My childhood friend, Juan David, and I shared a love for old salsa and jazz.
When he was hired to work in the logistics of Barranquijazz, Barranquilla’s Jazz Festival, I begged him to hook me up with a gig.
And he did.
I became Barranquijazz’s official translator for all the American musicians coming to the show — even though, at the time, my English wasn’t nearly as conversational as I said it was in the interview.
I would hop in a van with a driver and cart the musicians around between airports, radio shows, concerts, restaurants, and hotels.
I met a lot of musicians like Sonido Isleño, Ismael Rivera, Ronnie Cuber, Los Papines, and Jane Bunnet. I am not name-dropping since notoriety is a prerequisite for name-dropping, and you did not recognize a single person I mentioned.
One of the most fascinating things to watch was all the Cuban musicians who were “loaned” to the festival. They came with their respective bodyguards from Cuba — who were there not so much to guard their bodies but to make sure their bodies didn’t escape communism.
One day, I was taking a group of musicians to a small educational event at a school. I was sitting at the co-pilot seat when the bass player for Ronnie Cuber, the famous-in-obscure-circles baritone sax legend, sat beside the oldest man of Los Papines.
Los Papines is an intergenerational musical family performing Afro-Cuban rhythms by only accompanying their voices with percussion — typically from congas.
The older man and the bass player were friendly to each other — like they had been to many of these festivals before. The older man asked the bass player how his kid was doing, and the bass player lamented how his kid didn’t appreciate jazz or salsa. He was afraid that his kid was choosing rap over his roots.
The old man solemnly responded, “Don’t worry. When the roots run deep, they always come back”.
I love this story because it is heart-warming and about trust in the love of our own culture — almost the script for a Hallmark movie commercial.
But roots is a concept I struggle with because disguised under it is the idea of exclusion through difference, “You are not like us. As such, you should be excluded.” And an extreme version of that exclusion is the unapologetic persecution of anyone trying to incorporate what other cultures do by calling it cultural misappropriation.
But no one has a monopoly over anything that is not a secret.
Think of Salsa music; if you go to one of these classes, you’ll notice that it is not only Latinos coming to shimmy.
If we were to apply the concepts of cultural misappropriation, many people wouldn’t be able to partake in the beauty of salsa dancing, and, as a result, this type of dancing would never become the cultural phenomenon that it is.
What if we were to tell Italians they can no longer do Spaghetti Marinara? After all, noodles are not Italian but were introduced to Europe by North African indigenous groups. We would reduce the cuisine Italians are known for to nothing but cultural transgressions.
Cultural incorporation is built into the preservation of any cultural practice. One culture starts it; then many other cultures adopt it. That would’ve been considered a success in different times because it promotes connection and enhances our perception of the culture that started the practice.
Cultural appropriation is not just cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a tool that leads to understanding and community of those people who have learned to do things differently than we do them.
Cultural practices, artifacts, or rituals are vignettes to understanding the higher values of those cultures. It shows us how we are all driven by similar instincts, desires, and yearnings.
When punishing people for ‘cultural appropriation,’ where do we draw the line?
Do we stop at clothes? Do we stop at food? Do we stop at music?
What about pants?!
Arguably, pants are one of the best inventions known to humankind, especially for community aesthetics, or why else would we tell people, “Keep it in your pants,” when they are not keeping it in their pants? Anybody not of Asian descent is culturally misappropriating pants, so they should spend their entire days with Al Fresco situations braving the inclement weather regardless of whether it is blazing hot or freezing cold.
When it comes to humans, roots are nothing more than the elders of our groups telling us that anyone who doesn’t look like us doesn’t belong near us. Maybe our obsession with roots has prevented us from moving forward. We are not meant to stay in one place in the same way we are not can’t in-bred for eternity without genetic malformations.
Maybe human beings are less like roots and more like pollen. We travel across the ocean through the air; we grow our fruits in foreign lands and overcome the constructs of race, culture, and geographical borders.
We need to focus more on transcendental values that could help society create harmony, and those are not exclusive to one single ethnic race because the entire human race needs them. That’s what connects us — the bigger things in life.
We are not trees. We were meant to move around, to look around, to imitate. We are all trying to piece it together and make sense of this existential angst that plagues us. We are meant to look for what our heart is telling us is missing, and it could start by taking a peek into what other cultures are doing that can help us in our journey, not to appropriate it but to try it out, to pay it homage.
Which is not only what life is all about but also what jazz is all about.