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A Cuban Regguetón

Posted on January 02, 2023

Part of "Mural de la prehistoria" (Prehistoric Mural) by Leovigildo González Morillo, Viñales, Cuba. Photo by Cheri Baker. License: CC by 2.0.

There is no theorem
just the combination
10,000 years of going with digressions . . .

So begins Kristin Dykstra's translation of Omar Pérez's musically-inspired poem about navigating life without a map or pre-ordained "system." Entitled "There is No Theorem," the poem is available in both Spanish and English, and is especially well-suited to students interested in music: the translation as well as the original is highly musical and composed with an ear towards performance.

The poem is also notably rhythmic and musical in both its English translation and the original. In an essay on translating the poem, Kristin Dykstra writes:

In much of his work, Omar uses reversals: reversing common expectations, opposing even himself. I started to see the poem as both using and contradicting expectations of what a “reggaetón” might do. . .

Looking backwards now, and at Omar’s poetry as a whole, his poem reads to me mostly as an exploration of how the arts will always gain new potential, with great energy infusions, from two habits of mind: (1) refusing to respect disciplinary divides, and (2) embracing new makers and ideas . . .

As it embraces new creators and their sounds, ". . . Theorem" crisscrosses the borders that separate poetry and music, high art and popular culture. Its rhythms, linguistic style, and almost aggressive tone all seem to be influenced by regguetón songs; however, its lyrical concerns fall outside the usual topics for regguetóns.

The poem begins with a story of ancient humans, descending from the trees in search of "phonemes": parts and systems that might help us understand life. The problem is, the mist gets into everything, "puts surf into the philosopheme," and there is no theorem that can prepare any of us for what we encounter. The speaker suggests that instead of looking for one, the listener should instead:

conceive of your problem
as a single law stained infinite
that says what it says
and what it says, is flame.

(concibe tu problema
como una sola ley teñida de infinito
que dice lo que dice
y lo que dice, quema.)

Meet the Author and Translator

In a PBS interview, students can hear from Omar Pérez, who in addition to being a poet is also a drummer, Buddhist monk, Shakespearean translator, and son of the revolutionary Che Guevara.

In an essay published in the magazine Words Without Borders, translator Kristin Dykstra tells about the Ohio teacher who inspired her interest in Spanish and provides an answer to the common question of why poets can't just say what they mean: "Resistance to thoughtless forms of efficiency and convenience is one of poetry’s superpowers."

She has also written an essay for WWB Campus about translating this particular poem. In that essay, she describes what it is like to translate work from someone of a different gender, commenting: "Sometimes you need to create an unrealistic state of mind to do a translation."

The Music of ". . . Theorem"

The first few pages of Kristin Dykstra's essay provides a brief history of regguetón in Cuba and a reflection on this genre, beginning with this passage:

Historically, the roots of reggaetón have been associated with Panama, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, drawing on salsa, reggae, rumba, rap, and dancehall. Nora Gámez Torres . . . found that this kind of music moved through Havana via CDs and mp3s that people passed hand to hand. People in more established music industry positions described reggaetón as displaying “bad taste,” artistically, and they rejected it on moral grounds, pointing to the obscenity in its lyrics and the hypersexuality of its culture.

Yet Gámez argued that the amateurism and transgression of reggaetón shouldn’t be dismissed without further exploration. For example, regguetón offered degrees of accessibility: in addition to its alternative production and distribution, its dance style required less space than others (231-232).

In the final sections of that essay, Kristin Dykstra also highlights the contributions of women like Ivy Queen, Karol G, and Celia Cruz to Caribbean and international music.

When asked about musical inspirations behind the poem, Omar Pérez responded that it was part of a series inspired by regguetóns. He also shared what he emphasized was a short list of influential Cuban musicians from many different eras, working across multiple genres: Ernesto Lecuona, Amadeo Roldan, Ignacio Piñeiro, Maria Teresa Vera, Juan Formell, Martha Valdes, Leo Brower, Chucho Valdes, and Silvio Rodríguez. There is much more to discover in Cuban music, and Pérez suggested listening to the podcast Cubakustica, available on SoundCloud and on the Diario de Cuba website.

Below is an audio file from one of the musicians on Omar's list: Silvio Rodríguez, whose folk-influenced "Canción del Elegido" (Song of the Chosen), is about an interplanetary being who travels the galaxy searching for warmth and joy, but instead discovers war.

Like Omar Pérez, the Puerto Rican duo calle 13 often lyrically transgresses beyond the usual topics of popular contemporary music. We recommend the video for "Pa'l norte", a reggaeton about the Latinx experience in the US. One of the lines that seems to thematically connect to ". . . Theorem" is "aprendí a caminar sin mapa," which translates into English as, "I learned to walk without a map."

Teaching the Poem

The translation's use of complex vocabulary places it at about an eleventh grade reading level, but a reader or listener can access its meaning without knowing the definitions of all the words. Therefore, we recommend ". . . Theorem" for students in high school and beyond.

Kristin Dykstra's essay suggests some possible approaches and conversations around the poem. Those ideas are below, accompanied by questions that could guide classroom explorations:

  • Examining assumptions about popular musical genres ("What do we expect from this kind of music? What surprises us about this poem? What is the particular history of regguetón in Cuba, and does this history offer additional insights into ' . . . Theorem'?")
  • Looking at poems that resist "sloganeering" or political propaganda. ("What are the points of connection between " . . .Theorem" and the Chinese poem "Two or Three Things from the Past"? See Teaching Idea 1 for that poem for additional details.)
  • Considering the translator's choices ("How does the English translation convey the musicality of the original? How does the poetic voice assert authority?")

As a culminating assignment, students might create their own "music videos" for the poem, with sound and imagery that reflects their understanding of its meaning. For examples of such videos for other poems, see the blog post on the Afro-Brazilian poem "My Man" and the Playlist tab for the Mexican poem "Sleepless Homeland". You might also ask students to submit short written explanations of their creative choices along with their videos.

* Regguetón is alternatively spelled “reggaetón” and “reguetón," as well as with and without an accent. Kristin Dykstra comments: "I like that unpredictable variety. It embodies the essence of popular culture . . . "