Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. By María Elena Cepeda.

New York: New York University Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0814716915, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0-8147-1692-2, $22. 272 pages.

Review by Sandra J. Fallon-Ludwig, Brandeis University

Although traditional forms of Latin music, such as salsa and merengue, are the subject of a large portion of musical scholarship, the impact of more commercial Latin music has received little scholarly attention. In Musical ImagiNation, María Elena Cepeda attempts to remedy this neglect in her discussion of contemporary rock en español, the evolution of the vallenato genre and the music of the female popular artist Shakira. Taking a transnational and transcultural approach to this music, Cepeda focuses on gender roles and multi-layered national influences, while also commenting on media perception of Latin artists and their commodification in the U.S. music industry.
Cepeda lays a strong foundation for her study with a chapter dedicated to Colombian history and the violence that led to the Colombian migration to New York and Miami. She also provides a vivid picture of the Miami musical scene, the dominance of the Cuban community, and the Estefans' perceived control of the music industry in Miami. The selective history of Latin music and the commercialization of Latin artists marketed as "newly discovered," despite their often long professional careers in Caribbean, Central or South American countries, are also discussed. In her first two chapters, Cepeda skillfully explores the dismantling and resemantization of popular culture as it relates to Latin and Latin-American music and artists.
After laying this foundation, Cepeda discusses three different artists and genres with a focus on the transnational and transcultural aspects of their music. She begins with Shakira, whose music reveals her Lebanese-Columbian and Caribbean-Columbian roots, and discusses her role not only as a Latina performer, but as a U.S. migrant, a female "cross-over" artist, and a popular music artist. Much of the discussion pertains to gender roles and to the sexual persona constructed by the U.S. music industry and perpetuated in the U.S. media. In her discussion of Andrea Echeverri of the rock group Aterciopelados, Cepeda provides an alternative vision of gender dynamics in the rock genre. Framed as the anti-Shakira, Echeverri was marketed in the second wave of Latin music in the United States – a wave specifically advertised as more “authentic.” Cepeda discusses individual song lyrics, the politics inherent in Echeverri's music, and how the female rocker defies the gendered representation presented to U.S. mainstream audiences. Shakira and Echeverri are presented as polar representations of the female artist, which seems inevitable given their respective genres, audiences, and industry marketing. Cepeda then returns to issues of race and national identity with her discussion of the vallenato genre and its transformation from a "low" music originating in the town of Valledupar on Colombia's Northern Atlantic to a commodified musical genre. Cepeda argues that musicians like Carlos Vives act as a cultural mediator, interpreting this music for elite (read light-skinned, upper-class audiences), and that the modern vallenato nullifies the Afro-Colombian and Afro-Caribbean contributions to the genre and to popular culture.
The weakest section of Musical ImagiNation is chapter 6, in which Cepeda discusses gender dynamics in music videos. Here, she returns to the subject of Shakira and analyzes two music videos: "La Tortura" and "Hips Don't Lie." Cepeda notes elements like belly-dance as evidence of Shakira's female-centered, Pan-Caribbean transnational identity. She then asserts that the visual imagery in each video challenges the traditional modes of gender and sexual representation usually found in the medium. However, this conclusion contradicts her earlier characterization of Shakira as an artist commodified and sexualized by the U.S. music industry and media. In chapter 2, Cepeda illustrated the ways in which Shakira succumbed to the traditional stereotypes of the Latina artist. This confusion may have been avoided if Cepeda had discussed these videos in conjunction with her previous discussion of Shakira, as she did with Andrea Echeverri in chapter 4.
Overall, Cepeda offers a valuable look at the perception of Latin and Latin-American music and the struggle to categorize and discuss this music in the current musicological scholarship. Issues of nationalism, gender, and commodification are at the forefront of her work, in which she attempts to overcome long-standing stereotypes related to Latin music and female performers in particular. Musical ImagiNation is a much-needed foray into commercial Latin music and opens the door for further discourse in this underrepresented area.

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