AfriGeneas Caribbean Research Forum
Connecting African-American music culture with the
Hello Caribbean researchers:
Today is Memorial Day when we pay tribute to war heroes. I thought that you would be interested in a group of men who came from Puerto Rico through Ellis Island in 1917 to join Harlem's 369th Regimental Band to fight in the great war. In addition, it is the story of "infinite cross-overs" between African-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures.
Popular music is rooted in the traditions of jazz. Ask any European about American culture and they will tell you to the person, that America's only original art form is jazz. Pick up histories on traditional jazz and big bands and you will find the names of many Latin musicians from the Caribbean. Read books on Latin bands and you will find the imprint of black jazz musicians like the late Doc Cheatham who played with Prado and Machito. Ask your parents about the popular "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." That sweet horn you hear in the opening bars is Doc Cheatham, from Tennessee. Caribbean Latin culture...music is just one aspect...is a confluence of Africa, Europe (French, Spanish, English), Native America and possibly others. Afro-Caribbean cultures mirror Afro-American cultures. They did not mature independently of each other, they were all intertwined. Ships carried people of all colors, free and enslaved, to the ports of Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, the Floridas, Louisiana, Mexico and Mississippi. These people exchanged language, customs and music, and cris-crossed the Caribbean for centuries. We evaluate too much of our North/South black/white culture and music through the hateful prism of racism.
One of my favorite books is "Music is My Flag", Ruth Glazer, Univ. of Calif. Press. It is the history of our Puerto Rican brothers who came to New York in 1917. Glazer writes that many books on the subject of Harlem includes the story of legendary 369th Regimental Band. In "My Music is My Flag", the author chronicles the story of Alabama band leader, James Reese Europe's trip to Puerto Rico to recruit musicians for the Harlem Regiment. The author says that the history of these musicians is of "infinite cross overs and variations on a theme." Some of the musicians who sailed to Europe and fought under the French flag were the legendary Raphael Hernandez ("Lamento Borincano"), Raphael and Jesus "Pocholo" Duchesne, Sixto Benitez and others. New Yorkers forgot their racism for one day when in 1919, the 369th's sons of Harlem and sons of Puerto Rico led the victory parade up 5th Avenue. That same year Rafael Duchesne recrossed the Atlantic and followed the legendary Southern Syncopated Orchestra that traveled to London for a command performance at Buckingham Palace. His fellow musicians included the greats, Sidney Bechet and Arthur Briggs. Rafael later joined Briggs' Band in Paris. Benitez also played with Bechet and pops up later in Buenos Aires playing in the band of a musician from the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.
Glazer highlights the sad racial barriers within the white and black Spanish speaking Caribbean communities. Through the words of Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians they underline that racism was very much alive. They couldn't have been too surprised when they arrived in France and were barred from fighting along side of white Americans. The American military thought that the black regiments were basically cowards. The French had no such hang ups since men from African colonies had fought with them for centuries. Ironically, the 369th including the musicians from Puerto Rico, held the record of longest days in battle and for their fierce bravery were awarded the Croix de Guerre.
My deepest respects to the men from Puerto Rico and Harlem who fought in the Great War.
K Wyer Lane
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