The Unwaved Flag: A Self Response

I remember reading somewhere (it may have been Antoni Kapcia?) that when trying to predict the future of Cuba, one could only hope for an accuracy rate akin to a batting average (baseball term, apparently). So where a competent batsman would be happy with anything approaching .3 (that is, a hit every third ball), so too a commentator on Cuba can be ‘happy’ with a one in three accuracy rate!

I don’t profess to be anywhere near such a statistic; I’m only a rookie.

Having reread the below, following some advice (both literary and factual) from my wife, I think the story presented below may have missed the mark somewhat. Well; it certainly wasn’t a home run! I have changed a couple of the details, but have decided to leave it up for a couple of reasons.

One, I think it will serve as an interesting (for me) reminder of my relationship with Cuba at this particular moment in time; my understanding of this culture and country that I love, yet don’t (and perhaps never will) fully understand.

Two, I think it will serve as a reminder of the perils of trying to describe anything, particularly anything ethnographic. Writing an ethnographic account always runs the risk of sensationalising the ‘other’; making it precisely ‘otherworldly’. As Kofi Agawu saliently points out “when was the last time an ethnomusicologist went out to discover sameness rather than difference?”[1] Coupled to that is the execrable trait of presenting the ethnographer as either the intrepid explorer, battling waves of alienness, or as the sagely expert who can transcend, or peer knowingly into, this otherness and produce a clear précis of ‘what is really going on’ (presumably for an audience not comprised of the ‘people being studied’).

Despite the caveat given at the start of this piece that this was not my intention in presenting such a personal anecdote – and that the real aim was to present something which for my two Cuban companions was a mundane occurrence, but for me, because I was situated outside of my ‘everyday’ paradigm, was strange – I think at certain points I may have fallen into this trap. I have tried to rectify these points, but I think it may still come across as presenting a fantastical ‘otherness’.

Maybe I should have pointed out that, intentionally or not, the anecdote – indeed perhaps all ethnography – is subject to the pinch of salt that is the unreliable narrator. These events (and I stress that, aside from the hyperbole of trying to make a story interesting, were actually real experiences) were odd to me. But this is not because they were ‘odd’ in and of themselves, and certainly not because they took place in an ‘odd’ country, but because I as spectator was odd; these events were odd to me because they do not fall within the unconscious purview of everyday for me.   

Thirdly, I think this story is a telling reminder of how complex and impossible it is to try and do justice to representing any society – any culture – any moment as ‘the truth’. Just as you think you have gotten a hold of something, you are beginning to understand, to predict, to become familiar, to know what is going on, you find the rug pulled from under your feet. This would be true were I studying any culture, not just Cuba.       

[1] The Invention of “African Rhythm” Kofi Agawu Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 48, No. 3, Music Anthropologies and Music Histories (Autumn, 1995).

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