“Afro-Cuban dance is the dance of slaves. When they danced, it was their only time to feel free. So they could be a bird, or do a flamenco step and make fun of their owners, or just be in the sea instead of on an island far away from home. It is a dance about being exactly who you want to be in that moment. It has to look, and feel, as natural as the waves.”
So says Javier, the male lead in a film that was so poorly rated that for years I’ve been embarrassed to quote it. In many ways, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights fell out of my favor by its name alone. But despite this, this quotation is one of the most apt descriptions of Afro-Caribbean music I know.
Resilience is in the bloodstream of people of African descent in the Caribbean. And it is no coincidence that Caribbean musical genres such as reggae and bomba inspire such joy in those who listen to, play, and dance to it. And as Javier implies, this music has always been deeply connected to the patterns and rhythms of nature—which, of course, stand in stark contrast to the oppressive system of plantation slavery which brought so many people to the Caribbean in the first place.
These forms of music and dance have also served as powerful forces for coexistence. Today, they continue to bring people of diverse profiles together to celebrate life, often outdoors in shared public spaces. They have also served to affirm humor, culture, and dignity in the face of a wide host of social, economic, and political challenges. At times, they serve as conduits for grief. And—crucially for the topic of climate change—they underscore the importance of place and shared space, for resilience and solidarity.
In the Caribbean and elsewhere, musical practices—participatory traditions in particular—remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts. These are important in any time and place, but now, in this age of climate change, they are indispensable.
Even if we have not memorized the statistics around climate change, we are certainly familiar with them. And we are equally familiar with the images that accompany them. Let’s take sea level rise: news outlets which trade in non-alternative facts tell us that sea level rise is one of the clearest and most disconcerting consequences of climate change. In the coming years, people living on islands and along coastlines are expected to lose their homes. Shocking photos have been taken to illustrate that these losses are already taking place. For many of us “island people,” the mere suggestion that sea level rise could wash away our neighborhoods is too much to handle. As always, I turn to music.
In internationally visible ways, music has been used to mobilize support for disaster relief efforts in the past. For instance: Music for Relief is a nonprofit founded (to my surprise) by Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It has since responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents, in each case using its position within the music community to raise funds and awareness to aid those affected by these ecological crises. The organization has also planted 1.3 million trees to help mitigate climate change.
Such efforts are wonderful and well publicized, as they should be. Yet mainstream media does not give nearly as much attention to the music of the regions affected by climate change. This puzzles me. If traditions of social and cultural resilience through music have developed for centuries in the “global South,” and if many of these contain deep ecological elements, then why is it that existing global climate politics fail to recognize and mobilize this power?
Leading global relief institutions such as the Red Cross regularly conduct studies on human resilience in the face of ecological disasters, but music rarely figures into these investigations. We must honor the practices of resilience through the music that exists in our world, and do what we can to support them, so that the world’s people are able to mobilize their formidable musical resources for social and cultural thriving.
Throughout this series, I have highlighted the need for the musical and ecological wisdom of the “global South” to be more deeply recognized within global environmental politics as a whole. As difficult as this can be to talk about, the topic of resilience reflects many of the themes which unify these posts. Here are a few.
In diverse geographies around the world, the connections between music and the environment have long histories and deep implications. Music has been used in countless settings as a means by which humans can attain an intimate relationship not only with each other, but with their natural surroundings. While these practices never originate within or center around international bodies, institutions like the United Nations can play an important role in supporting music-based environmental initiatives. Within universities, international institutions, and community organizations alike, the links between music and the environment can and must be more deeply explored.
As readers know by now, the regions most deeply affected by climate change are (and will continue to be) islands and coastlines. Many of these places possess rich musical and ecological resources which could both reinforce activist initiatives close to home and inspire others to work for climate action as well. Yet in keeping with the geopolitical narratives that most of us grow up with and often internalize, these islands and coastlines are presented as “marginal” places, removed from the centers of power and thus (by some peculiar logic) also removed from the social, cultural, and ecological resources and expertise that are necessary to promote environmental awareness and action. Within the arena of resilience, this disconnect feels particularly unsettling.
In my view, for both music and climate action to thrive together, a “centering” of these so-called “margins” is essential. The living traditions of “music and the Earth” must be respected, humbly supported, and learned from. Musical and ecological wisdom in South Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and beyond can point the way towards all of the qualities that we must cultivate for truly sustainable living—from listening to collaboration to resilience.
For me, the subject of music and the Earth links directly to a deep conversation about who we are as human beings—what we live for and how we define a peaceful world. If each of these pieces probes these questions just a little bit, then I may fall asleep to the sound of the waves and be content.