The Cultural Politics of Caribbean Sound

Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); 280 pages; ISBN 978-0-520-26283-6 (paper).

• August 2011

In his ambitious study of circum-Caribbean sonic cultures, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas, Martin Munro examines the concept of rhythm as it has been negotiated across the racialized contexts of slavery, colonialism, and creolization, as well as in relationship to forms of cultural and political resistance such as Negritude, Haitian indigenism, and Black Power.

Munro blends literary, historical, and ethnomusicological tools of analysis as he examines rhythm as “one of the most persistent and malleable markers of race, both in racist white thought and in liberatory black counter-discourse” (4). For Munro, formations of rhythm in the Americas arise within music and verse (most specifically through the “beats” that structure, underline, and punctuate these forms) while also reflecting complexly felt experiential conditions including temporality, labor, confinement, repression, and resistance. The generative breadth Munro uses to define rhythm as not merely sonic but an equally psychological and physiological orientation compellingly pushes the theoretical scope of the book into addressing the phenomenological, corporeal, and temporal aspects of sound.

Offering an historical lens on the prehistory of circum-Caribbean rhythm, Munro references formative musicological studies from Susan McClary and Jacqueline Rosemain to explain how European ideas of civilization, order, progress, class, and religion were employed in a transatlantic “crusade against rhythm,” an ideological pursuit that facilitated “a means of self-definition through perceived contrasts with the black other” (9–10). For Munro, rhythm not only underlines these binaristic notions of race and culture at the core of European identity politics; it also reflects the more fluid “creolized reverberations of the slaves’ entire historical experience, from Africa through the Middle Passage to the plantation” (20). Indeed, one of the strengths of Munro’s work lies in his unwillingness to rely upon fixed conceptualizations of race and culture, as he complicates the idea of rhythm as a pure, unmediated mode of black sonic resistance by instead tracing the more-layered sensibilities and inclinations toward “Caribbean rhythmicity” that “mirrored, echoed, and partially purged the alienating reality of slave existence” (20–21). The evocative nature of Munro’s “partially” animates this study in quite productive ways, serving as an acknowledgement of the often uneven and ephemeral intersections of sound, race, and memory. For instance, when Munro alludes to Maya Deren’s reflection on the “sound of the crack of the slave whip,” echoing the “never-to-be-forgotten ghost” of resistance during enslavement, we might aurally recall the opening lines of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver” as another testament to the rhythmic aspects of racial consciousness (21).

Munro’s first chapter, “Beating Back Darkness: Rhythm and Revolution in Haiti,” argues that Haitian cultural history can be read in respect to the valorization, refusal, and reappropriation of rhythm as a signifier of blackness. Initially an organizing and fear-inspiring force used against the French during the struggle for independence, rhythm becomes regulated through the hierarchal attitudes of the Haitian creole elite toward the peasant classes during the early years of the black republic, specifically as a sign of the “internal otherness” invoked by the rhythmic forms of Vodou (50). These power relationships regarding sound and rhythm emerge from Haiti’s paradoxical formation of early postcolonial modernity that both embraced and refused the “especially ‘African,’ aspects of Haitian culture” (51). 

Munro also focuses on the understudied period of the United States military occupation of Haiti (1915–34), arguing that the indigenist efforts to recuperate African rhythm in the face of occupation still heavily relied on romanticized notions of Haitian black identity. Thus, he positions indigenism as a self-interested effort of the creole elite that “should not be seen as an open embrace . . . of the Haitian peasantry but as a movement that selectively appropriated aspects of Africanized culture for its own ends” (76). Munro’s point suffers somewhat due to the fact that he does not portray the insurgent voices of the peasantry (on their own terms and outside of the representational gazes of elites and artists heavily influenced by Haiti's relationship to ideas of modernity) until the last paragraph of the chapter, in which he refers to the dynamic energy of bat teneb, the “beating back darkness” of the book’s title, a “spontaneous rhythmic beating of spoons, metals, and other percussive materials” that projects a cry of protest from the suffering Haitian working and peasant classes against their political and social marginalization (76–77). If Munro made this historically fluid example of rhythmic resistance a starting point rather than an ending point in the chapter, he might provide a more capacious framing of rhythmic resistance to hegemonic formations of cultural power. Bracketing this point, however, Munro’s overarching critical framework is clearly in productive conversation with other recent studies of Haitian modernity penned by Sybille Fischer, Laurent Dubois, Susan Buck-Morss, and David Scott1—pushing aspects of these works quite usefully into realms of sonic cultural production, transmission, and reception.

In the second chapter, “Rhythm, Creolization, and Conflict in Trinidad,” Munro examines the “colonial fear and [the] repression of rhythm” throughout the history of Carnival and the development of Calypso (78). He addresses the historical layers of French, Spanish, British, and US influence and control through detailing specific factors such as the role of early-twentieth-century American jazz culture in helping to shape the reception of Calypso among the Trinidadian elite. Building on the work of critics such as Gordon Rohlehr, Munro makes many astute connections  between the evolution of Trinidadian rhythmic production, Calypso as a form of political critique, the social history of class and power divisions within the colonial society, and  the shift from wood and bamboo instrumentation into the more metallic sounds and rhythms of the steelbands. He also takes care to begin configuring the movement from wood and bamboo instrumentation into a far more metallic musical soundscape of the steelbands. Munro’s rigorous examination of this national history does, however, reflect a tendency in the structure of the book to account for circum-Caribbean race and rhythm in a more discrete than expansive fashion. For, while all of Munro’s sites (i.e., Haiti, the French Caribbean more broadly, Trinidad, and the United States) certainly deserve his attention, once each is presented with a degree of singularity and seriality, key conceptual questions arise. How, for instance, might a sonic cultural history of the circum-Caribbean account for the crucial roles Jamaican and hispanophone Caribbean sounds have played within this matrix? Indeed, in what ways might we read rhythm across, rather than congruent to, the linguistic frameworks of Caribbean identity? Perhaps Munro could have more fully approached these queries through chapters that were thematically organized around examinations of the transnational and diasporic continuum of black music in the Americas, rather than being steeped within the series of national contexts he chooses to explore.

Munro’s skill as a close reader of both prose and poetry marks his analysis of rhythm in the work of Negritude and post-Negritude writers such as Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, Leon-Gontran Damas, Frantz Fanon, Joseph Zobel, Edouard Glissant, and Daniel Maximin. Munro’s argument echoes his overall concern with destabilizing rigid dichotomies of race, as he sharply critiques what he sees as the “essentialist” strains of Senghor and, to a lesser extent, Césaire and Damas. Munro’s readings, while extensive and rigorous, at times do tend to emphasize the more literal emanations of the rhythmic. When he turns to the later stages of Negritude and post-Negritude writing, however, such as in his reading of Glissant’s Le quatrieme siecle, Munro elegantly renders the movement of rhythm between formations of music, historical experience, and narration: “Glissant’s storyteller lays his trust in sounding the rhythms and pulses of the past, in letting them invade his sensibility and feeling them come to him in their own movements and their own time, a process that confounds the notion of an easily understandable historical teleology” (162). Munro’s writing is at its strongest and most convincing as he reconceptualizes the rhythmic through frameworks of hybridity, multivocality, and improvisation (most notably in his elaborate reading of Maximin’s Lone Sun) that offer politicized visions of circum-Caribbean rhythm as “a primary conduit for the most inventive and revolutionary theorizations of black culture and black existence” (181).

There is clearly an investment in theorizing the intersections of sound, race, and political struggle throughout this work, and Munro’s contemplation of black nationalist perspectives on rhythm heightens as he analyzes the ways in which James Brown’s innovative recasting of rhythm is “incorporated into a notion of black aesthetics that served a politicized notion of African American culture as a largely homogeneous, untainted entity” (183). Critically wary of this connection between identity politics and rhythmic invention, Munro argues that the mid-1960s watershed creation of Brown’s funk grooves demonstrates that the distinctiveness of black cultural identity “was not something to be recuperated from the past but a new thing to be created and re-created endlessly into the future” (193). He is right to resist the approaches of those critics (both black and white) whose perspectives reduce the dynamic qualities of the music into political and cultural tropes, yet Munro’s focus on dismissing what he sees as tendencies toward primitivism and biological determinism within the writings on black music by figures such as Amiri Baraka overlooks the ways in which Baraka’s work from the period acknowledged the fundamental conditions of fusion, hybridity, and adaptation that governed black expressive practices. Also, it seems that a closer reading of Baraka’s essays on black music and of Fred Moten’s critical engagement with Baraka (which Munro uses heavily in his critique of Baraka) might disclose the presence of a far more layered and complex matrix of identity politics and cultural hybridity within Baraka’s work, thus complicating rather than reifying the all too commonly asserted assumptions regarding the rigidity of black cultural nationalist thought.

Even considering the few constrictive spaces of Munro’s book, his work charts indispensable methodological paths for scholars to examine and reassess the role of rhythm within studies of Caribbean sonic culture. Likewise, Munro’s Different Drummers convincingly outlines the necessary convergence of Caribbean studies with the critical approaches shaping the emerging field of sound studies, and in this capacity, will certainly be a work that will help shape the new directions being taken in these fields.


Carter Mathes is an assistant professor at Rutgers University. He is currently writing a book titled “Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post–Civil Rights African American Literature,” a study examining the relationship between sound, social transformation, and literary innovation during the shifting racial climate of the 1960s to 1980s. He is planning a second project that focuses on the circulation of black radical thought between Jamaica and the United States during the late twentieth century.


See Sybille Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009); and David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).


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