The song in this video is an AfroCuban lullaby called “Drume Negrita.” In the song, an AfroCuban mother is trying to sing her baby daughter to sleep. She tells her baby that if she goes to sleep, she’ll buy her a new crib with a cap on it and a bell. I heard this song a lot growing up; when my father was feeling especially nostalgic for home he would sing “Drume Negrita” to himself. In an effort to connect his kids to their culture, he would share little bits of information about the song with us from time to time to help us understand its cultural significance. Like the fact that pronunciation in the song was bit different from standard Spanish because it was sung in an AfroCuban dialect—so “Duermes” turned into “Drume.”
My understanding of Latinidad is very deeply rooted in the cultural knowledge my father shared with me. As a Cuban refugee, he was usually our only tangible connection to a family we never met, a country we never saw, and a history rarely taught to us.
When he talked about “Drume Negrita,” he would also tell us about Bola De Nieve, the man who sings the song in the video above. Ignacio Jacinto Villa was a prominent AfroCuban pianist during the 20th century. Although his stage name literally translates to “Snowball,” he was a dark-skinned AfroCuban man. As an artist he had an affinity for folk music and traditional AfroCuban songs, which he studied while in university. Though he originally intended to become a professor of music, he decided to pursue music outside of academia, becoming an elite Cuban artist. His music honors the heritage and history of AfroCubans in a country that exploited the work of African slaves as the basis of its sugar industry. His music provided me my first glimpses of Cuban history, long before I would be taught any of it in a classroom.
Bola De Nieve was also a gay man and a Fidelisto. In fact, he is one of the few queer Cubans who were spared during the revolution because of his strong support for communism. These last two things were never part of the factoids my father would share with us. Dad never liked to talk about politics with us and he definitely never wanted to talk to us about sexuality.
For me, Bola De Nieve’s music evokes strong feelings about cultural preservation. When I hear his songs, I hear a man who dedicated his career to preserving and honoring African contributions to Cuban culture; I hear my father teaching me about Bola De Nieve, about my heritage; I hear the frustrations of my younger self, struggling to understand what it meant to be queer and Latin@ without role models. Learning about the cultural significance of Villa helped me understand my own place within the Cuban community—as a second generation Cuban, as a queer Cuban, as a Latin@ in America.
By Mylanie Sanchez