Laughter and Cuban Identity – Carlos Puebla

The use of laughter within musical texts[1] is a surprisingly broad church. When collating a list of popular songs which contain laughter, I was surprised not only at the sheer volume, but the diverse representations of the phenomena. From Morrissey’s acerbic derision in “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful” to the confused hilarity of David Bowie in “The Laughing Gnome”; laughter, it seems, can become a complex and cacophonous signifier in music. The confusion over laughter’s ‘meaning’ is expressed by Dacher Keltner and George Bonanno when they write:

A wide array of often contradictory functions has been attributed to laughter, including the punctuation of conversation (Provine, 1993) [and] the communication of aggression and superiority (e.g. Van Hooff, 1972)… Such diversity in description inevitably leads to theoretical debate about the nature of laughter, for example, whether laughter is necessarily associated with the experience of positive emotion. (Keltner and Bonanno, 1997:699)

 

When examining Porno Para Ricardo’s oeuvre for examples of laughter, two things become apparent. One, that laughter – that is members of the band laughing on record – plays a significant part in their music, and that it is utilised to convey a message about the band to the listener, but two, that to try and coalesce these examples of laughter into one definitive explanation doesn’t work. The various forms of laughter are ‘doing’ and ‘saying’ different things.

To resolve this quandary, I refer to a most prescient assertion made by Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘On the Essence of Laughter’; “there are different varieties of laughter.” (Baudelaire, 1995 [1855]:155, emphasis original). Though it sounds obvious, it is an assertion with which, according to Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson (2005), many researchers into the subject have failed to reconcile their research. They suggest a distinction needs to be drawn between two types of laughter: Duchenne and non-Duchenne laughter (2005:396).

The distinction derives from the work of French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne (1862), who classified a Duchenne smile as one which “involve orbicularis oculi muscle action”, but, more significantly for this thesis, as being “associated with pleasant stimuli and feelings” (in Keltner and Bonanno, 1997:690). This distinction has been applied to laughter by Gervais and Wilson, and Keltner and Bonanno, among others. “Duchenne laughter is stimulus-driven and emotionally valenced” claim Gervais and Wilson, whereas “Non-Duchenne laughter is unconnected (except perhaps via facial feedback) to emotional experience” (2005:403). This does not  necessarily translate into a ‘fake’/ ‘genuine’ dichotomy, and many theorists are keen to point out that Non-Duchenne laughter can be a subconscious way to trivialise stress (Panksepp, 2000), ease social interaction (Provine, 1997)  or as “dissociation” (Keltner and Bonanno). But it is laughter’s use as a tool of identity construction that I will be focussing on here, using these two categories – Duchenne and Non-Duchenne laughter – to assert that a dual process of identity construction, one inclusionary, one exclusionary, can be found in Porno Para Ricardo’s laughter.

Inclusive and Exclusive Identity Construction Spaces

“Laughter is a harlequin that shows two faces – one smiling and friendly, the other dark and ominous… Laughter can serve as a bond to bring people together or as a weapon to humiliate and ostracise its victims”, so writes Robert Provine in the introduction to his scientific investigation of laughter (2000:2). It should be obvious from the two contrasting examples of laughter in Porno Para Ricardo’s work presented below that both these faces of the harlequin may be found coexisting. Gervais and Wilson, conflating a number of other theories, make a similar assertion:

Laughter can promote the integration of new individuals into an already-present group structure (Gamble, 2001), but can also play a role in delineating in-group and out-group boundaries (laughter’s “dark side”; Panksepp, 2000) by establishing ‘exclusionary group identities’ and by being directly aggressive towards members of the out-group. (Gervais and Wilson, 2005:403)

 

However, rather than being competing, mutually exclusive stances, I propose that the two enforce and build upon each other in cementing and defining the parameters of the band’s identity (and, vicariously, the identities of those who identify with them). The first case study presents a distinctly Non-Duchenne laughter aimed at a distinct target of ridicule and, I suggest, can be seen a tool in the distinctly ‘punk’ practice of defining a group identity as the area left at the centre of all the things it is not; the ‘other’ to all others (cf. Karen Pinkus’ description of punk as defined in John Lydon’s autobiography, 1996:187). The second case study presents examples of a Duchenne laughter that both represents a bond (and a moment of bonding) between the band members, in which they share a joke, but also presents an opportunity for the listener to vicariously ‘join’ that group identity by finding the same thing funny and thus fulfilling the criteria of group identity.

Yoani Sanchez again makes clear the necessity of both these types of group identification – the self-reflexive and the delineation (and ridicule of) an other – as expressed in Cuba:

Laughter, banter, kidding around have been group therapy on this island where the frustration and dissatisfaction is exorcised by humor. We laugh at ourselves, and that’s healthy, but we also make those who govern us the butts of our jokes, though generally in the privacy of our own homes or with a close circle of friends… We assign nicknames, look for burlesque similarities between one public figure and another, collect jokes and burst out laughing in a gesture that is sometimes more sad than happy. In short, what makes us roar with laughter would make us cry, if we couldn’t find a way to joke about it. (Sanchez, 2010)

 

These words on laughter bring to mind those of Robert Charles Maturin in the novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’:

A mirth which is not gaiety is often the mask which hides the convulsed and distorted features of agony – and laughter, which never yet was the expression of rapture, has often been the only intelligible language of madness and misery. Ecstasy only smiles – despair laughs (Maturin, 1824:302)

 

What is interesting about Sanchez’s assertions on the role of laughter in Cuba here is that the notion of defiance is still very present. However, the ‘enemy’ being defied – the butt of the joke – is the Cuban government, rather than the American government; the joke is internalised, and with that internalisation comes a sadness, and with the sadness comes a recognition of the often ludicrous scenarios that accompany the everyday in Cuba. What Sanchez’s words illuminate is the sadness inherent in laughter, particularly Cuban laughter, that has always been there, even in its most defiant guise. What it also shows is the importance for identity construction that laughter holds. It operates as a key to some identity space; if one finds a particular joke funny, and finds oneself in the company of others who share the humour, then without having to engage in potentially dangerous political talk, you learn a lot about you fellow laughers, and can find yourself constructing a unified identity – if only for the duration of the laugh – as a group who find this particular thing amusing.

Again, in this definition of the use of laughter, there is a sense of defiance; of revelling in something ‘forbidden’. As significant as the fact that there is a ‘butt’ to Cuban jokes, is that these jokes, according to Sanchez, are most often told ‘in private’; in secret. This trait would tent to further the notion of the exclusionary space of identity expressed above; that to even hear the joke, you must be in a private setting; you must have ‘proven your credentials’ before the joke is even told. Yet the very privacy of the jokes, hinting at the ‘forbidden’ nature of the subject matter, further accentuates the defiance of laughter in these instances. As Peter Jones notes:

Humour in general, and laughter in particular, is frequently found offensive; it is then taken as indicative of insolence, impudence, cheek, presumption, audacity, impertinence, disrespect, disdain or contempt. (Peter Jones, 1982:213)

 

Laughter is found threatening by those who either fail to grasp, or repudiate, the viewpoint assumed. In the cases cited [of ‘inappropriate laughter’] laughter would be taken as subversive and belittling. The point is inadequately marked by distinguishing those who do not take things seriously, from those who take them only too seriously. The crucial notions are those of ‘belittling’ and detachment. (ibid. 224-5)

 

These ‘private’ joking sessions are examples of this defiant, exclusionary space laughter can be used to create within Cuba; spaces in which a solidarity is formed ‘against’ (or despite?) the repression of the government and the hardships of everyday life. Though this laughter may be profoundly sad, it is also profoundly defiant, and profoundly important.

There is one further role laughter in Cuba may be claimed to fulfil; that of presenting some form of objective ‘truth’; stripped from the ever permeating veneer of political spin (as Arturo Arango asserts, there is a “tremendous politicization of life in Cuba (of everything to do with the island)”  1997:124). Again I turn to Yoani Sanchez to give example to this use of laughter. She highlights the myriad ‘Pepito’ jokes – focussed on the anecdotes of the eponymous Cuban schoolboy – which detail his exploits in dealing with and understanding the bureaucracy and confusion of everyday Cuban life. Sanchez concludes that:

 

The strength of this enfant terrible is his ability to say what we are thinking, but don’t dare to verbalize. Pepito is Cuba, without the masks, without the double standard, without faking it. His anecdotes reflect the daily hardships, the long lines, and the basis of the rationed market. (Sanchez, 2010)

 

Again presented here is a feeling of communality; Pepito says “what we are thinking”, but, because of his legion persona (he is the Cuban people, but with the beneficial safety net of not being attributable to any individual mouth), he can ‘tell it like it is’ “without the masks… without faking it”. So, in a sense, through laughter a ‘more authentic’ vision of Cuban life is represented, or unveiled. Those who laugh at these representations do so because they recognise this glossed-over truth, identify with the picture of ‘real’ real life in Cuba, thus take a position in this inclusionary identity space;

Carlos Puebla: The Laughing Revolutionary

An example par excellence of defiant laughter in Cuba would be in two songs by Carlos Puebla; La OEA Me Causa Risa’ (The OAS[2] Makes me Laugh) and ‘Mira Yanqui, Como Nos Reímos’ (Look Yankee, How We Are Laughing). In both of these songs we hear laughter being used as a physical symbol of Cuba national defiance against exterior political forces, both of whom had, in the 1960s (when both songs were written) engaged in policies of excommunication with Cuba, and were seen by Fidel Castro and his government as forces threatening the identity and sovereignty of Cuba.

In Puebla’s caustic commentaries, an overt sense of defiance is presented. Yet there are subtle differences between the laughter in the two; ‘La OEA…’ presenting an exclusionary identity space, whereas ‘Mira Yankee…’ also creates an inclusionary space through its laughter – the ‘we’ of the title. Yet there is also a tacit sadness in both examples, hinting at the destructive isolation caused by the defiance against both these “external enemies”. By analysing laughter as used in these two songs, perhaps I may create something of a foundation from which to examine in closer detail the uses of laughter in the work of Porno Para Ricardo, suggesting both how the band use laughter in their own identity construction and defiance, but also how this relates to previous examples of Cuban laughter.

 

La OEA Me Causa Risa

 

The cause of mirth in this song is the Organisation of American States; the international political organisation from which Cuba was expelled in 1962; an event to which this song is clearly a reaction. The chorus asks the rhetorical question (echoes in the work of Porno Para Ricardo analysed below):

Como no me voy a reir de la OEA

Si que es una cosa tan fea?

Tan fea que causa risa

How can I not laugh at the OAS

If it is such an ugly thing?

So ugly it causes laughter.

Shades here, at least in intent, of Baudelaire’s concept of “laughter caused by the grotesque”; at “beings whose authority and raison d’être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense”, provoking “an insane and excessive mirth” (1995:156-7). The laughter is set up as addressing something incomprehensible and unnecessary; a defiant stance indeed.

The question is followed by peals of raucous (though musical and rhythmic) laughter from Puebla and his cohorts in harmony and with a wonderful triplet rhythm. Clearly this is not a spontaneous Duchenne laughter; it certainly doesn’t seem to contain within it the “positive emotion” (Keltner and Bonanno, 1997:698) required. Indeed this laughter owes more Thomas Hobbes’ notion of laughter as a “sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” (Hobbes, 1650 [1999], in Provine, 2000:14). A triumph is being claimed almost in this raucous-yet-restrained laughter. Puebla and his group are aping the sort of uncontrolled mirth Baudelaire speaks of as greeting the grotesque, yet simultaneously claiming a triumph by maintaining it within a strict parameter, even producing a musical sound – a dual rhythm and harmony – from it. They are attempting to show both Cuba’s contempt for the OAS, and their ability to function in their own tradition of isolated, autochthonous creativity and ingenuity. That this laughter is performed (and the word ‘performed’ is an apposite one when addressing this bout of laughter) over an overtly Cuban soundscape is telling. The rough-and-ready, live performance of a son – replete with clave, acoustic guitar, cowbell – gives an unmistakably (vehemently) ‘authentic’ Cuban voice to the laughter, as if to align the ‘authentic’ and unquestionably Cuban genre with the derisory laughter at the OAs; making both synonymous with the Cuban nation: son the music of Cuba, defiant laughter at the OAS the opinion of its people.

Mira Yanqui, Como Nos Reímos

A similar rhetoric of defiance is advanced in the song ‘Mira Yanqui…’; using a very similar musical trope of performed uncontrollable laughter. On this occasion, the laughter is aimed directly at the ‘Yanqui’, though it is to political action that the song responds:

De todo lo que tu piensas y dices

en tu manía de difamar

mira yanqui como nos reimos

jajajajajajajajajajaja

 

At everything you think and say

and at your mania for defaming

look Yankee, how we laugh

hahahahahaha

Again, one could cite the Baudelairian notion of uncontrolled mirth at the grotesque here; the presentation of the US as a manic bully intent on destruction, coupled with the defiant laughter of the put-upon Cuban. Such a rhetoric is prevalent in many of Puebla’s other songs, such as ‘y en eso Llego Fidel’ (as discussed in chapter one) and ‘David y Goliath’ (this latter a commonly used parable to describe the Cuban condition by the Revolutionary government).

However, in this case of laughter, there is a more noticeable sense of sadness, even a mania on the part of the laugher, as well as the laughed at. The laughter – in which Puebla, panned hard to the left, is divided from his compatriots, panned hard to the right. Unlike in ‘La OEA…’ Puebla does not sing the defiant precursor to the laughter; this is left to his fellow band members. The laughter is swamped in a spectral reverb; it sounds distant and almost melancholic. This is accentuated by Puebla’s lacklustre laughs (again, panned out to the left and isolated) which sound reluctant, and are curtailed. As for the laughter panned right, it has much more of a feeling of caricature about it than ‘La OEA…’, particularly the high-pitched cackles.

In this laughter, then can be read an embattled sadness – maybe a weariness at the hardship visited upon the nation by ‘everything thought and said’ (and, by inference, done) by ‘los Yanquis’. Whereas in ‘La OEA…’ there is a sense of abandon, of care-free laughter (as there is no significance, no importance in the organisation), the laughter at the ‘Yanquis’ tells of the very real difficulties Cubans in the 1960s faced at the hands at American policy; the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion, the ‘blockade’, the “infamous Peter Pan Program, in which some 14,000 middle-class children were flown out of Cuba to Florida in 1960-2” (Triay 1999:10) and missile crisis were all recent events when Puebla composed ‘Mira Yanqui…’; all were distinctly no laughing matter. Antoni Kapcia has suggested that the early 1960s was perhaps the lowest ebb for Cuba’s “cultural community”; matched, he claims, only by the onset of the special period (Kapcia, 2005:189). So Puebla’s laughter, in light of all these hardships cannot help but ring slightly hollow; defiance wrought into either hubris or a less-than-convincing mask.

Again, I am drawn to the notion of laughter as the “language of misery” as propounded by Maturin, and mirrored in Yoani Sanchez’s blog. Laughter here is a tool to prevent tears (perhaps even hardly distinguishable from tears).

So, to sum up, presented in these two works of Carlos Puebla, are examples of ‘Cuban laughter’, providing a template from which to assess the work of Porno Para Ricardo. It is a defiant laughter, one that creates an identity space through its derisory attitude towards an ‘Other’ – an enemy. Yet simultaneously, the defiant stance is belied by a distinct undercurrent of sadness and a recognition of absurd hardship is understood. As such, it is a ‘truthful’ laughter; one that expresses the un-masked feelings and actions of the ‘real’ Cuba. From these assertions, I will examine two examples of laughter as found in Porno Para Ricardo’s music. Case study one will examine the song ‘Peste a Ratas’ (a song that pays more than a passing reference to Carlos Puebla’s ‘La OEA…’), and demonstrates that the above mentioned ‘Cuban laughter’ is indeed a present part of the band’s identity; a defiant, yet sad space in which, via exclusion and derision of an ‘Other’ (albeit a politically different ‘Other’ (though perhaps equally bureaucratic and unnecessary in the eyes of the singer) from Puebla’s). However, in case study two, I aim to demonstrate that a different kind of laughter is present; one that forges an inclusionary space for identity – that is one where group solidarity is both forged and represented. Though it serves to reinforce the parameters laid out by the exclusionary non-Duchenne laughter, it serves as a more positive, Duchenne laughter, which similarly invites the listener to participate, and thus find themselves as a part of the identity space created.


[1] In this chapter, I am concentrating exclusively upon songs where laughter forms a part of the soundworld of the song, rather than on ‘comedy songs’ designed to provoke laughter in the listener.

[2] The Organisation of American States (OAS) or Organisación de Estados Americanos (OEA) in Spanish.

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