A concept I’ve been experiencing something of a renewed interest in recently, thanks to my reading of Creole Religions of the Carribean, transculturation is, in essence, the merging and converging of cultures to create something new and unique. This term was first coined by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz as a means to counterbalance the term acculturation—which was used to describe the development of Caribbean cultures as an imposition of the culture of the conquering nation onto the conquered society (3). Acculturation, according to Ortiz, devalued and supplanted the indigenous cultures, while in his view colonialization was instead an ongoing process of appropriation, revision and survival leading to the mutual transformation of the preexisting cultures into a new one (4). Ortiz believed that his concept of transculturation is a more accurate view of the process that leads to modern Caribbean cultures (4). Unavoidably, religious practices were at the heart of this process of transculturation (4). In this way, the African practices provided important resources for both reconstructing ethnic ties and social relations disrupted by slavery as well as for creating new collective identities and belief systems that were a blend of the cultures of diverse African peoples and served to help them meet new challenges and deal with social oppression (4). Ortiz metaphorically referred to transculturation as a soup, ajiaco, made from a wide variety of ingredients and in which the broth that remains at the bottom is representative of an integrated national identity which has been produced through synthesis (4).
Ortiz’s ideas on transculturation have not gone without criticism, however. Critics say that this notion fails to take into account or do justice to the “undissolved ingredients”—the magical and life-affirming aspects of Afro-Caribbean religions (4). The Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera argues that “beside the broth of synthesis, there are bones, gristle, and hard seeds that never fully dissolve, even after they have contributed their substance to the broth. These undissolved ingredients are the survivals and recreations of African traditions within religious-cultural complexes” (4). This is, perhaps, the most glaring flaw in this theory according to its critics. And, as with all theories, being critical isn’t a bad thing but is something that can help to further refine and alter them into something that may have a more solid foundation–or to discard entirely ideas that come to be proved less than useful.
Transculturation is, to be sure, an interesting mode of approach in examining the blending and recreation of society and culture after a great upheaval such as invasion and conquest, but as Mosquera pointed out it is also wise to remain aware of the bits that do not simply merge, but survive in their own right. To this end, the idea of asymmetrica hybridity may be of more use, which is something I would like to examine further at some point.
I find the idea of transculturation–or asymmetrical hybridity–interesting in the context of studying ‘hybrid’ forms of music, or music that deliberately borrows from other traditions. How exactly are these different elements blended–evenly or disproportionately? Is one tradition favored over another in certain hybrid styles? And what constitutes a hybrid style and how is it distinct from something not intentionally hybridized but displaying characteristics of different musical traditions?