Robin Moore’s Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940 is a fascinating study of Cuban popular music in the twentieth century. Beginning with carnival and popular theatrical productions in the late nineteenth century, Moore goes on to describe the emergence and transformation of musical forms such as the son and the rumba, familiarizing the reader with their main practitioners and their place in Cuban (and international) popular culture. But Moore does more than follow particular musical genres or performers; he also traces state and intellectual responses to Afro-Cuban music, showing how consistent attempts by both to rein in black popular expression existed side by side with the increasing popularity of those same forms of expression.

Moore pays particular attention to the contradictory place of Afro-Cuban popular culture in national life. Throughout, he highlights the apparent contradiction between elite and intellectual disdain for Afro-Cuban forms of expression (and for Afro-Cubans themselves) and their almost simultaneous embrace of Afro-Cuban music as providing central symbols of Cuban national identity. The very musical forms that had been condemned as barbaric, vulgar, and primitive were in the 1920s appropriated and identified as markers of nationhood. But, as Moore skillfully shows, the embrace often seemed troubled. First, the hesitancy of that embrace found concrete manifestations in the music itself, as Afro-Cuban musical forms were exalted but ultimately transformed, heralded as authentic national symbols yet simultaneously stripped of the most visible (or audible) popular influences. To this process of minimizing the influence of African or popular elements of the music, white composers gave the name of “purifying,” “making sophisticated,” “dressing with elegance,” or “universalizing” (p. 135). By tracing this process of transformation, Moore reveals the complex character of elite appropriation of Afro-Cuban culture.

If the appropriation of Afro-Cuban music served and responded to nationalist purposes, the impetus for that appropriation, Moore contends, was often foreign. He argues that Cuban intellectuals and critics sometimes turned to Afro-Cuban music after it had been popularized abroad, as intellectuals, artists, and consumers in Europe and the United States experimented with primitivism and other forms of ostensibly African-influenced cultural expressions. Thus in Cuba, the increasing popularity and performance of Afro-Cuban popular music responded, in part, to the rising popularity of the music abroad and to the growing significance of tourism at home, as club and hotel owners strove to give their customers a taste of that which tourists identified as authentically Cuban. Indeed, it was this desire to satisfy tourist expectations that prompted formerly exclusive establishments to open their doors to black and mulatto performers and that encouraged the lifting of government restrictions on the public performance of certain Afro-Cuban forms. The Cuban son typifies this complex trajectory, once repressed, later popular at home and abroad, and ultimately exalted as an authentic national form.

Moore’s book does not answer all the questions it raises and, as the author himself notes in the preface, such things as subaltern reception, uses, and ideas about popular music remain largely unexplored. In fact, Moore’s discussion of the widespread popularization of Afro-Cuban music is in many ways less thorough than his excellent discussion of its repression and condemnation by a wide array of protagonists, from intellectuals and musicians, to the national state and even Afro-Cuban social clubs and societies. But the occasional unevenness of the discussion reflects, above all, the ambitiousness of the project. More than a study of the music itself, this is a study that, by placing musical production in a larger social and political context, sheds light on the complicated relationship between race and nationalism in twentieth-century Cuba. Moore has shown the centrality of music, and of cultural expression more generally, in contemporary debates about Cuban national identity. In the process he has created an absorbing study that will broaden the ways historians, anthropologists, and cultural critics frame questions about race and nationalism in Cuba.