Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Plantation in Puerto Rican Popular Music

I wrote the following for another site and I don’t believe it migrated here. I’m in a Puerto Rican Studies mood today, so I’m sharing. I'm looking to tie this analysis to modern-day mass incarceration, so stay tuned...
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Plantacíon Adentro: 
The Plantation in Puerto Rican Popular Music
Sombras son la gente…

The connection between the Cuban “Son” and Salsa is undeniable, but whereas son is Cuban country music, salsa was the child of an inner city identity movement wrought by the mass migration of primarily Puerto Rican Latin@s to New York in the 50s and 60s. Hence Salsa, right off the bat, is overtly political. The Panamanian-born actor, songwriter, poet, Harvard-trained lawyer, and politician, Ruben Blades (who sings lead here) once asserted that salsa was more than a musical genre, it was a way of life, an “urban folklore.” Eventually that urban folklore -- that cry of the urban Latin@ working class -- would reach 100s of millions of Latin@s in Barrios the world over. Eventually Europe and swaths of the Orient would come under its rhythmic spell (salsa dancing and salsa bands still very popular in Japan -- Google Orquesta la Luz).

While some salsa songs, for example, take up the theme of the sweetness of the sugarcane as a way to explore nostalgia for the good things of the old country, others explored the politics more trenchantly. What ultimately appealed to the young Puerto Ricans in New York and Latin@s the world over were the songs that documented (and in that way validated), celebrated, and explored life in El Barrio.

As an example, Willie Colon and Ruben Blades collaborated on a viciously wicked song called “Plantación Adentro” (literally Plantation Inside). Though it deals with a coffee rather than a sugar plantation, the system of oppression is not much different. Written by one of the greatest Puerto Rican composers, Tite Curet Alonso, the song is notable first for its black humor, which is used as a vehicle to expose the hypocrisy and cruelty of the entire system:

Se murio el indio Camilo por palo que daba el mayoral
que medico de turno dijo asi, “muerte por causa natural.”
¡claro! si despues de una tunda de palos, que se muera es normal

English translation:
Camilo the Indian died from the beating the overseer gave him,
and the doctor on shift pronounced it,
“death by natural causes.”
Sure! after a rain of blows naturally one dies!

Not much different from the reality that many Puerto Ricans and other minorities experience: so long as everything is certified by a specialist (in this case the doctor on call) the status quo holds and the system is legitimized by its social institutions and proceeds business-as-usual. Of course, the meaning of that “natural” death is open to interpretation, and while it results from a natural or normal chain of cause and effect, it is not legally a “natural” death. This highlights the essentially violent nature of capitalism, as experienced in the postcolonial context.

The song also utilizes a theme that centers on the paradox between secrecy (a proactive blindness?) and revelation. This is an inspired bit of writing on the part of Alonso: the plantation presents us with a conundrum, as it is at the same time hidden (“adentro”) and out in the open. Its marginal status virtually ensures that few people outside the industry would or could penetrate the boundaries erected by social prejudice, geographical isolation, and poverty.

The song begins with the news broadcast of a death and then proceeds with the following lyrics:

Sombras son la gente, sombras son la gente
Plantación adentro camará, e' donde se sabe la verdad,
e' donde se aprende la verdad,
dentro del follaje, y de la espesura, donde todo viaje, lleva la amargura . . .
Camilo Manrique fallecio por golpes que daba el mayoral
y fue sepultado sin llorar, una cruz de palo y nada más.


People are but mere shadows... there's a plantation inside there,
that's where the truth is known, that's where the truth is learned,
inside the foliage, past the thickets, where everyone passes, there is bitter grief...
Camilo Manrique died from the blows of the overseer
and was buried without tears, a cross made from sticks and nothing more.

While the song is a lament for the cruel murder of an Indian, its genius consists in the way it builds its meaning around symbols of boundaries that simultaneously define and blur the spaces they delineate. The foliage marks the borders of the plantation, inside of which “the truth is learned.” 

Paradoxically, the thickets serve to hide this inside knowledge from those who pass by without entering. The grave marker is merely two sticks that reinforce the anonymity of the death. It marks the grave but not the body interred within it. Nothing more can be known about the deceased or the circumstances of his death. The fact that the sticks are of the very same material that killed the Indian is an irony that would escape notice were it not for the narrator's constant repetition of the word “palo” used here both in the sense of “stick” and the “blow” dealt by a stick (“palo” is both a noun: stick; and an action: a blow).

In fact, the entire incident, along with the presence and significance of the plantation, would escape notice, were it not for the narrator's own transgression, which means that the plantation now bears scrutiny and exists as a kind of “clue” or crime scene that must be investigated, penetrated, brought to light. It is an open secret, the dirty laundry of the captains of industry.

Tite Curet Alonso was arguably the greatest composer and interpreter of Afro-Puerto Rican musical and written art forms. He composed songs based on folkloric expressions of the very poor and downtrodden and wrote in a way that entertained, instructed, and elevated urban popular culture no other composer can claim. That his genius is barely acknowledged today is itself a crime.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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