Presented at the 44th Annual Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference in Santa Marta, Colombia, as part of a panel about Itinerarios Sonoros, a podcast co-produced by Music & the Earth International (2019)
Buenas tardes. Today I would like to speak to you about music, and its relation to environmental politics in the Caribbean. The podcast episode which I developed was titled “Soundscape: Musical and Environmental Consciousness Post-María.” Its primary observation, very simply, was that music can carry great importance in the “before, during and after” of disasters. It can help us to be present with the complexity and range of feelings that we have when our environments are affected by cataclysmic events. In the Caribbean, it can help us to appreciate the way these feelings overlap and resonate with the experiences of people living on other tropical islands and coastlines. And it can help us to turn such feelings of solidarity into a binding force that makes it easier for those of us living on islands across the world to rise with one voice, while still showcasing our profound diversity.
The episode included several elements — a “listening diary” which I wrote as Hurricane María passed across Puerto Rico; a discussion of climate geopolitics and the way unjust responses to disaster can echo in similar ways across islands in the “Global South;” words on an outreach and education project called las Sesiones Isleñas; and, of course, music.
The podcast included several interpretations of songs that, I hope, reflect some of the Caribbean’s cultural and ecological diversity. People have asked me how I would classify these songs, and other songs which I have recorded; and I can only answer that they are “world music.” The phrase “world music” is terribly vague, and has been described in so many ways that its meaning has become much too diluted. But what I mean when I use the term is, music that tells stories in a way that resonates across multiple places and perspectives… Music that can serve as a starting point for dialogue — and a “home” for the idea that we are linked globally by local experiences.
So what I would like to do today is play the two songs that I recorded for this podcast, and offer my reflections on how each has taught me something about connected to one’s experiences in nature, and about how such links resonate across the largely artificial borders which separate people living in different tropical environments.
The first is an “environmental” adaptation of a song by a group called Orishas, named “Cuba Isla Bella.” The instrumentation of the original song suggests a sort of social nostalgia. The singers yearn for the neighborhoods of their beloved Cuba.
In this interpretation I “set” the song by the sea, singing the lyrics with the ocean in mind. I did so in the hopes of bringing out a different kind of nostalgia — not one which is oriented around streets and homes, but stretches out to the ocean.
Listen to “Cuba Isla Bella” here: https://soundcloud.com/priyaforpeace/cuba-isla-bella?in=musicandtheearth/sets/welcome
The process of “translating” this song to an environmental context, particularly in the aftermath of María, helped me see what “world music” can be. It can link people across the shared experience of living within certain ecosystems — in this case, tropical, coastal ecosystems.
The second song does not deal with nostalgia in the same way. It is an animated love song, which was originally written by a celebrated Indian film composer named A.R. Rahman. The name of the song is “Jiya Jale.” I’ve interpreted this song through different genres over the years, but for this podcast I set it against a tropical landscape.
The percussion is a bit reminiscent of a bomba rhythm, and the chirp you’ll hear comes from a tiny tree frog native to Puerto Rico called the coqui. The song is distinctly Boricua, one could say, and yet it isn’t. Its lyrics are in Hindi and Malayalam, and I hope it testifies in some way to the environmental convergences and cultural influences that have been brought to the Caribbean from the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Listen to “Jiya Jale” here: https://soundcloud.com/musicandtheearth/jiya-jale?in=musicandtheearth/sets/welcome.
Before we reached this conference, Lydia Platón asked me an intriguing question: Where is the activism in music? In other words, how does the practice of music further the cause of change — in this case, radical, effective political and cultural transformations for sustainability and environmental justice? The answers to this question are numerous, but for now I would say that the kind of “world music” I’ve described here can serve the important purpose of reordering reality to create space for new possibilities.
Music that crosses borders to highlight shared environmental experiences or previously unexamined cultural connections can present new ways of seeing home, life and the horizons of movement-building. And listening to these encounters, and learning to love them, might untap some of the greatest strengths that we have. Gracias!