Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Challenges to Scholars as Public Intellectuals: How to promote relevant and meaningful venues of cultural and civic dialogues in polarizing times" By Eva Silot Bravo

By Eva Silot Bravo. All Rights Reserved

Eva Silot Bravo, PhD. 
Visiting Assistant Professor
University of Miami 

Presentation at the International Academic Forum in honor of Dr. George Yudice. University of Miami. April 7-8, 2017.

 “We risk becoming the best-informed society that has ever died of ignorance.” Ruben Blades 

Challenges to scholars as public intellectuals: How to promote relevant and meaningful venues of cultural and civic dialogue in polarizing times. 

- Scholars as Public Intellectuals 

The conditions for knowledge production, the role of intellectual debates, the promotion of dialogues among different ethnic, cultural and ideological groups, the relevance of academia and a diverse and sound public education system are under scrutiny in the complex and polarizing times we are experiencing today. The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other journalistic and non-profit publications, systematically report on the erosions within the academic world. Several articles warn about the pressures to streamline and cut funds and to downsize the humanities. An increased number of graduate students face a jobless and troublesome market. The adjunctification of the academic young work force is a serious question. Tenure track processes are full of arbitrariness and subjectivities. Young scholars lack protection and the gender pay gap still affects many women scholars. The above progressively generates an environment of uncertainties and distrust, and compromise the independence and importance of academia in the 21st century. 

As it’s known, the bureaucratization of knowledge production and the writing process in academia is centered in peer-reviewed publications. As a result, many scholars are constrained to write for readers in their own discipline, without regard to public engagement or social impact beyond the university walls. Others simply have neither the time nor the interest to engage with the injustice and challenges systematically taking place in their immediate surroundings. In the meantime, higher education costs and tuition-related debts are on the rise, practices of open anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, virtual trolling and different forms of discrimination to minorities are painful and commonplace occurrences among certain sectors in our society. Open-ended and heated political discussion on social networks often turn into battlefields driven by personal insults and verbal aggressions. 

There’s an increased gap and apparent impossibility to find middle ground positions between the left and the right on many important issues, such as climate change, gun control, reproductive health, quality of education and affordable health, among others. The increased polarization of the political life mobilizes virtual debates and resistance, but increasingly promotes apathy, distress and alienation. Just consider the increased number of people, around 43 %, who simply don’t vote in the U.S. elections. Despite the promises of the liberal discourse, competitiveness and lack of empathy is highly visible in the social and academic fabric. Many people feel either left behind, don’t know or dismiss the benefits of a culture of dialogue, and distrust intellectuals and the left. 

Of course, there’s always the possibility to portray a more positive context considering other variables. My goal is not to depict an apocalyptic vision of the context where we operate, but to highlight the urgency, potential and shared responsibility we have in addressing the challenging trends described above, which are increasingly difficult to avoid. 

Like many of you, I spent quite some time thinking in depth about these questions. I don’t pretend to have the solutions to the queries posed. However, that doesn’t prevent me to advance some opinions to continue promoting this pressing debate. The challenges are real and affect us all. The Gramscian debate about the role of intellectuals and the transformational capabilities of social consciousness in everyday life is still relevant and should be updated, considering the unavoidable problems we face today. The time is now to put our capacities and imagination to a greater service. 

- Changing Times and the Academic Debate 

After the collapse of the socialist eastern European bloc at the end of the 20th century, some academic and public debates proclaimed optimistically “the end of history”, the globalization of the “benefits” of capitalism worldwide, and the decline of nations and nationalism with the emergence of “a global village.”1 The increased pace of technological developments prompted an environment of greater interconnectivity, human mobility and ideational exchange across the globe. Online transactions and electronic media increasingly mediate human interactions and prompt the emergence of faster and instant ways of communicating through a seemingly unlimited virtual space. 

1 For more detailed accounts on the relationship between the global condition and narratives of nations and nationalism see Levitt; Fukuyama; Huntington; James Tulloc; and Appadurai in Modernity

Since the turn of the 21st century, narratives and human interactions are mainly constructed, negotiated and disseminated through social media and mobile communication. The processing of information takes center stage as an important mode of production across the globe. Virtual communities became relevant actors for artistic, intellectual and social agency. Metanarratives, modern values and the historicity of memories have been under interrogation, while skepticism and relativism prevails. Patriarchal orders and traditional gender roles are increasingly put into question, contested and modified (Nemoainu, 3-17). As a result, public and academic debates concurred on the limitations of modern narratives like nationalism, national identity and national subject, to represent the diversity and complex reality of “other” relevant subjects, identities and narratives, such as transnationalism, blacks, migrants, women, queers, the displaced, the marginalized and dissidents. This approach looked critically and warned us about the constraints posed to the human imagination and cultural creation by authoritarian and elitist discursive practices of normative national institutions. 

The praise of globalization also brought an increased disbelief towards the modern “anxiety” to categorize and conceptualize, resulting in changing aesthetics and a scholarly fashion of contestation and/or deconstruction of foundational modern narratives. Postmodern debates announced repeatedly “the death of the intellectual” as a disenfranchised elite. However, with the shifting global map of the latest revival of fundamentalist nationalism in different parts of the world, from both the left and the right, there’s a renewed need to critically address the challenges posed by the process of globalization, not only to developing but also to developed economies, to better approach the understanding of cultural practices, processes of identity negotiation and the search for meaningful spaces for peaceful coexistence. More importantly, there’s an imperative to re-examine the somewhat superseded debate over the power of narratives of nations and national identity, as referential and protective mechanisms in times of crisis vis a vis. the expectations associated with the emergence of a global village. 

Another critical debate that needs to be at center stage is the instrumental role of national narratives as tools of ideological and political manipulation of the forgotten masses across the world that no country is exempted to experience, despite how “advanced” its immersion in the global context is or could have been perceived. In Nation and Nationalism, Gellner provides important coordinates to examine this question. He focuses on the instrumental view of nationalism as an organizational and ideological tool through which power subjects and institutions impose the idea of national identity as a force of ideological, political and cultural homogenization. As Gellner indicates, nationalism is an important referent for power institutions and agents to impose certain values and cultural practices, aesthetic preferences and canons. As a result, narratives of nationalism promote elitism, hierarchies, silences, repression and exclusion of other subjects and narratives they fail to represent. 

Cuba is an interesting example of Gellner’ claims about the instrumental character of nationalism in the hands of political and ideological institutions to promote notions of cultural identity bounded to a nation-state. The official revolutionary discourse generated a national identity tied to the revolution as cubanidad’s origin and destiny (Rojas, Una Isla 49-50). The government promoted the rewriting of narratives of the Cuban past in all political, cultural and educational institutions. The media and cultural industries are in the government hands. For the longest time, any private initiative was considered illegal and penalized. This top-down political process led to the adoption of a highly ideological, defensive and “messianic” nationalistic discourse, which became rapidly embedded in a “culture of the masses”. The revolutionary government undertook a very centralized and ideological construction of a new national project with a wide populist appeal that soon began criminalizing any acts of criticism, dissent and/or opposition. Those who disagreed with state tutelage were ostracized, repressed or fled the island. 

All these elements shaped the official discourse after 1959 as a site of bilateral and irreconcilable confrontation with its enemies, “the other” against which the Cuban revolutionary nation was constructed. That discourse took the shape of a narrative of isolation and messianic exceptionality that has been constantly exploited by the Cuban government: A small Caribbean developing nation, entrusted with the “historical” mission to “resist” and “oppose” the largest hegemonic power in the world. To emulate Cuba as the biblical small David fighting against the giant Goliath became a common image used by the Cuban official discourse. The “other” against which the Cuban nation was constructed since 1959 would include a range of actors, from hostile enemies of the revolution, all those who critique and oppose the government ideas, to any internal opposition, any intellectual critique enacted in texts or by individuals, the United States governments and especially Cuban exiles. Duany observes that one of the results of this ideological projection has been the exclusion of the diaspora, and I would add of any dissident voices and critical narratives, from any serious reflection on the Cuban nation (34-35). 

With commending exceptions, Cuban studies is an academic field where the effects of the Cuban government propaganda, fear, double standards and “political correctness” is yet an unfortunate practice in the 21st century. Cuban studies are still far from having a real impact in Cuban-American and local affairs, where important sectors of younger Cuban migrants tend to replicate the Republican anti-intellectualism and conservatism from the Cold War era. When are we going to release, once and for all, the sequestering of an open-ended examination of Cuban issues beyond the never-ending debate between the left and the right? For how much longer are we going to postpone a serious consideration of the exclusions, silences and repression made by the Cuban nation-state in the name of the revolution to its own citizens, particularly the diaspora, and to any critical voices? It’s time to recognize the shared responsibility that the intellectual sector and the academia have in this scenario. Otherwise, we face the danger of remaining in closed circles of false sanctuary, self-complacency and of becoming more irrelevant. 

National imaginaries have been among the most salient epistemological frameworks to comprehend, organize, and represent the human experience since the onset of Modernity, with the emergence of print media, colonialism and the spread of a Western “rationality” associated with the so-called Enlightenment period. Thinking about the global era, Appadurai perceived a different process of cultural imagination where the global is imagined at the local level through increasing flows of mass mediated images aided by electronic technologies and migration. In his view, this process of imagination creates diasporic public spheres as alternative spaces that represent sites of encounter and contestation to nation-state interests. Stuart Hall situates the process of articulation between the global and the local in the realm of cultural identity, as a multidimensional positioning of being, belonging, identification and rupture with historical and cultural common narratives from the past (223-225). 

Nationalism is not only an instrument of power and ideology, but also a complex narrative space where values, structures of feeling, cultural practices, social contracts and norms are constantly negotiated. Despite being highly revisited, Anderson’s conceptualization of nationalism as “imagined communities” is once again relevant nowadays, by inviting to explore the power of narratives of nationalism not mainly as tool for ideological manipulation, but because they develop a strong sense of emotional awareness and belonging coalesced by certain cultural symbols, texts, and technologies that people massively could respond to. Anderson remind us about the emotional and psychological power of narratives of nationalism when they are embraced by certain individuals, groups and communities as symbols of patriotism. He highlights historically how people have even died or killed in the name of nationalism, or to defend a sense of belonging and identity to certain groups when they feel fundamentally threatened. 

-Conclusions. What are we going to do? 

The promises associated with the emancipatory power of technological advancements and the global era have also been curtailed by the overload of information, especially of fake and trash news, and the emergence of notions of alternative facts. There’s a return to old themes like the denial of scientific knowledge, the profound disconnection of the political establishment beyond the electoral process and the threats to the scrutiny of the press to the political establishment, among others. 

The crisis of utopia, brought by the fall of the socialist bloc, the degradation of the environment and the welfare system by predatory neoliberal practices, and an excessive optimism about the benefits of the global condition and the end of history, has prompted a curious moment characterized by dystopia, double standards and the emergence of fundamentalist nationalisms. But for those who acknowledge history as moments of cyclical development, this moment is certainly an opportunity to use our imagination and human capital in more creative ways to constructively and actively contribute to the current state of affairs. 

Scholars like George Yudice, among others present here, have consistently promoted cultural policy activism through his research, and by establishing bridges of communication between academia and nonacademic policy making and cultural institutions. That is a concrete example of a path to public intellectualism, which could be adapted as a more systematic practice in our scholarly endeavors. 

We need to enhance the promotion of relevant spaces of dialogue and interaction with other nonacademic, local and international actors beyond ideological positioning and self-complacency. Academic debates could benefit more by engaging in difficult but necessary conversations about the impact of the current political context in our work environment. 

We could also empower local communities, particularly relevant local actors in the humanities. We should try to “represent” less and reach out more, and to establish spaces of mutual learning with “other” agents of knowledge and activism at the local and global levels. We need to engage in action oriented debates to preserve the humanities from the devastating consequences of privatization and monetary centered results to our programs and the academic work force. 

We need to be realistic and transparent with our graduate students about their prospects in the academic world and the job market in the current times. We should find the motivation to move beyond our individual agendas, making universities more open-ended spaces of encounter and communication that promote multidisciplinary conversations and collaborative projects. 

In this task, Yudice’s findings on the multiple uses of Culture as a resource to ultimately improve the human condition locally and globally are more relevant than ever before. 

Works Cited 
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1994. Print. 
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print. 
Duany, Jorge. “From the Cuban Ajiaco to the Cuban-American Hyphen: Changing Discourses of National Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora.” Cuban Studies Association Occasional Papers. Paper 16. 2.8 (15 October 1997). 1-31. Print. 
Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print. 
Gramsci, Antonio. Selection from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Print 
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence, 1990. 222-237. Print. 
Nemoainu, Virgil. Postmodernism & Cultural Identities: Conflicts and Coexistence. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010. Print. 
Rojas, Rafael. Una isla sin fin. Contribución a la crítica del nacionalismo cubano. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1998. Print. 

Yúdice, George. The Expediency of Culture. Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

My per-reviewed article "Cubanidad in Between: The Transnational Cuban Alternative Music Scene" is published at the Latin American Music Review Journal.

Happy to share a Link to the new issue of Latin American Music Review journal (Spring-Summer 2017), where I publish a per-reviewed article, entitled: "Cubanidad in between: The Transnational Cuban Alternative Music Scene."

For the PDF full text click here 

The article is part of one chapter of my PhD. dissertation, where I provide my analysis about the network of music collaborations, aesthetic connections and discourses among Cuban singer-songwriters and academically trained musicians who migrated in the last 25 years like Gema Corredera Pavel Urkiza Julio Fowler Habana Abierta  Yosvany Terry Dafnis Prieto Yusa Mar Descemer Bueno Eidel Morales (Mr. Haka), Cubiche, among many others, through cities like Madrid, New York and Miami. Thanks to Manny A. Diaz for the cover art.

Here's the article abstract in English and Spanish

This article examines the music production and discourse of the transnational Cuban alternative music scene (TCAMS), a prolific diasporic network of Cuban singers, songwriters, and academically trained musicians. Through ethnographic research I map this transnational music scene throughout local, nonmainstream, and online music circuits. The TCAMS employs fusion as its main musical language, showcasing a strong musical and educational background. These musicians' transnational identities and discourses are in constant negotiation and assume apparent depoliticized and dystopian discourses in relation to dominant narratives of Cubanness. TCAMS is an "in between" transnational space of music creation, a shifting aesthetic and generational scene in the alternative context of Cuban music. It deconstructs the territoriality of Cuban music production and projects a postnational Cuban soundscape at the turn of the century.

Este artículo examina prácticas de producción musical y de discurso de la escena transnacional cubana de música alternativa (ETCMA), una prolífera red de colaboración entre cantantes, cantautores y músicos entrenados académicamente en Cuba. A través de un trabajo etnográfico, el texto mapea a esta escena en circuitos de música locales, no comerciales y redes sociales. La fusión es el principal lenguaje musical de ETCMA, exhibe un sólido background educacional y musical. Las identidades y discursos transnacionales de estos músicos están en constante negociación y asumen discursos aparentemente despolitizados y distópicos con relación a narrativas dominantes de cubanidad. ETCMA es un espacio "in between" de creación musical transnacional, una escena de cambios estéticos y generacionales en el contexto de la música cubana alternativa. Esta escena de música deconstruye la territorialidad de la producción musical cubana y proyecta un paisaje sonoro cubano posnacional de cambio de siglo.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Artists invited to my class on Cuban music at the University of Miami, Spring 2017: Yusa, Pavel Urquiza, Vanito Brown and Ariel Fernandez-DJ Asho

During the Spring 2017 semester, I designed and taught the class SPA 322 "Cuban music: Readings and critical auditions on imaginaries about the nation and the diaspora," for undergraduate students at the University of Miami. In this class, students were able to improve their writing, listening and oral skills in Spanish, while learning, developing critical skills and producing knowledge on cultural aspects about Latin-American topics, in this case on Cuban music and negotiations of identity.

The class provided a historical overview throughout some of the most important Cuban music genres since the 19th century, from Rumba to Reggeaton. It explored the influence of music in the process of negotiation of the idea of a Cuban nation, as well as on negotiations of national, diasporic and transnational identities within and outside the island, throughout historical time and geographical spaces.

An important component of the class was to provide students with firsthand interactions with Cuban musicians living in diaspora since the last 25 year, specially singer-songwriters and academically trained musicians. For that purpose, I invited Yusa, Vanito Brown, Pavel Urquiza and Ariel Fernandez-Dj Asho. They are among the protagonists of the important process of transnationalization and renaissance of Cuban music production that is taking place throughout the world since the 1990s crisis.

-Pavel Urquiza

Pavel Urquiza was the first invitee, under the section on Cuban Fusion. He is one of the protagonist of what I call Cuban Fusion, which refers to the music produced between Cuban singer-songwriters and jazz musicians since the 1990s throughout the world. 

Cuban fusion is for the most part underground or alternative (non-mainstream), relies heavily in ad-hoc collaborations and improvisation, and transcends generic borders. It's highly informed by timba, boleros, guaracha, La Nueva Trova and Afrocuban rhythms, in an open-ended dialogue with an array of world music genres like funk, jazz, pop, hip-hop, cumbia, reggae, Argentinian rock, Brazilian songs and others. Cuban fusion is also informed by the generational and individual subjectivities, education, references, frustrations, illusions and aesthetics of these musicians, who massively became migrants and are dispersed throughout the world. 

In his presentation, Pavel expanded on one of his latest and more important projects so far, his double album and documentary La ruta de las almas (2014). The project traces back the ancestral human connections prompted by music from Persia to Patagonia, throughout 30 cities and with the participation of 50 musicians. He also talked about another project on the making, which focuses on the tambor (drum) culture across the world.

-Ariel Fernandez DJ Asho


Ariel was closely involved with the Cuban hip-hop movement in the island since the 1990s. Before the class, the students read an article wrote by Ariel for La Jiribilla, "Poesía urbana o la nueva trova de los noventa" (2001), where he provides his views on the origins and challenges faced by the Cuban rap and hip-hop movement.

Under the class' section about this type of music, Ariel provided a comprehensive presentation about the historical presence of African traditions since the origins of rumba, the emergence of Afrocuban jazz in New York during the 1940s, the filing song movement in the island and the consolidation of Cuban rap and hip-hop as a movement in the late 1990s. He also highlighted the historical influence of American music in Cuba, such as in most of the music genres mentioned before, and specially salient in the appropriation of jazz band sonorities like in the case of legendary Benny More. 

He situated Cuban rap and hip-hop as one of the most important examples of American music' appropriations by Cubans in the island. Beyond that, Ariel also considered the developments of this music genre in the island the result of a local need from the marginal and black populations to have a voice, as the most affected social sectors by the nineties' crisis.

-Vanito Brown

Vanito is one of the founding members of Habana Abierta, a music collective often regarded as the “generational voice” of the 1990s. He indicated he was part of a group of singers, songwriters and bohemians who spontaneously interacted in Havana at the time, in gatherings like La Peña de 13 y 8, and undergrounds bands such as Lucha Almada, Superávit, Cuatro Gatos, Cachivache, Debajo and En Serie. Those gatherings and bands mapped out an alternative music scene in the midst of the most severe post-revolutionary crisis. As a result, most of these musicians eventually migrated and spread out throughout the world.

From diverse and mostly self-trained music backgrounds, these musicians updated the legacy of La Nueva and La Novísima Trova with multiple references common to their generational music universe referred before. Vanito also talked about the origins of Habana Abierta, his career in Spain, and he shared details about H.A. two successful come back presentations in Havana, despite the lack of support from the cultural establishment. 

Vanito provided an overview on his career as a soloist. He showed the class his two latest videos: Chévere (2014), recorded in Havana and featuring a song from his latest album Norte, Sur, Este y Aquel; and the making of Bolero Inaudito (2016), a song he composed twenty years ago in Madrid together with singer songwriter Kelvis Ochoa, and that they recently recorded in Miami.


Yusa is one of the pioneers Afrocuban women from what I call the Transnational Cuban Alternative Music Scene (TCAMS), a network of music production and collaborations across the world established by Cuban diasporic singer-songwriters and academically trained musicians since the 1990s crisis. 

She was a founding member of the music collective Interactivo, together with Robertico Carcasses and others. Yusa has an important discography as a singer-songwriter as well as an skillful performer of guitar, bass and tres. Yusa has been very successful in the World Music and jazz scenes in Europe, Japan and Latin America. She is also a pioneer in the introduction of feminist and LGTB topics in the Cuban song. After a long residency in Argentina, Yusa is currently residing in Miami.

 For the class, Yusa reviewed some of the most important moments of her career,  since her initial incursions performing traditional Cuban music in Europe, until her prolific career as a singer-songwriter and bass player across the world. Yusa recognized that, although she has been greatly surprised by the impact of fortunate coincidences in her life, she believes that her career has been closely related with careful choices and decisions she has made along the road. She performed two songs for the class accompanied by her acoustic guitar: "Waking Heads," from her album Haiku (2008),  and "Tomando el Centro," from Yusa (2002).

Monday, May 1, 2017

International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert From Havana Cuba

Dialogando con Proust

A propósito del cuestionario de Proust
La cualidad que más aprecio en una mujer

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Eva Silot Bravo

A primera vista esta pareciera una pregunta sencilla, pero, a su vez, me sugiere otras, que se presentan como paradojas cíclicas e infinitas

¿Qué es ser mujer?...

¿Por casualidad se referirá Proust a ese ser humano al que casi siempre asociamos con una naturaleza frágil? 

¿El supuesto sexo “débil”? 

¿La imagen última y acabada del recato y el pudor? 

¿Acaso el epítome de la candidez y la benevolencia? 

O, ¿La suprema belleza?

¿Será quizás el género “escogido” para sustentar una vocación eterna de acomodo y adaptación? 

¿La que puede casi siempre dejar de ser, para ayudar a otros a erigirse? 

¿La que no le cuesta renunciar o posponer el encuentro consigo misma para siempre entregarse, o ponerse a disposición de otros, casi siempre tan ávidos de recibir apoyo extra y colchón? 

Como el que les proporcionan sus madres santas, que dios las tenga en la gloria.

¿Será a la que siempre se le puede pedir un esfuerzo extra? 

¿La que antepone una disculpa aunque no venga al caso? 

¿La incondicional?

¿O la que siempre lo complica todo innecesariamente? 

¿La que no debe pensar tanto, porque con ello amenaza su propia existencia y la de sus semejantes? 

¿O la que no para de hablar, cuando casi nadie está dispuesto a escuchar?

Y, si no fuera el caso...

¿Por qué tantos poetas se han enfrascado en discernir y sugerir coordinadas simbólicas sobre lo femenino en la memoria, tanto ilustrada como vernácula, a través del tiempo y el espacio?

¿Le importará a Proust mis preguntas? ¿Y, si no, a quién?