Nicolás Guillén: The First West Indian

One of the great paradoxes of the Caribbean as a region revolves around the fact that there is an evident connection between the history, the culture and the heritage of each of the territories, which nevertheless is contrasted by the palpable – drastic, even – differences experienced in the realities of islands that often lie within a few miles of each other. Inscribed within the colonial discourse, these differences were emphasized by the very system that prompted them, ultimately leading to the sort of extreme fragmentation that to this day – half a century after the demise of colonialism – assails the region.


Evidently, old habits die hard, and some might even claim that the seeds of a very loose Pan-Caribbean consciousness have been planted in the region over the past two decades. If this were to be so, then Nicolás Guillén would have to be considered one of the greatest and most foresighted pioneers in the world. Born to a well-to-do family in Camagüey, Cuba, in 1902, Guillén’s father ran the only newspaper in the area and became a prominent political figure of the Liberal Party. Politics in Cuba have been inextricably linked with danger since long before Fidel’s revolution, however, so Guillén Sr. was identified as an undesirable detractor of the US-backed government and murdered when Nicolás, the poet, was just 15 years old. No wonder, then, we find so much hostility against yanquiinterests in his verse from its earliest origins.


The young Guillén.

Such origins stem from the 1930s, and remain to this day the primary source of Guillén’s fame. Inspired by a thorough knowledge of Cuba’s countryside and a genuine sense of identity with the plainest forms of Cuban cultural expression, Guillén broke into the literary scene with a small – almost insignificant – collection of eight poems, which he titled Motivos de son. The impact was almost immediate. Because the young artist had touched upon the very core of his people’s culture; because he had identified the sounds, the rhythm, that would soon be exported, primarily (ironically) to the US, and that would, much later, dominate the musical scene; because he had, with a simple collection, swiped from the table all the prejudices and preconceptions that argued for the supremacy of high-brow culture.  


Motivos de son was followed, less than a year later, by the collection Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos (1931), which included the original poems from his previous work. Indeed, together the two form a unitary proposal that clearly and emphatically states Guillén’s aesthetic findings, which are closely bound to his views on ethics. Already in its subtitle, “mulatto poems,” Guillén stresses the importance of interracial relations within his island’s culture. In the largely white-dominated pseudo-aristocratic society that governed Cuba at the time, racism was not so much an issue as it was an institutionalized reality, a truism upheld and “known” by anyone with any common sense, capable of realizing that “proper” civilization came intrinsically linked to the legacy of our European forefathers, which stood diametrically opposite to the “savage” and “barbaric” heritage of African origin.


Had Nicolás Guillén focused his efforts solely on the vindication of the African element in the inextricable blend that was, and is, Cuban culture, he would already have secured notoriety, certainly in terms of media attention. Works such as “La canción de Bongó” (“Bongó’s Song”), firmly root the notion of the poet’s nation being the soil (the container, as it were) where multiracial and multicultural combination has taken place since times immemorial. So much is made explicit in verses such as: “En esta tierra, mulata / de africano y español / (Santa Bárbara de un lado / del otro lado, Changó) / siempre falta algún abuelo / cuando no sobra algún Don (“In this mulatto land / African and Spanish / (St. Barbara on the one hand / on the other hand, Changó) / one grandparent is always missing / when nobiliary titles abound not”).


But Guillén’s genius (and sensibility) took him one step further and ultimately turned him into an unequivocal point of reference in Latin American and Caribbean culture. Because the “son” to which his first collection makes reference is none other than the rhythm that became prevalent in the eastern end of Cuba towards the beginning of the century – an Afro-Cuban, drumming beat that soon would be used as the underlying substance of mambo, of conga, of rumba and, ultimately, also of salsa.  So, instead of adopting traditional – western – structures to voice his social and cultural concerns, Guillén embraced in full the eminently Cuban form (and sound) of the “son.” In this respect, his Songoro cosongo is, rather than a collection of poems, a songbook, along similar lines to Cole Porter’s or Rodgers & Hart’s.  


The consequences of this very conscious decision are twofold. In the first place, the resonance of the social aspect of Guillén’s earliest poetry is substantially magnified by the pop-song cadence of his verse. Nowhere else is content and structure as intrinsically linked as it is in poetry, and, while Guillén escapes the potential risk of being branded as frivolous precisely by virtue of the innovative (indeed, shockingly so) and relevant topics he addresses, the reverse does actually happen to some of his less intense pieces. Indeed, socially activist as he is, his poetry, both in Songoro cosongo and, far more often, in his later production, is both varied and entertaining. Nicolás Guillén identified the value and the prominence of African influence in Cuban culture – from its music to its racial relations. But beyond these two factors he also identified and celebrated it in the comely shape of Cuban women, in the intense emotions of Cuban people, in the overpowering grief of bereavement and the incontrollable power of lust. An outspoken supporter of the Castrist revolution, Guillén remains to this day a poet identified with anti-American sentiment, Cuban nationalism and, above all, Afro-Cuban vindication. Neglected, however, are his more sentimental, and perhaps even more banal, creations, which together build a fitting tribute to love, passion and death.


The second consequence of Guillén’s decision to express his ideas in the form of songs is that his work almost immediately became popularized through musical interpretations. From Bola de Nieve, a flamboyantly gay, black Cuban performer and pianist who remained fervently loyal to Castro’s revolution till the end, to Enrique Morente, one of the most iconic Flamenco singers in Spain, going through Cecilia Bartoli, the celebrated opera mezzosoprano, Café Tacuba, one of the most successful Mexican indie-music groups, and Joaquín Sabina, the Spanish version of Leonard Cohen, Nicolás Guillén’s poems have populated the world of music in practically every genre for close to 80 years.


Which, certainly, is no mean feat. But the significance of such an accomplishment reaches far beyond its success. While in Songoro cosongo Nicolás Guillén focused his exploits on the nature and essence of Cuban society, his following collection, West Indies Ltd., was a more sophisticated, far more critical product that channeled his contempt against the abusive attitude of American interests in the region towards a more generalized view of the situation. Consequently, Guillén discovers in neighboring societies and cultures similar conditions to the ones he extolled in Cuba in his first two collections of poems: similar myths (the nighttime jumbie that takes children to the bottom of the river), similar rites and traditions, similar geographies, similar interracial societies, similar beats, similar despondency and similar problems. Thus, West Indies Ltd., serves as a platform to broaden his message, to include similar Afro-Caribbean societies in his call for vindication.


But if Guillén’s message is broadened, his medium remains unchanged, because West Indies Ltd. continues to explore and exploit the resources of Afrocentric musical rhythms, as is apparent in “Sensemayá,” the “song to kill a snake,” which reads: “Mayombe-bombe-mayombé! / Mayombe-bombe-mayombé! / Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!” In other words, Guillén understood perfectly that something subtle, possibly unutterable, but something perfectly palpable was shared and understood across the West Indies – an area that then, as now, was marked, above all, by the rifts that separate the islands from each other. For Nicolás Guillén, that something, invisible and underlying, was music.


To this day, Guillén’s poems remain relevant both in the academic and the popular world. “Songoro cosongo” must be one of the most famous songs by the revered Héctor Lavoe, one of the fathers of salsa. Similarly, Kamau Brathwaite dedicates the opening poem of his seminal Midddle Passages to Guillén, quoting several texts in his own “Word Making Man.” And these are but two of many, many examples around.


The notion of a West Indian literature – let alone a West Indian society – is still in its earliest infancy. Nevertheless, insofar as it exists at all, Nicolás Guillén must be considered one of the very first intellectuals to have entertained the idea with something other than the economic benefit of the colonial power in mind. In that sense, he might well have been the first West Indian of us all. 



Published by the WEEKender supplement of The Daily Herald on Saturday, May 19, 2012.

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