Book Review

Rebecca M. Bodenheimer. 2015. Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi. 328pp. ISBN 978-1-62846-2-395 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Iván Darías Alfonso, independent scholar

Keywords: Afro-Cuban traditions and practices; Cuba; national identity; race; rumba

Many studies on Cuban music have appeared in the last two decades (see for example Sublette 2004; Perna 2005; Moore 2006; Baker 2011; Vaughan 2012), giving credence to its importance as a prevailing marker of national identity and as a subject suitable for theorizations about culture, class and race in post-soviet Cuba. Geographies of Cubanidad by Rebecca Bodenheimer explores these complexities by looking at the implications of music and musical practices in terms of defining place and region.

Bodenheimer’s emphasis on regionalism and racial identities provides a novel framework to discuss issues of identity and at the same time trivializes a pervasive official discourse on nation and identity and the politics of race in revolutionary Cuba. Although this is not an unexplored topic in previous academic research conducted on the island and its diaspora, Bodenheimer contributes with a rather original focus by examining the role of music in establishing/reproducing the impact of regional differences and notions of belonging.

Often research on Cuba focuses on historiographical accounts in order to explain the influence and importance of the slave diaspora in national culture. However, this monograph relies on a more contemporary account of everyday life in current Cuban society. On the one hand, this helps in contextualizing musical practices in the whole fabric of the island’s society; on the other, it enables a discussion of controversial topics such as race and national identity, which are generally absent from the official discourse on the island.

In such a context, music becomes a useful marker to theorize about local and regional differences and about the interplay of race and national identity outside the official discourse of “Cubanidad”. Although the impact of Cuban music and its history has been the aim of several academic books since the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, very few of these have engaged in a discussion about the impact of music and musical practices outside Havana. While Geographies of Cubanidad also leaves out an important portion of the national territory and its particular musical history, it nevertheless contributes a more diverse focus to the growing literature on Cuban music studies.

Bodenheimer focuses on the analysis of well-known musical controversies during the 1980s, which illustrate the East/West divide over the years. She supplements her analysis with ethnographic accounts of musical events both in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. In this regard, the amount of information provided is quite remarkable since, as she acknowledges, the aftermath of the Special Period has made the exchanges between Havana and the rest of the Cuban provinces less frequent. In addition, with the emergence of international tourism, the Cuban capital has been positioned as the hegemonic place in order to represent Cuba and its culture.

While Bodenheimer’s examples of songs representing these controversies were well chosen and her textual analysis justifies their inclusion, her discussion on the impact of songs in society would have benefited from including analysis of the official media in reproducing and reinforcing the geographical and social divide. Anecdotal evidence appears to be valid to demonstrate the role of popular music in highlighting differences, but such an impact would have been unlikely without official media and a cultural policy, which although reluctant to support criticism from within, always promoted popular music as entertainment for the masses. As the book reveals, the official media were always instrumental in marginalizing expressions of popular culture which deviated from the “white” European canon. However, especially after the end of the support from the Socialist Bloc, it was through the media that the timba boom became a reality. With the increased presence of popular music on national media, timba became more common in the country’s carnivals, popular music festivals and large-scale events, where it was played with fewer restrictions than on national TV.

Geographies of Cubanidad clearly challenges Havana’s privileged position as the centre of Cuban culture and the author provides enough arguments to highlight the importance of localized cultural practices in shaping what can be termed national culture. It is also worth pointing out that Bodenheimer promotes an important body of research done over the years by Cuban academics, especially those from Santiago de Cuba’s Casa del Caribe, which so far has gained little attention by official cultural authorities and policy makers. In acknowledging their input, she is also distancing herself from the previous literature on Cuban music and cultural practices, written by other western academics, who generally ignored the work of these Cuban scholars or failed to cite their work even though they used it in their research.

Another important contribution of Geographies of Cubanidad relates to the author’s arguments which aim to debunk stereotypes and common assumptions about locality and place within Cuba. Bodenheimer’s analysis redefines the region of Matanzas as a cradle of Afro-Cuban culture rather than the cradle, and in doing so offers a useful set of tools to overcome some essentialist debates about culture and locality in scholarship about Cuba. Likewise, analysing Oriente as the most racially mixed region of the island rather than “the blackest” should also help towards gaining an accurate perspective on the prevalence of race and racialized cultural practices in present-day Cuba. Geographies of Cubanidad makes an important contribution to the growing scholarly interest in Cuban music studies and has much to offer researchers of world popular music.


Baker, G. 2011. Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Moore, Robin D. 2006. Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Perna, V. 2005. Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis. Farnham: Ashgate.

Sublette, N. 2004. Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Vaughan, U. 2012. Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity in Cuba. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.