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date: 15 October 2019

Fernando Ortiz on Afro-Cuban Music

Summary and Keywords

Fernando Ortiz is recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American authors of the 20th century. Amazingly prolific, his publications written between the 1890s and the mid-1950s engage with a vast array of subjects and disciplines. Perhaps Ortiz’s most significant accomplishments were the creation of the field of Afro-Cuban studies and major early contributions to the emergent field of Afro-diasporic studies. Almost everyone else associated with similar research began their investigations decades after Ortiz and in dialogue with his work. Ortiz was one of the first to seriously examine slave and post-abolition black cultures in Cuba. His studies became central to new and more positive discourses surrounding African-derived expression in the mid-20th century that embraced it as national expression for the first time in Latin America.

This essay considers Ortiz’s academic career and legacy as regards Afro-Cuban musical study beginning in the early 20th century (when his views were quite dated, even racist) and gradual, progressive changes in his attitudes. Ortiz’s work on music and dance have been underrepresented in existing academic literature, despite the fact that most of his late publications focus on such topics and are considered among his most valuable works. His writings on black heritage provide insight into the struggles within New World societies to overcome the racial/evolutionist ideologies that justified colonial subjugation. His scholarship resonates with broader debates throughout the Americas over the meanings of racial pluralism and the legacy of slavery. And his changing views over the years outline the trajectory of modern Western thought as regards Africa and race, specifically the contributions of Afro-diasporic peoples, histories, and cultures to New World societies.

Keywords: Fernando Ortiz, Cuba, Afro-Cuban studies, Afro-diasporic studies, Afro-Cuban music and dance, Afro-Cuban historiography

Fernando Ortiz Fernández (1881–1969) is recognized as one of the most influential Latin American authors of the 20th century.1 His roughly 600 total publications written between 1895 and the mid-1950s address a vast array of subjects and intersect with countless disciplines.2 Ortiz singlehandedly created five journals and contributed to countless others. He edited multiple book series on Cuban history and founded several societies dedicated to studying national culture. He corresponded with prominent anthropologists, folklorists, and intellectuals throughout the Americas and the world.3 He mentored international artists and academics (including Katherine Dunham and Robert Farris Thompson in the United States) and read widely in five or six languages. Simultaneously, Ortiz worked as a public intellectual, writing short, accessible essays on cultural history for lay audiences, offering public lectures, speaking on the radio, and in other ways stimulating interest in Caribbean history.

Perhaps Fernando Ortiz’s most significant accomplishment was the creation of the field of Afro-Cuban studies. He is one of the first “modern” authors of the black diaspora, basing his work on the study of cultural and social phenomena rather than on phrenology and other pseudoscience. And he was one of the first to conduct firsthand fieldwork, interviewing, and to observe Afro-Cuban cultural forms himself in support of such investigations. Almost everyone else associated with the early stages of Afro-diasporic studies—Roger Bastide, Melville Herskovits, Pierre Verger, and so on—began their work long after Ortiz did so and in academic dialogue with him.4 Ortiz was among the first authors to “break the taboo” surrounding the study of black heritage in the Americas.5 Within Cuba, he taught and inspired generations of scholars and artists.6

In the mid-20th century, most ethnographers preferred to study “natives” in societies untouched by external influence,7 yet Ortiz recognized the importance of analyzing diasporic influences in urban contexts, cultures fragmented and eventually reassembled in the aftermath of slavery. Themes of cultural exchange, fusion, and creolization represent part of virtually all his writings;8 in this sense they anticipate work on acculturation as championed by Melville Herskovits and others in the 1930s. Ortiz’s recognition that the modern world has witnessed both violent conquest and the disintegration/rearticulation of cultural forms in that context makes his work significant in anticipating postmodern scholarship and postcolonial studies as well.9

Ortiz’s publications became central to new, more progressive discourses about Afro-diasporic heritage in the mid-20th century that identified it more closely with national expression, in Cuba and elsewhere; in this way too, his publications were widely influential. He promoted such heritage primarily through public events, publications, and the mentoring of a new generation of researchers devoted to bringing black histories and perspectives into public view. In the 1940s and beyond, Ortiz challenged official inaction related to issues of racial prejudice, and assertions by some contemporaries that Cuban culture contained no African influences whatsoever.10 The eventual recognition of Cuba as an “Afro-Latin” nation in subsequent decades owes much to his efforts.

Post-slave societies in the Americas have long struggled to overcome divisions along lines of race, as well as the evolutionist ideologies that helped justify colonial dominance. Ortiz’s work represents part of that struggle, even as some of his work manifests such biases. His scholarship is tied in this sense to broader debates within the Americas over the meanings of racial pluralism. Likewise, the changes in his attitudes toward race and Africa through the years correspond to the trajectory of modern Western thought on the subject, and the contributions of black communities to New World societies. In effect, his work speaks to the genealogy of dominant attitudes toward race in the Caribbean and beyond.

Ortiz’s Early Publications

Though born in Havana to an affluent white family in 1881, Fernando Ortiz left Cuba as a young child for Menorca, Spain. He returned to Cuba in 1895, but conflicts associated with the Wars of Independence forced him to depart for Spain again in 1898. Ortiz completed a law degree there in 1900 and shortly thereafter a doctorate in sociology.11 During that period he became interested in criminology, a field that strongly impacted his early scholarship. In 1902, Ortiz accepted a job in Cuba’s newly established consular service, working primarily in Italy and France.12 In 1906, he resigned that position in order to serve as a public prosecutor in Havana and offer courses on law at the University of Havana. Thus, at the time his first book, Los negros brujos (The Black Sorcerers, 1906), was released, Ortiz knew little of Cuba, having spent most of his life abroad. It is possible that this lack of familiarity with the island allowed him to view it from the perspective of an outsider and to focus on topics that had received scant attention from Cuban society prior to that time.13 Nevertheless, evolutionist views of race strongly influenced his research.

Ortiz’s early career witnessed the creation of the new Cuban Republic, multiple U.S. occupations,14 and also substantial controversy over the place that Afro-Cubans, especially veterans of insurgency against Spain, would have in 20th-century society. Afro-descendant soldiers made up a majority of revolutionary insurgents and expected recognition and support in the war’s aftermath. Indeed, the insurgent leadership initially intended to sell confiscated Spanish properties across the island and to divide proceeds among Cuban soldiers.15 Yet U.S. intervention in the war took initiative away from the army, and racism among U.S. military officials and Cuban elites led to the ongoing marginalization of Afro-Cubans. In the first decades of the 20th century, they experienced barriers to higher education, were excluded from white-collar occupations, and were denied entry to exclusive hotels, restaurants, clubs, and parks and other public recreation areas.16 Cuban officials publicly ascribed to José Martí’s myth of Cuban racial equality, yet simultaneously disparaged black Cubans as inferior and uncivilized.17 The newly created national army killed thousands of black farmers in Oriente in 1912 for protesting the outlawing of black political parties, which suggests the extent of racial tension at the time. Ortiz never chose to comment publicly on this or other forms of black violence during his early career, though the tense nature of race relations makes his unwillingness to do so somewhat understandable. In undertaking studies of Afro-Cuban culture, even of a relatively nonpolitical nature, Ortiz touched on extremely sensitive subject matter.

The works of Cesare Lombroso, a physician who studied populations in asylums and in prisons, influenced Ortiz strongly. Lombroso, one of the founders of the field of criminology, believed that most criminal tendencies could be linked to the regressive or atavistic mindset of primitive peoples.18 Ortiz’s first book, Los negros brujos, attempted to apply Lombroso’s theories to the Cuban context and specifically crimes ostensibly committed by practitioners of African-derived religions. Ortiz was apparently inspired in this endeavor by a series of sensationalized “child murder” cases discussed in the popular Cuban press, especially that of Zoila Díaz in 1904: black religious figures were said to have abducted and killed the girl in order to use her heart in demonical rites. Ortiz accepted the validity of such press reports at the time.19

In Los negros brujos, Ortiz depicted practitioners of African-influenced religions as psychically and morally inferior and in need of enlightenment through the inculcation of European values. He described “brujo cults” as “a negative influence with respect to the betterment of our society,” primitive, immoral, and barbaric.20 He believed that all such worship should be outlawed as a means of “disinfecting” the country, and that individuals unwilling to disavow their beliefs should be jailed or interned.21 Subsequent publications manifested similar views for some time. In 1907 he published an article on black carnival bands (comparsas). The groups had generated polemics because they aspired to take part in largely white, elite street celebrations even though officials considered their drums and dances savage.22 Ortiz suggested that comparsa bands evoked “the spirit of the primates” and manifest the “primitive psyche” participants.”23 In 1913 he published a short essay manifesting similar views about the negro curro, described as a marauding black thug associated with the 19th-century Cuban “underworld” (hampa).24

It is difficult to assess precisely when Ortiz began to distance himself from such overt racial bias, but a somewhat less virulent tone is evident in Los negros esclavos (Black Slaves, 1916). Certain segments of that book still depict blacks as childlike and intellectually lacking.25 Yet others discuss slaves more sympathetically through a focus on their horrific work conditions and short life spans, the forms of punishment imposed on them, their resistance to authority through the years, and their ongoing struggles following abolition. Interestingly, in 1916 Ortiz also chose to resign his position as public prosecutor in order to serve in the Cuban House of Representatives. He drafted various bills intended to prohibit gambling, modernize labor laws, and reform the penal code. None ultimately became law, and in 1922 he resigned his position in frustration.26

The 1920s witnessed the rise of a heightened sense of nationalism within Cuba and a desire among artists to promote local heritage. Various factors contributed to this trend. Politically and economically, the 1920s witnessed upheaval in Cuba that led intellectuals to reflect upon the wisdom of the country’s close ties to the United States. The falling price of sugar, new U.S. tariff legislation, and the stock market crash of 1929 led to high levels of unemployment in Cuba and widespread strikes and activism. In this context, many leaders expressed a desire for greater sovereignty in political and cultural terms, one manifestation of the latter being a movement known as afrocubanismo.27 By the same token, the popularity of jazz internationally, the influence of the Harlem Renaissance, and the use of jazz or ragtime in the compositions of many academic composers (Stravinsky, Ravel, etc.) inspired a greater appreciation for local black heritage among white and middle-class Cubans. Simultaneously, new recording technologies and radio broadcasts made black popular music more accessible to diverse audiences than ever before. The mass media helped create new fans of Afro-Cuban music and slowly contributed to changing perceptions of it.

Fernando Ortiz played a prominent role valorizing Cuban culture during this period. As part of that effort, he founded new organizations such as the Cuban Folklore Society (1924) and the Hispano-Cuban Society of Culture (1926). Ortiz worked to lower Cuba’s illiteracy rate and to stimulate interest in education on a national level. As of the early 1920s, he abandoned the field of criminology and instead focused on topics related to Cuban culture and history. His views were undoubtedly influenced by a younger and more radical generation of intellectuals known as the Grupo Minorista with whom he had frequent contact. In political terms, the Minoristas denounced imperialism and dictatorial regimes in Latin America; artistically, they attempted to integrate elements of local heritage into avant-garde artistic works.

Still, Ortiz’s earlier views of non-European cultures and peoples did not change substantially through the 1920s. His primary goal by means of scholarship seems to have been documentation of the island’s past in order to determine how present-day views and practices might be “improved,” divesting them of backward or superstitious elements. Ortiz’s work on Afro-Cuban history was thus undertaken with the goal of raising the cultural standards of the nation. Note that the author viewed many working-class traditions derived from Europe (such as cock fighting and the lottery) as similarly backwards. By the late 1920s, however, he had rejected the notion that black and mixed-race people were mentally inferior and instead suggested they could aspire to full participation in modern society by means of a European-style education and the adoption of middle-class norms.28

Ortiz’s Publications of 1930s and Beyond

The 1930s constitutes a pivotal moment in Ortiz’s career, one in which his attitudes toward Afro-diasporic expression became much more progressive. Numerous factors contributed to the shift. First, ongoing political and economic turmoil and clearer recognition of U.S. complicity in such problems led to his increased support of national heritage. Before 1927, for example, Ortiz’s publications on noncultural topics tended to focus on the Cuban penal code. After 1927, he wrote many articles overtly critical of U.S. foreign policy. Second, Ortiz’s exile to the United States between 1930 and 1933 may have played a role. Forced to flee Cuba after writing an essay critical of President Gerardo Machado,29 Ortiz resided for a time in New York and Washington, DC. There he must have seen firsthand the enthusiasm black Cuban musical forms such as the son (“rhumba”) and conga had generated in the United States, and the massive commercial popularity of jazz and blues.

The essay that most clearly demonstrates the new tenor of Ortiz’s scholarship appeared in 1934.30 In it he voices support for styles of music that are not “over-intellectualized,” and by extension for traditional and popular forms of expression. He also makes overt ties between his support for Afro-Cuban heritage and his politics.

In these times of national suffering and profound tragedy, in which Cubans must begin a reconquest of their own country, economically and politically, so that they survive in the face of the destructive force of foreign imperialism, it is absolutely necessary that all affirmations of the Cuban spirit of its own creation be supported. Ideological imperialism, if not as insidious as the economic imperialism that sucks the blood of our nation, is also deleterious . . . Let us try to better understand ourselves . . . And let us not forget that vernacular music represents one of a nation’s most vital forms, and that Cuban music resonates throughout the world, among all people.31

In this essay and subsequent works, Ortiz his enthusiasm for Afro-Cuban music and dance is overt. His new appreciation for Afro-diasporic heritage and engagement in international politics are also evident in the journals he established after returning to Havana in 1934: Ultra (1936), focused on world events and intended to serve as a point of contact among all Spanish-speaking nations, and Estudios afrocubanos (1937), supported by a new academic society devoted to Afro-Cuban themes. Ortiz’s writings during this period stressed that Cubanness (cubanidad) derived from commonly shared cultural referents rather than racial or even geographic ties.32 And they emphasized that Ortiz viewed racial division as a major obstacle to progress in his country. He redoubled his efforts to support national unity through scholarship focusing on the contributions of Afro-Cubans to the nation.33

While in the 1920s Ortiz wrote about the origins of particular African-derived retentions in the Americas (frequently characterized as risible), essays from the mid-1930s shifted to overt praise of culturally hybrid or “mulatto” forms of culture for the first time. In many respects, his writings on this subject are similar to those of José Vasconcelos in Mexico and Gilberto Freyre in Brazil at approximately the same time, both of whom were also concerned with nation building. Essays on mulatto poetry34 may represent the first in which Ortiz strongly asserts that mixtures of African and European heritage best represent the Cuban spirit. In them he describes experiments in Afro-Hispanic fusion as the epitome of the Caribbean experience.35 An essay the following year dedicated to the history of the claves expounds upon the same theme.36 It represents Ortiz’s first extended study of a musical instrument, an area of research he devoted much time to in later years.

In addition to supporting mulatto cultural forms as of the mid-1930s, Ortiz promoted Afro-Cuban music and dance associated with African-derived religions, especially those styles associated with Yoruba heritage. In 1937 he famously organized a public lecture on the music and dance of Santería in a public theater, with support (somewhat ironically, given its orientation) from the Hispano-Cuban Institute of Culture. Ortiz published a version of his lecture shortly thereafter as the essay “The Sacred Music of Yoruba Blacks in Cuba,”37 including photos of the percussionists, singers, and dancers who accompanied him that evening. Ortiz used variants of the same essay in future public lectures and reproduced extended versions of it in journals.

The 1940s and 1950s represent the culmination of Fernando Ortiz’s career. During those decades he published extensively about Afro-Cuban music, dance, and related expression, including his most highly acclaimed works. They include a series of extended essays originally published in the Revista bimestre cubana in the late 1940s and later incorporated into the books La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba (1950) and Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (1951), as well as the five-volume series Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana (1952–1955). Ortiz devotes the first chapter of La africanía to indigenous musical influences in Cuba and what is known of their culture prior to the conquest. Later chapters discuss the nature of music in sub-Saharan Africa and related artistic forms unique to Afro-Cuban groups. Los bailes provides additional studies of local Afro-Cuban music and dance events, both contemporary and historical, with special emphasis on traditions derived from Kongo, Yoruba, and Abakuá ethnic groups. The instrumentos series documents all African-inspired instruments in Cuba known to Ortiz, discussing their posible antecedents in Africa and commentary on how each is constructed and performed.

As mentioned, many of Ortiz’s publications from the mid-1930s onward assert that Cubans of all racial backgrounds have the same inherent potential in an intellectual sense and that racism has no place in Cuba. Ortiz’s greater interest in race and racism resulted in the publication of numerous articles, and ultimately in the book El engaño de las razas (The Deception of Race, 1946). In it he contested the very idea of race, that racial hierarchy has any basis in fact, that phenotype correlates in any way to inherent abilities or characteristics, and so on. The book represented forceful commentary on the topic and aligned Ortiz’s scholarship with other progressive authors of the period.

Yet despite his rejection of the race construct and disavowal of links between musical style and race, one finds a surprising number of racialized comments even in Ortiz’s later works. Some of the views expressed mirror those in El engaño de las razas;38 others appear to contradict them, suggesting that Ortiz failed to fully internalize the views expressed in the publication, or that he continued to be influenced by the perspectives of authors he had consulted previously. In order to represent his “mature” views in the commentary below, the essay includes citations primarily from writings of the mid-1940s or later. In chapter 2 of La africanía, for instance, Ortiz quotes missionary linguist Dietrich Westermann as saying, “The black African is more dominated than us by unconscious or semiconscious impulses; for him emotional factors weigh more heavily than logical reasoning.”39 On the previous page Ortiz asserts that “in the psyche of the black African, emotional, auditory, and kinetic factors tend to predominate over the reflexive, visual, and contemplative.”40 Similar commentary appears later in the same volume, as the author characterizes black music as “rhythmic” as opposed to “rational”; this is followed by a psychoanalytical explanation of why young children, primitives, the mentally imbalanced, and others are so attracted to rhythm.41 While denying the existence of race as a concept, Ortiz nevertheless argues that the shape of blacks’ heads, mouths, noses, and lips afford them the ability to produce unique musical sounds.42 Other passages (in this case quoting Archdeacon George T. Basden) suggest links among sub-Saharan African music, passion, and primal instincts.43

Elsewhere, Ortiz depicts blacks and their music as oversexed: “If music expresses love, none like African music offers us its carnal songs and steamy sensuality, sometimes accompanied by rhythmic, diabolical lasciviousness and culminating in orgasmic convulsion.”44 Quoting psychoanalyst Charles Prudhomme, Ortiz suggests that the frequent increases in both tempo and volume in Afro-descendant musical performance are suggestive of human intercourse and thus “symbolically primitive and sexual.”45 Yet paradoxically, Ortiz’s most extended pronouncement on the subject of black music, dance, and sexuality from the period concludes that it is not as sexual as it appears, that such expression must be understood on its own terms, and that only because of its commercialization in cabarets and related touristic contexts has it become obscene.46

Even if Ortiz’s notions of race in later works increasingly aligned with those of modern anthropology, multiple comments in his work suggest that he continued to view culture in an evolutionary manner. As in the case of the comments on race discussed above, his pronouncements on cultural development are contradictory and thus difficult to evaluate. Ortiz expressed constant concern for the ultimate origins of all music and its global history. He believed the music and dance of prehistoric times to derive from an imitation of the sounds of nature in the context of religious or magical rites.47 The passage below is typical in suggesting that African and traditional Afro-Cuban music represents an earlier phase of development relative to European music making, and that it needs to be further elaborated through a greater focus on the intellect. This position links Ortiz’s work to temporalized notions of culture with roots in colonial oppression, famously theorized by Johannes Fabian as a denial of coevalness.48

These forms of black music and poetry basically derive from their emotionalism and magical essence. In order for a people to surpass this primary stage of strong rhythmic expression, it is necessary for them to intellectualize more and more, responding through expressions of reason more than affective impulses. African peoples are still profoundly submerged in a haze of magic and mythology. As their religion evolves, the wizard or priest who speaks with the divine will have more faith in compelling sentences [rather than short, frequently nonsensical phrases]. The rhythm of the music, the mimetic dance, and the repetitive ritual formulas will begin to shorten and become more direct forms of sentimental or persuasive prayer, “scientific” magic; that is, innovative and rational forms of expression.49

On the other hand, Ortiz had clearly read arguments against evolutionism as an analytical model. At one point he writes in the same publication that “So-called ‘primitive’ cultures cannot necessarily be considered antecedents of other more civilized ones that could be viewed as chronologically ‘secondary’ or ‘subsequent.’”50 Ortiz elaborates on the theme by quoting from the writings of musicologist Fritz Bose and emphasizing that all cultures do not develop in a unilinear fashion and that societies viewed as primitive have their own complex histories and expressive forms.

Ortiz thus appears to have struggled to reconcile relativistic views of culture (influenced by the writings of figures such as Franz Boas) with his more established frames of reference involving cultural evolutionism. This resulted in ongoing conceptual tensions and contradictions, often manifest in attempts to extol the virtues of black music that resulted in inadvertent slights or condescension. He states, for instance, that black music is “much more ‘backwards’ than white music, if we consider it from an evolutionary perspective, but more ‘advanced’ than that of whites in particular aspects,”51 the latter an apparent reference to its rhythmic elements. Ortiz elsewhere characterizes black music as constructed of “rustic” scales52 and “monotonous melodies.”53 At one point he offers the following backhanded compliment, citing missionary Cyril Claridge: “Considering what black Africans are and the environment in which they live, the value of their music is as impressive, relatively, as the creations of the great masters employing perfected instruments.”54

The difficulty Ortiz experienced in reconciling the evolutionary perspective he adopted in the early 20th century with later scholarship helps explain how he can both call for the valorization and study of traditional Afro-Cuban music and describe it at times as rudimentary. In stressing the ties among music, dance, and poetry among blacks, for instance, he noted in the mid-1930s, “That sort of linkage is typical of music as it first emerges, among savages and among children, and among black Africans. It is also typical of popular Cuban music, almost all of which has been profoundly influenced by descendants of the black continent.”55 Again, the prominence of rhythm rather than European-derived tonal harmony suggested a lack of cultural development to Ortiz. In a similar fashion, he viewed Afro-Cuban religious music and dance as atavistic in that they involved mimesis, what he considered primitive acts of replication.56 Ortiz believed that elite European influences on blacks would eventually result in “superior forms of conceiving of and relating to the supernatural,”57 as well positively influencing their artistic expression. In La africanía he made his most overt assertions that African cultural development lags behind that of Europe, quoting musicologist Percival R. Kirby.

African music lacks the technical and instrumental possibilities that European music has today. Considering it from an evolutionist perspective, Kirby has said, referring to the music of certain Bantu peoples, that when they initiated their contact with occidental music it was comparable to European music as it existed in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They are merely a few steps behind. And it is not deluded to say that white music, despite its sublime creations, still lacks certain possibilities achieved by blacks. European- and African-derived musics are at different levels, used for different social functions, and expressed in different vocabularies too. But both possess universal appeal and individual merits.58

Ortiz encouraged the Cuban public to appreciate and valorize traditional forms Afro-Cuban music as they existed, but ultimately he hoped that academic composers would transform such repertoire over time, using it to create concert music based heavily on European models. In various publications he applauded the musical experiments of white composers Alejandro García Caturla, Ernesto Lecuona, Amadeo Roldán, and Gilberto Valdés, and their attempt to produce Afro-Cuban concert repertoire.59 Citing Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke, Ortiz suggested that Cuba needed more academically trained black musicians who were capable of performing both traditional music and symphonic works. He believed that the ingenuity of local performers would allow them to infuse their compositions with “classical resonances” while retaining a nationalistic style.60

Ortiz is remembered today primarily for his historical and ethnographic work rather than for his contributions to theory, yet his concept of “transculturation” as discussed in Contrapunteo cubano (Cuban Counterpoint, 1940) has influenced many authors, such as literary critic Ángel Rama.61 In Contrapunteo, Ortiz suggests having chosen the term “to express the highly varied phenomena that have come about in Cuba as a result of the extremely complex transmutations of culture that have taken place here.”62 Ortiz defines transculturation as a series of interactions among various social groups and their respective cultural practices, all of which are transformed in the process.63 In the case of Cuba, such groups included indigenous inhabitants, wealthy and poor white immigrants from Spain, enslaved Africans, and migrants from China and North America. Ortiz proposed that transculturation be used instead of the term “acculturation” advocated by Melville Herskovits and other anthropologists in the 1930s.64 Many authors of the period who adopted “acculturation” characterized the process as unilinear, involving a flow of cultural influence from Western nations to the developing world and implied the superiority of European heritage. Ortiz believed that his term better captured the multivalent processes of cultural inter-influences in the Americas and avoided implicit notions of Western superiority in existing acculturation scholarship. He wrote to both Bronislaw Malinowski and Herskovits, and they expressed interest in his new terminology.65 Ultimately, however, Ortiz’s notion of transculturation did not prove terribly influential among English-speaking anthropologists, in part because Herskovits initially theorized his term as a multidirectional process of exchange as well.66 The fact that Herskovits wrote in English and disseminated his work within established first-world academic circles also undoubtedly contributed to the broad acceptance of his concept.

Ortiz viewed transculturation as an umbrella term for various stages or processes of culture contact. These included deculturation (the loss of culture), acculturation (the adoption of new cultures), and neoculturation (the emergence of new, hybrid cultural practices).67 Additionally, he promoted the concepts metastasis (the movement of culture between distinct social classes) and metalepsis (the use of culture in new contexts, such as the incorporation of sacred ritual practices into secular activities).68 A later essay of the 1940s69 elaborated further on the typical stages of transculturation, influenced by the writings of R. C. Thurnwald. The stages Ortiz proposed included (1) one of hostility toward and rejection of dominant culture, (2) one of reluctant acceptance of such influences, (3) the adaptation or transformation of earlier subaltern cultural practices, (4) a stage of renewed appreciation for cultural forms that had been lost in earlier transculturative processes, and (5) a final stage of integration and harmony of distinct cultural influences. Ortiz suggested that Cuba appeared to be entering the fourth phase through a tentative valorization of its African heritage but had not yet arrived at the fifth.70 In addition to using transculturation to explain the history of sugar and tobacco production in Cuban Counterpoint, Ortiz employed it in an essay on the history of Arab war drums, their incorporation into the Spanish military, and the ways in which black performers in Cuban dance bands adapted and transformed their use further beginning in the 19th century.71

Some have argued that the notion of transculturation has redefined notions of national culture in Latin America and beyond. Stephan Palmié, for instance, suggests that Ortiz’s model implies constant change as well as cultural and social adaptation as fundamental elements of the New World experience.72 To him and others, the notion of transculturation rejects racial or ethnic purity; instead, it suggests that distinct cultural forms originally associated with particular groups inevitably change over time and are perceived differently according to the exigencies of particular historical periods.73 Ortiz’s focus on dialogics and on shifting, relational meanings has been described as a form of early postmodernist thought in literature74 and anthropology.75 More critical analysts suggest, however, that the concept of a transculturative process that eschews racial purity exists side by side in Ortiz’s work with the contradictory belief that diverse elements of Cuban culture were in a “pure” form prior to contact.76

Discussion of the Literature

Critical research on Fernando Ortiz as a music scholar, or studies that attempt to situate his work within broader frames of analysis as regards Afro-diasporic musical study, academic discourses on race and ethnicity, local Cuban politics, or the social struggles of Afro-Cuban communities themselves, are relatively scant. Essays on Fernando Ortiz and his contributions as an academic in general terms include those by Miguel Barnet,77 Antonio Benítez-Rojo,78 Fernando Coronil,79 Mauricio Font and Alfredo Quiroz,80 Julio Le Riverend,81 Diana Iznaga,82 Argeliers León,83 Stephan Palmié,84 and Alberto Pamies.85 Araceli Garcia-Carranza published a comprehensive bibliography on Ortiz with many useful biographical details in the 1970s, and Jane Rubin undertook a similar project in the 1990s, accompanied by articles inspired by Ortiz’s work.86 Julio Le Riverend has compiled a volume of short essays on an array of topics by Ortiz over the course of his life that provides useful insights into his intellectual development.87 Scholars who have analyzed Ortiz’s publications on music from various perspectives include Robin Moore88 and Jorge Pavez Ojeda.89 John Gray’s exhaustive bibliography on Afro-Cuban music helps situate Ortiz’s work in specific time periods relative to the work of other scholars.90 A few essays provide a broader optic, considering Ortiz’s work within the context of Latin and Afro-Latin American musical study more generally, beginning in colonial times through the present. Individuals undertaking this sort of analysis include Gerard Béhague,91 Michael Marcuzzi and Helena Simonett,92 and Robin Moore.93

Naturally, considerable insights into Ortiz’s accomplishments as a music scholar (and his shortcomings) can be gleaned from examining his own books. These include well-known titles from his final decades, listed in the “Further Reading” section below, as well as more obscure essays. A number of Ortiz’s works (many related to music) have now been translated for those who do not read Spanish. They include his Kings’ Day essay from the 1920s,94 his essay on the claves,95 his essay on batá drumming,96 the publications “On the Integration of Blacks and Whites” and “The Human Factors of Cubanidad,”97 and one full-length book of translated musicological essays from distinct periods of his life.98 A full evaluation of Ortiz’s life and scholarship would necessarily involve engagement with many other literatures: on race in Cuba and the Caribbean more broadly, on Afro-Cuban political struggle, on Afro-Cuban religions, on Cuban traditional and popular music in all its manifestations, and so on. But the material discussed above affords a solid introduction to topical issues surrounding the author and his legacy.

Primary Sources

The largest single collection of Ortiz materials is housed at the Instituto de Literatura y Lingüística in Havana (ILL, formerly the Sociedad Económica del Amigos del País). The ILL contains all of the extensive notes Ortiz took during interview sessions with informants in notebooks and on file cards, as well as a number of his unpublished manuscripts. This material remain at least partially uncatalogued, though one of the former employees there, María del Rosario Díaz, developed a number organizational aids to help navigate it. The Biblioteca Nacional José Martí in Havana contains many relevant materials as well including correspondence by Ortiz and photographs of him and his contemporaries. The Fundación Fernando Ortiz houses countless original Ortiz documents as well.99 It edits the journal Catauro that continues investigations into Cuba’s cultural history in a manner inspired by Ortiz, as well as publishing essays on Ortiz’s life and work and reprints of his own scholarship. In the United States, the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami contains copies of most of Ortiz’s important publications as well as secondary literature on his life and work.

Further Reading

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island. The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. 2d ed. Translated by James E. Maraniss. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

García-Carranza, Araceli, compiler. Bio-bibliografía de Don Fernando Ortiz. Havana, Cuba: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 1970.Find this resource:

Iznaga, Diana. Transculturación en Fernando Ortiz. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1989.Find this resource:

Moore, Robin, ed. Fernando Ortiz on Music: Selected Writings on Afro-Cuban Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Universitaria, 1950.Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1951.Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana. 5 volumes. Havana, Cuba: Ministerio de Educación, 1952–1955.Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. Los negros brujos. Apuntes para un estudio de etnología criminal. Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1973 [1906].Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. Ensayos etnográficos. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1984.Find this resource:

Ortiz, Fernando. “The Afro-Cuban Festival ‘Day of the Kings.’” Translated by Jean Stubbs. In Cuban Festivals: An Illustrated Anthology. Edited by Judith Bettelheim, 3–47. New York: Garland, 1993 [1920].Find this resource:

Palmié, Stephan. Wizards and Scientists. Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Palmié, Stephan. The Cooking of History. How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. “The Philological Fictions of Fernando Ortiz.” Notebooks in Cultural Analysis 2 (1985): 190–207.Find this resource:

Yelvington, Kevin A. “The Invention of Africa in Latin America and the Caribbean: Political Discourse and Anthropological Praxis, 1920–1940.” In Afro-Atlantic Dialogues: Anthropology in the Diaspora. Edited by Kevin A. Yelvington, 35–82. Oxford: James Currey, 2005.Find this resource:


(1.) This work represents a shortened and amended version of a longer analysis of Fernando Ortiz’s career and legacy included in the book Fernando Ortiz on Music: Selected Writings on Afro-Cuban Culture (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2018). Additional information on the topic is available from that source.

(2.) Most of his work is listed in Araceli García-Carranza, comp., Bio-bibliografía de Don Fernando Ortiz (Havana, Cuba: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 1970).

(3.) See the recent publication of two volumes of such correspondence by Ortiz in Trinidad Pérez Valdés, comp. Correspondencia de Fernando Ortiz, vol. 1: Bregar por Cuba, 1920–1929; vol. 2: Salir al limpio, 1930–39 (Havana, Cuba: Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2014).

(4.) Julio Le Riverend, ed., “Fernando Ortiz y su obra cubana,” In Órbita de Fernando Ortiz, ed. Fernando Ortiz (Havana: Unión de Escritores y Artistas, 1973), 325.

(5.) Jean Price-Mars, “Homenaje a Fernando Ortiz,” La Gaceta de Cuba 4.42 (January–February 1965): 12–13.

(6.) These include historians Pedro Deschamps Chapeaux and José Luciano Franco, folklorists Lydia Cabrera and Rogelio Martínez-Furé, authors Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Barnet, dancer Ramiro Guerra, visual artist Wifredo Lam, composers Alejandro García Caturla and Amadeo Roldán, and musicologists Argeliers León, Jesús Gómez Cairo, and María Teresa Linares.

(7.) Andrew Apter, “Herskovits’ Heritage: Rethinking Syncretism in the African Diaspora,” Diaspora 1.3 (1991): 242.

(8.) Diana Iznaga, Transculturación en Fernando Ortiz (Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1989), 5.

(9.) Roberto Fernández Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 40.

(10.) The first chapter of one of Ortiz’s better-known publications, for instance, refuted the position of many Cuban musicologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries that indigenous influences were exclusively responsible for the unique characteristics of Cuban music. See Fernando Ortiz, La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Universitaria, 1965 [1950]), 1–104.

(11.) Julio Le Riverend, ed., “Fernando Ortiz,” 11.

(12.) Alberto N. Pamies, “Prólogo,” in Los negros brujos (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1973), xx.

(13.) Robin Moore, “Representations of Afrocuban Expressive Culture in the Writings of Fernando Ortiz,” Latin American Music Review 15.1 (Spring–Summer 1994): 35.

(14.) 1898–1902, 1906–1909, and 1917–1922.

(15.) Jorge and Isabel Castellanos, “Castellanos,” in Cultura afrocubana, vol. 2 (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1990), 298.

(16.) Louis A. Pérez, Cuba Under the Platt Amendment, 1902–1934 (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 1986), 211.

(17.) Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 115–116.

(18.) Le Riverend, “Fernando Ortiz,” 13.

(19.) Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla, “Religion in the Work of Fernando Ortiz,” in Cuban Counterpoints: The Legacy of Fernando Ortiz, eds. Mauricio A. Font and Alfonso W. Quiroz (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), 193–205. For further information on child murder cases of the era, see Stephan Palmié, Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 210ff.

(20.) Fernando Ortiz, Los negros brujos (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1973 [1906]), 227.

(21.) Ortiz, Los negros brujos, 232, 235, 235, 242.

(22.) Robin Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920–1940 (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 1997), 62–86.

(23.) Fernando Ortiz, “Las comparsas,” Cuba y América 10.23.9 (1907): 137–138.

(24.) Fernando Ortiz, “Los negros curros,” in Entre cubanos. Psicología tropical (Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1987 [1913]), 90–98.

(25.) Fernando Ortiz, Los negros esclavos (Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1996 [1916]), 13, 40–41.

(26.) Israel Castellanos, “Fernando Ortiz en las ciencias criminológicas,” in Miscelanea de estudios dedicados a Fernando Ortiz (Havana, Cuba: Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, 1955), 2–33.

(27.) Moore, Nationalizing Blackness.

(28.) E.g., see Juan del Morro [Fernando Ortiz], “Cultura, no raza,” Revista bimestre cubana 24.5 (September–October 1929): 716–720.

(29.) Jane Gregory Rubin, ed., Miscelanea II of Studies Dedicated to Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969) (New York: InterAmericas, 1998), 31.

(30.) Fernando Ortiz, “De la música afrocubana: Un estímulo para su estudio,” Universidad de la Habana 1.3 (May–June 1934): 111–125.

(31.) Ortiz, “De la música afrocubana,” 113.

(32.) Fernando Ortiz, “La cubanidad y los negros,” Estudios afrocubanos 3.1–4 (1939): 3.

(33.) See for instance Fernando Ortiz, “Por la integración cubana de blancos y negros,” Revista bimestre cubana 51.2 (March–April 1943): 262.

(34.) Fernando Ortiz, “La poesía mulata, presentación de Eusebia Cosme, la recitadora,” Revista bimestre cubana 24.2–3 (September–December 1934): 205–213.

(35.) Fernando Ortiz, “La poesía mulata,” 210–211.

(36.) Fernando Ortiz, La “clave” xilofónica de la música cubana; ensayo etnográfico (Havana, Cuba: Molina y Cía, 1935).

(37.) Fernando Ortiz, “La música sagrada de los negros yoruba en Cuba,” Ultra 3.13 (July 1937): 77–86.

(38.) E.g., Fernando Ortiz, La africanía, 157.

(39.) La africanía, 163.

(40.) La africanía, 162.

(41.) La africanía, 252.

(42.) La africanía, 162, 449.

(43.) La africanía, 154. The quote is taken from Basden’s Among the Ibos of Nigeria (London: J.B. Lippinkott, 1938), 192–193.

(44.) La africanía, 158. This view is decidedly more pronounced in the 1930s: see his admiration of the prominence of references to buttocks and thighs in afrocubanista poetry as discussed in the article “Los últimos versos mulatos.” Revista bimestre cubana 35.3 (May–June 1935), 328.

(45.) La africanía, 292.

(46.) Ortiz, Los bailes, 238–258.

(47.) Argeliers León, “Prólogo,” in Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1981), 13.

(48.) Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 31.

(49.) La africanía, 299–300.

(50.) La africanía, 106.

(51.) La africanía, 107.

(52.) La africanía, 112.

(53.) La africanía, 322.

(54.) La africanía, 154–155.

(55.) Ortiz, “De la música afrocubana,” 124.

(56.) León, “Prólogo,” 14.

(57.) Fernando Ortiz, “La cubanidad y los negros,” 13.

(58.) La africanía, 154.

(59.) E.g., Fernando Ortiz, “Afro-Cuban Music,” Inter-American Quarterly 1 (1939): 66.

(60.) La africanía, 139–141.

(61.) Ángel Rama, Transculturación Narrativa en América Latina (México, D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1982).

(62.) Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onís (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995 [1940]), 98, 103.

(63.) Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, 103.

(64.) David Garcia, “Contesting Anthropology’s and Ethnomusicology’s Will to Power in the Field: William R. Bascom’s and Richard A. Waterman’s Fieldwork in Cuba, 1948,” MUSICultures 40.2 (2014): 7.

(65.) Thanks to David Garcia for sharing correspondence between Ortiz and Herskovits from 1940 that attests to their exchanges on the topic. See also Bronislaw Malinowski, “Introduction,” in Cuban Counterpoint (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), lvii–lxiv.

(66.) Kevin A. Yelvington, “The Invention of Africa in Latin America and the Caribbean: Political Discourse and Anthropological Praxis, 1920–1940,” in Afro-Atlantic Dialogues: Anthropology in the Diaspora, ed. K. A. Yelvington, 35–82. (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2005), 71–72.

(67.) Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, 102–103.

(68.) See Iznaga, “Transculturación,” 79–80, for additional discussion of these terms.

(69.) Ortiz, “Por la integración.”

(70.) Ortiz, “Por la integración,” 252.

(71.) Fernando Ortiz, “La transculturación negra de los tambores de blancos,” Archivos venezolanos de folklore 1.2 (July–December 1952): 235–265.

(72.) Stephan Palmié, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 97.

(73.) Jorge and Isabel Castellanos, Cultura afrocubana, vol. 4 (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1994), 32.

(74.) Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island. The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, 2d ed., trans. James E. Maraniss (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 150–176.

(75.) Rafael Rojas, “Transculturation and Nationalism,” in Cuban Counterpoints: The Legacy of Fernando Ortiz, eds. Mauricio A. Font and Alfonso W. Quiroz (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), 69.

(76.) Jorge Pavez Ojeda, “Músicos y tambores en la etnomusicología de la transculturación: Fernando Ortiz, los tamboreros de Regla y la etnografía afrocubana,” Latin American Music Review 37.2 (2016): 234.

(77.) Miguel Barnet, “Foreword. La Casa-Templo,” in Miscelanea II of Studies Dedicated to Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969), ed. Rubin (New York: InterAmericas, 1998), 7–10 and 31. See also Miguel Barnet and Ángel L. Fernández, “Prólogo de los editores,” in Ensayos etnográficos, Fernando Ortiz (Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1984), 7–10.

(78.) Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island.

(79.) Fernando Coronil, “Introduction: Transculturation and the Politics of Theory: Centering the Center, Cuban Counterpoint,” in Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar, Fernando Ortiz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), ix–lvi.

(80.) Font and Quiroz, Cuban Counterpoints.

(81.) Le Riverend, “Fernando Ortiz.”

(82.) Iznaga, Transculturación.

(83.) León, “Prólogo.”

(84.) Palmié, Wizards and Scientists; The Cooking of History.

(85.) Alberto Pamies, “Prólogo,” in Los negros brujos, Fernando Ortiz (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1973), vii–xxiii.

(86.) García-Carranza, Bio-bibliografía; Jane Gregory Rubin, ed., Miscelanea II of Studies Dedicated to Fernando Ortiz 1881–1969 (New York: InterAmericas, 1998).

(87.) Julio Le Riverend, comp., Órbita de Fernando Ortiz (Havana, Cuba: UNEAC, 1973).

(88.) Moore, “Representations”; Nationalizing Blackness.

(89.) Pavez Ojeda, “Músicos y tambores.”

(90.) John Gray, Afro-Cuban Music (Nyack, NY: African Diaspora Press, 2012).

(91.) Gerard Béhague, “Reflections on the Ideological History of Latin American Ethnomusicology,” in Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music, eds. Bruno Nettl and Philip Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 56–68.

(92.) Michael Marcuzzi and Helena Simonett, “One Hundred Years of Latin American Music Scholarship: An Overview,” in A Latin American Music Reader: Views From the South, eds. Javier León and Helena Simonett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 1–67.

(93.) Robin Moore, “A Century and a Half of Scholarship on Afro-Latin American Music,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Afro-Latin American Studies, eds. Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

(94.) Fernando Ortiz, “The Afro-Cuban Festival ‘Day of the Kings,’” trans. Jean Stubbs, in Cuban Festivals: An Illustrated Anthology, ed. Judith Bettelheim (New York: Garland, 1993), 3–47.

(95.) Fernando Ortiz, “The Xylophonic ‘Clave’ of Cuban Music: An Ethnographic Essay,” trans. Vernon Boggs (unpublished ms., Center for Social Research, CUNY Graduate Center).

(96.) Fernando Ortiz, The Batá in Cuba: Selected from the Writings of Fernando Ortiz, trans. John Turpin III and B. E. Martínez (Oakland, CA: Institute for the Study of Ancient African Traditions, 1980).

(97.) Fernando Ortiz, “Los factores humanos de la cubanidad” [1940], trans. João Felipe Gonçalves and Duff Morton, HAU: Journal of Anthropological Theory 14.3 (Winter 2014): 445–480.

(98.) Robin Moore, ed. and comp., Fernando Ortiz on Music: Selected Writings on Afro-Cuban Culture (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2018).

(99.) Ortiz, Bregar por Cuba and Salir al limpio.