Identity Crisis....

During my translation of Las Caras Lindas by Ismael Rivera, I was deeply moved by the lyrics and did some writing.  It was an emotional day and so I was pretty scattered, but I think it only makes sense to share it here.

American, Euro-American, Me?

Here's the scenario: I'm sitting in the kitchen of my apartment in Old San Juan listening to Las Caras Lindas by Ismael Rivera.  I'm translating it word by word and crying.  It is absolute poetry.  I'm moved deeply by it's meaning, metaphor, and emotion.  Ismael, one of Puerto Rico's beloved singers, sings about the "beautiful faces of his black people:"

The pretty faces of my black people
Are a parade of molasses in bloom
When they pass in front of me
They're cheerful in their blackness, with all of their hearts

The molasses that laughs
The molasses that cries
We are the molasses that loves
And in each kiss, movement

They are the truth that life challenges
But they have so much love inside

Oh, I'm a mess; crying again as I write this.  The rub is that I'm a white guy from Seattle.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  I just don't know what I am culturally.  I've never cried so deeply upon learning an Irish tune, or an English song, or a Willie Nelson song.  I loved Las Caras Lindas musicially long before I had any idea what it meant.  But now I know what it means and I feel like I can't sing:

The beautiful faces of my brown race
Who cry with pain and sorrow...

To be of Anglo decent in America in the 21st century can be a challenge.  I've spent my musical adulthood clinging to "other" musics - in particular music of the Caribbean.  I consider it "other" because I'm a white guy from Seattle.  But then, am I limiting my own sense of culture because of my skin color.  Regardless of my upbringing or family history, if I were "of color" I think I might allow myself to have a deeper kinship with this music - even apart from Ismael's lyrics. 

Let's remove the skin color and just look, and listen, to my influences.  My dad sang Little Darlin' by the Original Diamonds while Burle hacked away at a bossa nova beat on the claves, an Afro-Caribbean instrument.  One of my favorite albums in my teen years was Joe Jackson's Night and Day.  Almost every track features Latin salsa musicians from New York, and my favorite cut - Cancer - was a Cha Cha with a killer piano solo in the style of Eddie Palmieri - another Puerto Rican hero.  I listened to that tune a hundred times.

All of these musical styles grew from the fusion of African, European, and indigenous cultures, primarily in the Caribbean and eastern coasts of the Americas.  The slave trade brought Africans who, although they didn't have their instruments, had their music intact in their bones and used whatever they could find to create new instruments and make music.  This music mingled with the musics of the native people and with European music.  It's a terribly unfortunate history, but through it grew new styles that now celebrate life through community and dance.  Jazz is in there too.

So where am I in this history?  Don't I actually belong in the lineage?  Isn't there even a sliver of me that's African?  That's Latino?  Personally I don't think that I have to consider myself "other" than these cultures.  Where am I?

Right now I am, in fact, in Puerto Rico.  For whatever reason I followed my musical tendencies of 25 or so years to this place - to study a music that feels more home to me than any other.  And that brings me back to my original point.  On the one hand I'm so grateful that I have found something that makes me cry, that moves me deeply, that calls me with such seduction as to convince me to leave my family and friends for four months and learn as much as I can about it.  But on the other hand, is there something lacking in my own culture or heritage, that I have to search thousands of miles away to feel whole?  And then no matter how long I stay here or how hard I study, could I never sing Ismael's song?

In one moment I'm filled with a depth of life I would hope for everyone and in the next I'm an empty shell, feeling like I don't belong.  It's like the tree is strong, but the roots don't go very deep.  I'm all up here, in the air, with branches reaching out for culture and learning.  Is that what it means to be (Euro) American?  The search?  Frontiers?  Focused more on what's ahead than what we leave behind?  What legacy does this leave my children?  "Keep moving forward?"  Is that the tradition?  It's not much of a stretch to see the oxymoron there.  "Our tradition is to leave tradition behind and seek out something new."  I must play the game here:  "But if I'm supposed to leave tradition behind and leaving tradition behind 'is' the tradition, then shouldn't I stay right where I am?"

Yes, my child, you should.  Unless something calls you...

Comments

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Rick Houle March 13, 2014 @09:56 pm
I have had similar feelings here in the USA I grew up on polka and country western music I was in a rock band in high school But I love music of the black culture and music of the Latino culture Who am I ? A faker An intruder I don't own the depth of those who grew up in the culture At some point I think you just say"Fuck it, I'm a musician with high ideals" and just play I mean Larry Harlow is a Jew from Brooklyn If you make good music that's all that matters

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