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 Barranquilla’s Jazz Festival Barranquijazz, I begged him to hook me up with a gig so I would get access to the different concerts.
And he did.
I became the official translator for all the American musicians coming to the show — even though my English wasn’t as conversational as I lied 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, hotels, and so on.
I met a lot of musicians. Most of them were people I might’ve never heard of had I not worked at that festival. I met Sonido Isleño, Ismael Rivera, Ronnie Cuber, Los Papines, and Jane Bunnet. You see? Hardly anyone to brag about.
From all the music I heard, Yo Siempre Oddara is the one song I always come back to.
Jane, a Canadian flutist, spent time in Cuba working with prominent musicians on spectacular collaboration. She is a very prolific producer but two albums come to mind: Spirits of Havana and Cuban Odyssey.
It was intriguing to see many Cuban musicians come as “loans” to the festival. They came with their respective bodyguards from Cuba — which were there not so much to guard their bodies, but to make sure their bodies wouldn’t escape while they were out of the island. Basically, ensuring the musicians would always come back.
One day, I was taking a group of musicians to a small educational event at a music school. I was at the copilot seat when the bass player for Ronnie Cuber, the famous-in-obscure-circles baritone saxophonist, sat next to 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 old man and the bass player were friendly to each other. It seemed like they had been to many of these festivals before. The old man asked the bass player how his kid was doing and the bass player lamented how his kid didn’t have an appreciation for 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 was heart-warming and it is a story about trust in the love of our own culture. But lately, I have learned that I struggle with the concept at the heart of it.
When groups in power do everything they can to protect the purity of their group and remain in positions of power so they don’t share their wealth and abundance, we would call that fascism and not bat an eye.
But when groups not in power do the same to protect the purity of their identity, we call that roots and we place those on a pedestal.
‘Roots’ is a concept I struggle with because disguised under it, is the same ideal we despise when people in power promote it. It’s the idea of exclusion through difference. “You are not like us. As such you are inferior to us and you should be excluded.”
The extreme versions of these practices can be seen in the unapologetic persecution of anyone trying to incorporate what other cultures do by calling it cultural misappropriation.
But in reality, no one has a monopoly over anything that is not a secret.
I think of salsa music as an example. In California, you can find many places where you can learn, practice, and dance salsa. In the brief period of time I went to these classes, I learned that it wasn’t only Latinos coming to the meets. People from many other cultural and ethnic backgrounds were there to do the shimmy.
As a matter of fact, ballroom dancing has a strong focus on Latin and Spanish dances like flamenco, rumba, tango, salsa.
If we were to apply the concepts of cultural misappropriation, many people wouldn’t be able to partake in the beauty of Latin dance. They wouldn’t be able to partake in the rest of the culture, on its food, its language, and everything that took them to the culture from the gateway of music and dance.
I think of Jane Bunnet and her incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into her jazz compilations. If she was more popular, would she be accused of cultural appropriation?
What if we were to tell Italians they can no longer do Spaghetti Marinara? After all, noodles are not Italian but were rather 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 in other times a success because it promotes connection and enhances our perception of the culture that started the practice.
It is one of the reasons many comedians joke that you shouldn’t be allowed to eat tacos if you hate Mexicans. You shouldn’t be able to partake in the products of a culture if you hate such culture.
Cultural appropriation is not just cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a tool that leads to understanding and community of those people that 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.
When punishing people for ‘cultural appropriation’, where do we draw the line? How can we promote equality or multiculturalism if at the same time we chastise those that pay us the tribute of imitation? If we prevent opportunities for inspirational transformation?
Again, 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. Anybody not of Asian descent is culturally misappropriating pants so they should spend their day with an Al Fresco situation **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 intended to be in-bred for eternity.
It would’ve been a loss for humanity if certain cultural practices and artifacts would have not overcome the boundaries of races, cultures, or geographical boundaries.
Maybe human beings are less like roots and more like pollen. We travel across the ocean through the air, and we grow our fruits in foreign lands. I don’t know if the analogy works.
What I am trying to say is that 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. The yearnings, desires, and feelings we all experience.
We are meant to look for what our heart is telling us is missing, and it starts by taking a peek into what other cultures are doing that can help us in our journey.