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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Bemba Colorá

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Andrés Hincapié Education: PhD Economics, MSc Economics, BSc Industrial Engineering Profession: Tenure-Track Professor in the Department of Economics at UNC - Chapel Hill. Other: Host of The Mix(ed)tape Podcast, Dancer of Cobo Brothers Dance Company Column Name: Afro-Latin Mix(ed)tape: This column will be join with Mix(ed)tape co-host Melissa Villodas. Melissa Villodas, PhD LMSW LCSW-A is the co-host of the Mix(ed)tape Podcast, a project that takes an anti-racist approach to center the contribution of Black people and culture across Latin America and its diaspora through dance and music. She is a recent PhD graduate from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the role of connectedness and where we live on the health and wellness of marginalized groups. Melissa received her Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in 2015 from New York University (NYU), and Bachelors of Arts in English writing from Nyack College in 2012. In her free time, Melissa enjoys dancing and has been dancing to Afro-Latin music for 6 years. Melissa started her dance journey in 2016 with Lorenz Latin Dance Studio in the Bronx, NY and has been dancing with the Cobo Brothers Dance Company since 2019.

Bemba Colorá
(Title inspired by the by the song composed by José Claro Fúmero and interpreted by Celia Cruz)

Today we offer you a contextualization of the song “Bemba Colorá.” Bemba Colorá was a song composed by the Cuban songwriter and musician José Claro Fúmero, who was born in Matanzas in 1906 and who is said to have arranged much of the Afro-Cuban music in the repertoire of the famous Cuban band La Sonora Matancera. However, it’s probably not because of José Claro that you know the song Bemba Colorá , but because of the most famous singer that interpreted it. None other than the Black Cuban singer and brilliant performer Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, who in her long career interpreted many songs that pay homage to Afro-Cuban culture and its various religious practices.

We wanted to address Bemba Colorá because a friend of the Mix(ed)tape Podcast asked us whether the song was about a lovers’ quarrel or about belittling a Black man by using his facial features. Taken at face value, the song talks about the worthlessness of a Black man because of his bemba colorá. But what’s a bemba colorá? What does it imply? We’ll have to dig a little.

The song starts with a very animated rhythm. The lyrics then repeat several times, “to me, you are worthless, your bemba is colorá.” So, what is “bemba”? In short, bemba refers to a person’s big lips, and that person is often understood to be Black. Author José María Enguita Utrilla affirms in the book “La Lengua Española en América” (p. 283) that the word bemba is an example of the African influence in the Spanish lexicon. “Colorá” can be loosely translated as “red.” In this context, the fact that the person in question has red big lips somehow renders them worthless. Up to this point, the lyrics seem to be a case of anti-Blackness.

Let’s look now at these lines, “sing your rumba, sing your son, your little guaracha, and your danzón; to me, you are worthless, your bemba is colorá”. All these rhythms (rumba, guaracha, son, and danzón) are Afro-Cuban. If we had doubts that the person with the bemba colorá was a Black male, we can safely assume at this stage of the song that that’s what they are, because of the meaning of the word bemba, and because at the time when the song was written the singers on these rhythms were predominantly male and Black.

It seems that the song does use the belittling of Blackness as a lyrical tool, something that is not uncommon in Latin music. Philosophy PhD Robin Dale Moore shares our view about the song in their dissertation “Nationalizing Blackness.” He note that “[t]he lyrics include rather derogatory and racist commentary.”

It now seems rather difficult to argue that the song is about an unfaithful man (a common interpretation of the song). Even if the song was truly referring to a lovers’ quarrel, said conflict includes a Black man who is being belittled with words that point to his Black facial features.

But the song continues with its contagious rhythm. The lyrics continue as well, they say “pick up your big lips, you’re worthless, haven’t you seen that your big lips are red?” It is difficult not to describe Bemba Colorá as a deafening piece, not only because of its rhythm, but also, as it is common in salsa music, because the festiveness of the song hides some of its harsher meanings from unsuspected listeners, allowing them to enjoy the happy vibes of the song without engaging with the anti-Blackness right in front of their eyes.

It’s worth remembering that José Claro, the composer, is said to have arranged most of the Afro-Cuban music for La Sonora Matancera. In fact, the celebrated Afro-Cuban writer Nancy Morejón in her poem “Manto,” describes the virtue of his music. Although José Claro was most likely Afro-Cuban himself, the anti-Blackness in the song is curiously self-inflicted.

Bemba Colorá, and its belittling of Black features as a lyrical tool, is likely nothing but a mirror reflecting the anti-Blackness in the society of José Claro’s time. The song reminds us of the struggle many people of color face with internalized racism. Even if we choose to believe that the song is completely rooted in a lovers’ quarrel and an unfaithful man, there is still an alarming display of how we as Black people can often choose to see and speak to each other – through the eyes and from the beliefs of white supremacy. Perhaps we can use the song as an invitation to speak (even in our anger) with truth, rather than with harmful, self-deprecatory anti-Black words and phrases that have corroded our culture.

Were we listening?


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