Styling Blackness in Chile: Music and Dance in the African Diaspora

By Juan Eduardo Wolf. 2019. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 242 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-04114-2 (hard cover).


Reviewed by P. Judkins Wellington, City University of New York

[Review length: 901 words • Review posted on September 28, 2021]


[Cover ofStyling Blackness in Chile: Music and Dance in the African Diaspora]

Juan Eduardo Wolf’s Styling Blackness in Chile: Music and Dance in the African Diaspora is a timely musical ethnography about the Chilean Afro-descendant movement’s use of music-dance to gain political relevance and representation in a country where their population has been otherwise invisibilized. Situating this population within local discourses about Blackness and academic studies about the Black Atlantic and the Black Pacific, Wolf argues that a particular type of music-dance, the tumbe (or tumba), is the most constructive tool in creating a sense of self that is connected to local history and a community, while also aligning with a transnational African diaspora. Drawing from the performance theory of Bauman and Briggs, he presents the idea of “styling” as an “emergent category for the production and reception of the relationship between performers” (5). Throughout the book, Peircean semiotics is synthesized with styling to demonstrate how music, dancing, instruments, costuming, poetry, and other forms of cultural expression work in dialogue with local cultural memories and the greater African diaspora. Overall, Styling Blackness contributes a new case study of an underrepresented community, a useful synthesis of theories about the Black Atlantic and the Black Pacific, and a coherent application of semiotic analysis.

Styling Blackness is divided into two parts. Part I focuses on how the tumbe has been vital for Afro-Chileans in the process of styling Blackness as Afro-descendant. Tumbe emerged in the early 2000s as a response to the invisibilization of the Black population in Chile—something that Wolf details—as well as to the “multicultural alignment,” which Wolf points to as a larger trend in Latin America in which rights and protections are afforded to communities that can present themselves as unique in their country. Drawing from Stuart Hall, Wolf understands Blackness as a set of criteria that are used to describe individuals as Black, which can vary according to who is doing the describing, as well as to where and when it may be happening. In styling Blackness as Afro-descendant, Afro-Chileans draw from local histories, nearby diaspora communities, and cultural memory in order to refine this newly created tumbe. What I particularly appreciate about Wolf’s analysis here is that he doesn’t simply argue that Afro-Chileans are being culturally expedient, but even that tumbe provides a new space for people to have meaningful experiences that are “local and familial” (98).

Wolf’s presentation of diasporic engagement is particularly useful as he places the styling process in dialogue with Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic as well as Heidi Feldman’s Black Pacific. Working with Feldman’s idea that communities in the Black Pacific look toward the Black Atlantic as a kind of surrogate for Africa, Wolf points out that in Chile, while musicians and dancers may look toward the Caribbean for influence, they also look closer, whether it be candombe in Uruguay or the saya caporal in Bolivia. With regard to the Black Atlantic, Wolf argues that scholars often fail to recognize that certain communities within the African Diaspora, or more specifically in the Black Atlantic, have more cultural and musical influence than others. As such, when Afro-Chileans look toward music-dance of Afro-descendants in countries like Uruguay and Bolivia for inspiration, the forms of cultural expression that emerge may not be interpreted as “Afro-descendant.”

Part II of Styling Blackness looks to three different ways that Blackness is styled, providing case studies that demonstrate the power dynamics involved in the politics of representation within Chilean national discourse. In styling Blackness as criollo, Wolf shows how, while some groups have been interested in engaging with the Peruvian vals—which has been popular among Afro-Peruvian groups—it doesn’t prove useful within explicitly Chilean nationalist contexts. Explicitly nationalist performance spaces invoke a cultural intimacy in which groups that performed genres widely accepted as Chilean since the Pinochet dictatorship—e.g., the cueca and tonada—only did so in private gatherings for government representatives. In styling Blackness as moreno, Wolf presents morenos de paso, a religious dance and music that is known for its devout and deliberate style that contributes to the performance of decency. This decency is important in Chile because it commands respect for a community that has long been held to a much higher standard of achievement. In styling Blackness as Indígena, Wolf presents how mestizo and Indigenous dance troupes perform (saya) caporales during Carnaval Andino, which often include imagery, dance, and poetry that communicate their understanding of the Afro-Chilean community. Interestingly, this understanding is performed through the filter of a performance that expresses indigeneity, and as such, representations of Blackness are often misinformed at best, being manifestations themselves of a systemic racism in which “individuals propagate foundational ideas or assumptions through institutions and networks, so that many performers may not even realize their privilege as they continue to keep the traditions of their ancestors” (176).

Styling Blackness not only contributes an in-depth look into an underrepresented community and its contemporary music and dance; it also provides useful recourses for readers that go beyond the ethnography itself. Throughout the book, clear musical notation allows the reader to get a basic understanding of underlying rhythms. There are numerous videos that the reader can access to actually watch some of the performances that are described by the author. The book itself will not only prove useful for academics interested in the music of Chile, Latin America, the African Diaspora, Blackness, and in semiotics, but is also written in a style that is accessible to upper-level undergraduates and above.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.