This is an edited version of a story originally published in Spanish.
In 1979, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier used Frenchman François Rabelais’ expression ‘sound-filled islands’ when referring to the Caribbean islands. According to Carpentier:
Todo suena en las Antillas, todo es sonido.
Everything makes a sound in the Antilles; there is noise everywhere.
If everything indeed makes a sound in the Antilles, then what about the silent objects we call books? Caribbean literature might not normally ring out on its own, but one group in the Dominican Republic is giving it a sound.
El Hombrecito (The Little Man) is made up of Frank Báez, Homero Pumarol, Ángel Rosario, Fernando J. Soriano, Wilson López, Vadir González and Jaime Guerra, and combines music, poetry and visual arts in their performances.
In an interview, El Hombrecito member Frank Báez said:
En los encuentros de poetas uno encontraba siempre a los mismos poetas. Nadie se muere por asistir a un recital a poesía pero sí por ir a un concierto. Ese es El Hombrecito, un concierto, poesía, otra experiencia.
In meetings between poets one always came across the same poets. No one is dying to attend a poetry recital in the way they are to attend a concert. That is what El Hombrecito offers: a concert of poetry, a different experience.
El Hombrecito sets the poetry to music such as bachata, rock, or experimental music, and in doing so, aims to bring the literary works of its members to a wider audience.
For example, the group has performed many of the poems published in Báez's 2014 collection, Last Night I Dreamt I Was a DJ / Anoche soñé que era un DJ (Miami, US: Libros Jai-Alai. Bilingual edition). Throughout his series of poems, we find that the writer has made himself into a character, the poet, who is searching for himself everywhere. In one poem, we come across “the Marilyn Monroe from Santo Domingo,” whose drama takes place in both Quisqueya (another name given to the Dominican Republic) and New York.
The pillars of his poems rest on the subtle tension that both unites and separates Dominican culture with global pop culture, the possibility or impossibility of being a writer, and the constant problems between the Caribbean and the United States:
Llamo por teléfono a Miguel y le pregunto
si piensa que me iría mejor de DJ o como poeta
Y Miguel responde que siga como poeta.
Mi novia también dice que como poeta.
El hermano de mi novia dice que como poeta
y una jevita que hacía una fila en el cine
y que recién conocí dice que como DJ.
Anoche soñé que era un DJ.
I call Miguel on the telephone and I ask him
if he thinks I would be better as a DJ or a poet
And Miguel says I should continue as a poet.
My girlfriend also says poet.
My girlfriend's brother says poet
And a girl in the queue at the cinema
Who I have just met says DJ.
Last Night I Dreamt I Was a DJ
Mi primera publicación fue a los dieciocho años
en un suplemento cultural.
Ya no recuerdo de qué iba el poema.
Lo que sí recuerdo es que la publicación fue un fracaso.
Sin leer el poema un puñado de poetas me acusaron de plagio.
Manuel Rueda comentó que debía leer a los clásicos.
Un librero me sugirió los poetas posmodernos.
La que sacaba fotocopias en la facultad
decía que me faltaba sentimiento.
Me prohibieron la entrada en todos los talleres literarios.
Los del suplemento aseguraron que desde que publicaron
mi poema las ventas del periódico bajaron.
I was first published when I was eighteen years old
in a cultural supplement.
I do not remember what the poem was about.
What I do remember is that the publication was a failure.
Without reading the poem a group of poets accused me of plagiarism.
Manuel Rueda commented that I should read the classics.
A librarian suggested I read the post-modern poets.
The girl doing the photocopying in the department
said that I lacked all feeling.
I was banned from all the literary workshops.
The owners of the supplement claimed that since they published
my poem the sales of the newspaper had decreased.
Democratisation of literature
Highlighting some of the characteristics of Latin American and Caribbean literature throughout the years in terms of its use of music, we see that writers on the one hand have referred to traditional European musical styles and genres — so-called high culture or high art, such as symphonies — and on the other to alternative and popular ones.
What music references a writer makes within their text says a lot about who their intended audience is. Puerto Rican writer Frances Aparicio argues that literature from the “boom” era (the influential Latin American literature movement from the 1960s and 1970s) is written for “an ideal bourgeois and intellectual reader, who is already familiar with European, North American and Latin American literature, whereas the “selection of musical texts” in post-boom Caribbean literature “suggests quite the opposite”:
Instead, it represents an openness or democratisation of the ideal Puerto Rican or Caribbean reader, who would recognise the texts using popular music without needing to be a scholar of university or Western culture.
This change shows the ever increasing desire to interact with popular music and with a much wider range of readers.
Music is present in the fictional work of authors such as Puerto Rican Luis Rafael Sánchez, Cubans Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Alejo Carpentier, and Dominicans Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, Pedro Antonio Valdéz or Pedro Vergés, and even in genres such as dub poetry in Jamaica and novela-bolero in Latin America and Spain.
But El Hombrecito is one example of a group taking it a step further, fusing different art forms together to reach a wider audience.
In this way, the writer becomes a performer, and their poetry can live on without the material support of the book: poems can live in the community and in a performance where literature becomes an exhibitionist experience, as Cuban writer Antonio Benítez Rojo would say.
This effort to democratise literature by making references to musical genres like bolero, bachata or guaracha has found an audience on the physical stage and online on YouTube. And the artistic work of El Hombrecito is giving another dimension to the phrase, ‘Everything makes a sound in the Antilles; there is noise everywhere,’ showing us that in the Caribbean, books can also be music.