Puerto Rican jazz musicians and composers were noted as being among the best by the likes of early giants like Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, who remarked that jazz was nothing without the “Spanish tinge” (a point almost completely missed in Ken Burns’ famous documentary).

Cuban musicians of note also frequented New Orleans. The influence of players from the Caribbean islands on jazz scenes from New Orleans to New York is a matter of record, albeit a somewhat hidden/ignored record. In short, as far as it relates to jazz, New Orleans is actually more of a northern Caribbean than it a southern U.S. city.

Encountering this book was a bit like reading Freud. It is not that Brennan is going reshape our consciousness, but it is clear that something profound is being put forward despite the flaws of the work. It is not just the uneven tone of the work — sometimes feeling like a dissertation, sometimes like a completely lucid work on culture. It is Brennan’s hedging on whether there is anything to the metaphysical premises he puts forth as being at the divide between African and European-based civilizations.

In all of his very valid critique of “world” music, he fails to note how musicians from disparate parts of the world are working together as never before to create truly trans-cultural work. His praise of hip hop both in the United States and Cuba is only slightly more nuanced and researched than those whom he accuses of romanticizing the “resistance” of antisocial, commoditized pop music. Even after rereading the chapter “Surrealism and the Son,” I am still at a loss to determine any real links between Cuban son and surrealism besides the fact that they were contemporary creations.

The biggest problem with the book lies in the limitations of traditional books themselves. As I try to indicate in the brief accompanying discography, we need to experience the art described in the text to truly appreciate how much the art and the book have to tell us and, as with the early works of psychotherapy, there is much yet to be told.

ATC 146, May-June 2010

1 comment

  1. In response to Kim Hunter’s review of Timothy Brennan’s Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz in ATC 146, jazz is actually the music that I feel most expresses revolution. It corresponds, in my view, to Marx’s description of the embryo of the new society in the womb of the old.

    As an art form, in the early decades of the 20th century, jazz expressed values that truly belong to the transformed society that we’ve been living our lives for. I’m not referring to the current general state of jazz, only to the first few decades. Right now, much of what is called jazz is 180 degrees away from what it was.

    One of the things that characterizes the early decades of jazz is racial mixing. The fact that jazz only happened here (Max Roach’s opinion) is partly due to this. It is a four-way merge: African, European, original nations (I won’t use the other terms — “Indians” just bothers me and “native Americans” is just inappropriate), and Jews. The African and European contributions have been extensively dealt with in many, often contradictory, often misleading ways. Just about no one mentions the other two.

    I became aware of the original people contribution only after I gave a presentation on “Jazz and Revolution” years ago at the New York Marxist School. It is a strange oversight, because many jazz originators were from these nations. Max was a Cherokee. Look at his face and you can easily see it. Bird (Charlie Parker) was a Choctaw. From them, we got pulsation (different in sound and feel from the African beat), blues singing (also different from African singing) and our concept of improvisation (African music is traditionally not improvised; European concepts of improvisation are not the same).

    The African contribution to blues is, within the mode, the two 3s, major and minor, from a traditional African scale which places the 3 in between the European major and minor; the African contribution to rhythm is rhythmic counterpoint and the pop in the energy. An irony of the recent political received line is that, as jazz is taught in schools right now, by white and Black musicians alike, it is almost entirely about chord progressions, the European contribution.

    There are many other levels of irony about all this. From Jewish composers we get numerous standards, now in disfavor. Standards are amazing. Many jazz musicians were Jews (Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, two innovators, for example). In his autobiography, first installment, Louis Armstrong wrote that, when he was a kid, he got his soul from a Jewish family. And Louis is Papa.

    Latin music is much closer to the African source, with rhythmic counterpoint being in front of the musical ensemble. (Tito Puente took the step of placing all the percussionists in front of the horn players on the bandstand.)

    The time feeling of early jazz (1920s-’40s) and the time feeling of Latin music are completely different. Latin music is basically 8/8, right on top of the beat. Jazz is a pulsation (both Lennie Tristano and Max, separately, described this to me with the exact same words: “It’s a steady one”); over that pulsation the timing stretches all the time, even in very straight-ahead fast tempos.

    Billie Holiday was an innovator in this respect, and this is easy to hear with her; her phrases sometimes seem to float over the pulsation, yet are timed with absolute compelling certainty. This is one of the things that gives jazz its “swing.” With due respect, Latin music does not swing. It does something else, something very wonderful, but it is different.

    [Connie Crothers is a jazz pianist and recording artist. You can check out her current and past work at]

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