“That which is called the black soul is a white construction”[1]: A Response to Ars Longa de Habana’s “Gulumbá Gulumbé”

by Peter Tracy

Ars longa vita brevis on a mural n Gottingen Germany scaled
Ars longa vita brevis on a mural n Gottingen Germany scaled  

Vīta brevis,
ars longa,
occāsiō praeceps,
experīmentum perīculōsum,
iūdicium difficile.

Life is short,
and art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experimentations perilous,
and judgment difficult.

– Hippocrates (460 – 370 BCE), Aphorismi[1]

Hippocrates’ Aphorismi have inspired numerous interpretations in the millennia since their composition. Translation between languages and cultures being notoriously difficult, divergent readings of Latin and English translations have lead to significant changes in this verse’s popular meaning. While the phrase “life is short, art is long” has become an accepted trope, the Greek word commonly rendered as “ars” or “art” is in fact τέχνη (tékhnē), a word closer in meaning to “technique” or “craftsmanship”. As one of the earliest physicians on record, Hippocrates was unlikely to have dwelt overly long on questions of Art and Beauty. Rather, he seems to have wanted to express his frustration with the fact that, no matter how good one’s intentions or how disciplined one’s work ethic, one will never have enough time to perfect one’s skills or understanding. Hippocrates was also cautioning the uninitiated: in a medical context, experimentation on the job is perilous indeed, and an improper judgment can mean the difference between life and death. Many of us take comfort in the fact that, in the world of music, the stakes appear much lower.

Still, there are consequences to our musical judgments, and only so many opportunities to address them in full. As the example of a recent concert might help me to express, the broader effects of our musical choices can be far from clear even in the present (a time in which we more or less know our way around), to say nothing of the past (a foreign culture in and of itself).

This Sunday, Ars Longa de Habana, a Cuban ensemble specializing in Latin American music of the Spanish colonial period, performed a program at Town Hall Seattle consisting of a set of villancicos stemming from the cathedrals of 17th and 18th century New Spain. The musicians, who tackled a demanding series of pieces mixing the polyphonic rigor of Renaissance madrigals with the theater and slap-stick comedy of light opera, were in full command of their chosen repertoire, conveying a light-hearted, festive tone with plenty of humor. They gave a compelling and enjoyable performance, bringing an ease and sense of fun to the stage that is rare in performances of Baroque repertoire.

Still, it is not hard to imagine a range of different responses to Sunday’s concert. Among other points of concern, one might highlight the lyrics of these villancicos, which include many purposeful linguistic errors and passages of meaningless onomatopoeia meant to mimic the dialects of the newly enslaved. As Tyrone Clinton opines in his article “Black in the Baroque: Racism in the Spanish Villancico de Negro”, the language of this particular sub-genre of villancicos

“is a transcription by the slaveholding class of the varieties of Spanish spoken by Africans kidnapped into slavery. Like literary versions of slave dialect in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these linguistic variations are transcribed into the language of the ruling class as a series of errors: aphaeresis, phoneme modification by accent, and added or shortened syllables are recorded on the page as misspellings, mispronunciations, and gender pronoun errors in a way that strikes the intended audience as lazy or comical.”[1]

The lyrics on Sunday’s concert positioned the vocalists as a recurring cast of Black characters, each with variants of common names like Anton, Flacica, or Gacipá (itself a variant of “Caspar”, the biblical magi who was popularly thought of as an African king in the late middle-ages). Throughout the performance, these characters constantly threaten to burst into song and dance about the infant Jesus or the Virgin Mary, all while wielding percussion instruments meant to mimic those found in African musical traditions. The lyrics depict these archetypal Africans as coming from only two places: Guinea and Angola, both mythical kingdoms to which the enslaved long to return with triumphant song and dance. Obviously, this is a genre full of caricature and parody, with characters who want nothing more than to help their white masters celebrate the Christmas season (and to drink and dance the night away). Labor is rarely mentioned, and when it is, someone is usually too lazy or frightened to do it.

Villancicos de negro are a sub-genre of what was the popular artistic form of the Spanish colonial era: the villancico. Originally more of a literary phenomenon, the villancico would gradually transform into a musical form that mixed the sacred and the profane in an immensely popular blend. Although villancicos originally included a wider range of lyrical subject matter dealing with the experiences of everyday village-dwellers, they eventually took on a sacred aspect as part of Catholic feast day celebrations. Today, they are most closely associated with the season of Advent, having taken on a role similar to Christmas plays and carols in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. As evidenced by the title of Clinton’s piece, this particular sub-genre of villancicos is interpreted by many as a racist and offensive form of minstrelsy depicting enslaved Black people as their masters wished them to be.

There are many well-intentioned performers and scholars who have given defenses of this repertoire and who continue to advocate for its performance. In a disclaimer attached to Les Routes de L’esclavage, a 2016 album which includes several villancicos de negro, the renowned conductor and viol player Jordi Savall claims that:

“…the advantage of being aware of the past enables us to be more responsible and therefore   morally obliges us to take a stand against these inhuman practices. The music in this program represents the true living history of that long and painful past…We also want to draw attention to the fact that, at the beginning of the third millennium, this tragedy is still ongoing for more than 30 million human beings. We need to speak out in indignation and say that humanity is not doing what it should to put an end to slavery and other related forms of exploitation.”[2]

 According to Savall, villancicos de negro represent important historical documents, testaments to the enduring humanity of the enslaved that can even be used to draw attention to the endurance of slavery today. In support of this argument, Savall might also have pointed to the divergent cultures and histories of the Spanish-speaking world as evidence that a one-size-fits-all solution to such problems would be ineffectual and inappropriate. After all, conceptions of race, faith, comedy, and propriety vary greatly even between the closely-related societies of Latin America. To further support Savall’s argument, one could point to lyrics from other villancicos of the time which parody the language and behavior of other groups such as Galicians, French, Portugeuse, and indigenous peoples, arguing that all of the diverse cultures which made up the multi-cultural society of New Spain shared the burden of such merry-making. The strongest argument of all could stem from the critical or even subversive elements which have found their way into a few villancico texts, such as the passage from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s(1651-1695) “Tumba, tumba, la la la” in which the singer exclaims: “…where Pilico goes, no slave will remain!”[3]

In program notes written for Sunday’s concert, Dr. Sebastian Zubieta takes the argument for the rehabilitation of villancicos de negro a stepfurther, claiming that

“…at their most basic level these pieces are subversive because they reclaim for their actors the right to establish their own relationship with Jesus and Mary, bypassing the indignities visited upon them by the slaveholders, and making fun of them. They also establish a connection with the figures of their newly acquired faith that involves food and music (and a few items of clothing to alleviate the cold).”[4]

While I am far from an accredited expert on the music of colonial Spain, I find this particular search for subversion within the villancico de negro tradition to be more than a little misguided. First and foremost, it is important to remind ourselves that these pieces were not written by or for the people which they depict, nor did enslaved Africans regularly take part in their performance. As a result, the extent to which they reflect the real views, attitudes, and experiences of the enslaved is highly suspect, and the oft-celebrated “African influence” that many see in these pieces is more a simplistic parody than a sign of true cross-cultural exchange. To claim that these extra-liturgical pieces of light entertainment sincerely promoted an individual relationship with God among the underclasses of colonial society is to accept that the stereotypes embedded within this sub-genre are true: newly kidnapped black slaves really were happy to accept the new religion forced upon them by their masters (even if they had some naive questions about how it functioned); they really were in awe of the new God foisted upon them (even when their masters weren’t watching); they really did want nothing more than to adopt the culture and worldview of their oppressors (although they weren’t quite smart enough to figure out how).

Comedy, like music, can allow people to feel and internalize alternative perspectives without consciously articulating these perspectives to themselves, thereby bypassing the knee-jerk responses with which we often meet foreign ideas. Art’s ability to change patterns of thought and understanding is perhaps the greatest argument for its utility. Yet if a joke is funny or a piece of music beautiful, one can also find oneself agreeing with (or at least tolerating) a sentiment that would otherwise seem inappropriate or offensive. It could be argued that, more than any other tool of artistic expression, humor requires a mountain of cultural context to be effectively implemented or simply to be understood at all. At Sunday’s concert, many in the audience neither spoke Spanish nor read the limited program notes available. Given the absence of any statement of purpose from the artists, the audience was largely left to encounter villancicos de negro as they would any other music from the Baroque era and were tasked with coming to their own conclusions as to what motivated these artists to perform this repertoire. My first recommendation, then, would be to ensure that these works, if performed at all, are undertaken in a context that makes the historical role of this repertoire in the perpetuation of slavery abundantly clear.

This is not an argument for the barring of villancicos de negro from the concert stage, nor an attempt to argue that this important aspect of the New World’s cultural heritage should be erased from historical memory. Quite the contrary. Not every artistic performance needs to take a grand moral stance on the issues of the day, and no pamphlet of program notes can give the listener a sense of what it would be like to inhabit another culture. Yet to my mind, productive and respectful commemorations of historical tragedies do not often involve light entertainment and off-color comedy.

While decisions concerning what to perform, who to include, and how to tell the various possible histories of Western music cannot be made by any individual, ensemble, or organization alone, the potential consequences of our music-making require us to take these issues into serious and collective consideration. As a movement takes shape which reevaluates the historical legacies of Western concert music, certain questions concerning equity, inclusion, tradition, and the role of the arts in society take on an increasing significance for artists and audiences alike. How can the members of different cultures responsibly preserve their heritage without blindly perpetuating its errors? Who gets to decide what these errors are? Can the cultural tools, tactics, and techniques of one era and class be turned towards different aims today? By what process should we make decisions concerning the performance of historical music, and who gets to make these decisions?

Art is long, and judgment difficult. Yet I believe that it is possible to make moral judgments for ourselves while allowing a certain amount of space for others to do the same. For my part, I’d like to fall back on a simple thought experiment: if asked to take part in a performance of a villancico de negro, would I participate? I find myself answering with a resounding no.

[1]     From the Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s highly influential 1952 work Black Skin, White Masks: Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, and Anthony Appiah. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. First edition, New edition. New York: Grove Press, 2008, pp.  xviii, https://archive.org/details/blackskinwhitema0000fano_j7u6/page/n19/mode/2up. Here I use a slightly different formulation of the same quote by Deborah Singer as used in “Inclusion Politics/Subalternization Practices: The Construction of Ethnicity in Villancicos De Negros of the Cathedral of Santiago De Guatemala (16th-18th Centuries)”. Revista De Historia, no. 80 (July), 33-53.

[2]     There are many, many different editions and translations of Hippocrates aphorisms, and I cannot pretend to be the best judge of their accuracy. Here, I partake in the long and storied tradition of using quotations from the classics to suit my own ends. The English translation provided is from: Hippocrates. The Genuine Works of Hippocrates; Tr. from the Greek, with a Preliminary Discourse and Annotations, by Francis Adams. New York (State): W. Wood, 1886, 1886.

[3]     Clinton, Tyrone. “Black in the Baroque: Racism in the Spanish Villancico de Negro.” The Choral Journal 61, no. 4 (2020): 36. For more scholarship from this perspective, see Deborah Singer’s excellent 2019 study, “Inclusion Politics/Subalternization Practices: The Construction of Ethnicity in Villancicos De Negros of the Cathedral of Santiago De Guatemala (16th-18th Centuries)”. Revista De Historia, no. 80 (July), 33-53.

[4]     Jordi Savall, trans. by Jacqueline Minett, “Les Routes De L’Esclavage,” https://www.alia-vox.com/en/catalogue/les-rutes-de-lesclavatge/. Quoted from Clinton, 46.

[5]     Transcription and translation by Omar Morales Abril and Bárbara Pérez Ruíz, as featured in the concert program to “Gulumbá Gulumbé”.

[6]     From the program notes to “Gulumbá Gulumbé” written by Dr. Sebastian Zubieta for Early Music Seattle.