Review by Jennifer Otter
Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (University of California Press, 2010)
Race is one of the most talked about and taboo topics. Few writers have the chutzpah to openly question racial stereotypes, let alone trace the historical roots, which may provide insight into the origins, or, dare it be said, search for any truth behind assumed ideas of race still prevalent today. In his book, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas, author Martin Munro confronts the notion of innate rhythm being a trait attached historically to black culture. Using this framework of rhythm as the common thread stitching together the struggles and triumphs of black culture over several centuries in the Americas, Munro successfully demonstrates how “rhythm is a contested concept that is sometimes vilified and repressed, sometimes glorified and valorized” (23).
Munro begins the journey exploring the perceived connection between blackness and rhythm in 1800’s Haiti. The theme of tension between the perceived “threat” of black music and dance to white culture with the paralleling allure and pull to blackness has a legacy in the region. Slaves were “prohibited” from “drum playing and singing other than when engaged in field labor” (27). Celebration, religious rituals and practices such as Vodou, “incorporated dance and music…music was less of a social entertainment than a link to metaphysics and an identity that had their roots in Africa, but were inevitably mutating and being translated into their new context” (28). Munro describes how “…African-derived music and dance were potent tools for insurrection, both in reality and in the white, European imagination” (38), as “some of the principal means of spreading news among New World slaves about [any] uprising[s] and of disseminating the “idea of Haiti,” were music, song and dance” (38). This allowed for “informal networks, oral communication and traveling songs” as a vehicle to convey information, “news of the revolt across the Caribbean, to Virginia and Louisiana in the north and to Brazil in the south” (38).
Munro then brings the reader to Trinidad, where “the history of creolized Trinidadian music” is the “classic case of colonial fear and repression of rhythm” (78). He begins the voyage with Christopher Columbus’s first encounter of the area in 1498. In an early example of wrongly interpreted meaning, the explorer’s crew attempted to show their “good intentions” to the islanders with dancing, and playing “fife-and-drum music” (79). The natives responded “by paddling back to shore and raining arrows on the ship” (79). This illustrates Munro’s idea of “music [holding different meaning] to different social groups,” and the way that “meaning [can] change according to context and…audience” (80). He traces these varied meanings through Trinidad’s history of “planters- white and colored- and their slaves,” as they “transform not only…society and economy but also its culture and its rhythms” (83). Munro pays close attention to Carnival, where white and black both participated in “transracial parodies,” demonstrating that “categories of race and class…were far more fluid and far less entrenched” than previously believed. As Munro points out, “for all their purported disdain for “uncivilized” black culture, the white elites and especially the French Creoles reveled in this kind of interracial parody” (88).
In a seeming foreshadowing to the rise of hip-hop in the 20th Century, “Trinidad’s white elite seems to echo the reactions of contemporary white audiences in the United States to minstrel shows. Whites in both countries tended to view black culture with a mixture of disdain and envy: disdain for blacks’ perceived crude manners and primitive culture, and envy of their supposed expressive and sexual freedom” (110). This infrastructure was further underpinned by “the commitment of Trinidadian music to disc” which “seemed to increase its acceptability to the rich elite, those who could afford gramophones and records…thus a subtle chasm was opened up between the people, who were always the source of innovation (and also the most reliable reminders of tradition), and the music” (118).
In the third and fourth chapters, Munro establishes the connection between poetry and rhythm, as well as rhythm used in the black power movement. Centering his argument on the French island of Martinique, he focuses on the legacy of key players in the areas “Negritude…literary movement” (132). Munro then moves onto early representations of James Brown, showing the performer’s “Africanization…was largely brought about by the demands of the contemporary political context” (194). While the thread of repression and expression is continued from the previous areas of discussion, the last two chapters do not contain the continuity of rhythm as a power leveraging access as the first part of the text.