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Faculty of Music


Prof. Michael Birenbaum Quintero (Boston University)

Between Legibility and Alterity: Black Musical Self-Making in Multicultural Colombia

Traditional Colombian Pacific music has been recast as a touchstone for cultural difference through its mobilization by Afro-Colombian artists, activists, and intellectuals, as well as the Colombian state. Indeed, the credibility of black identity in Colombia has depended on a ‘politics of resemblance’ couching black cultural practices (including music) in terms recognizable as intelligible bearers of difference. With the 1991 adoption of Colombia’s multicultural Constitution, music from the country’s majority-black Pacific coast has been taken up as a resource for a variety of divergent, even contradictory agendas, including economic development, social amelioration, governance, and local activism. This paper traces these threads, examining both the broad historical conjunctures and institutional dispositions that have shaped the contours of ‘música del Pacífico’ and the lived texture of its being taken up by, worked on, or alienated from black Colombians themselves.

I suggest that even as the new prominence of black Pacific music breaks with a long history of marginality, the price for legitimizing black alterity has been its shoehorning into a frame that is beholden less to Afro-Colombian cultural and aesthetic particularities than to the formal and discursive categories that make these particularities legible to such outside interlocutors as consumers, granting agencies, cultural policy instantiations, and the like. If, as I argue, fluency in these kinds of reifying formal and discursive translations is a competency that not everyone possesses (or finds culturally or politically palatable), then the underlying political question is how the self-same legitimation of certain forms of black culture excludes that majority of black Colombians who are unwilling or unable to provide the particular combination of legibility and self-exoticization that neoliberal multiculturalism requires.

Michael Birenbaum Quintero is Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Musicology & Ethnomusicology Department at Boston University. His work, mostly focusing on black Colombians, examines musical constructions of Blackness, state cultural policy and cultural politics, neoliberal multiculturalism, affective politics, black vernacular technology, musical circulation, violence and trauma, loudness, music streaming algorithms and the affect of late capitalism, Latinx/African-American interactions in Afro-Cuban religious music, and ritual soundscapes in Havana, New York City, and Ọ̀yọ̀ (Nigeria). His monograph Rites, Rights and Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia’s Black Pacific (Oxford UP, 2018) was awarded the 2020 Ruth Stone Prize by the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has directed a grassroots Afro-Colombian community music archive; designed cultural policy initiatives with the Colombian Ministry of Culture; performed traditional music and organized tours with Colombian musicians; and collaborated with the Afro-Colombian activist organization Proceso de Comunidades Negras and with Latinx, Black, socialist, and working-class organizers in the US.

Monday, 6 March, 2023 - 16:00 to 17:30
Event location: 
Lecture Room 2, Faculty of Music