A review of Ned Sublette’s tome on Cuban music.
We were all surprised when Ned Sublette came out with his hit recording Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures) in 1999. It was the perfect—yet totally unexpected and hard-to-imagine—blend of country-western and Afro-Caribbean music. On it he brought together the likes of Cuba’s NG La Banda and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Puerto Rico’s Yomo Toro and others for a uniquely sound experience.
Born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1951, Sublette was exposed to many genres of music on his travels from Texas to New Mexico and Louisiana, eventually settling in New York. In the mid-80s he fell in love with salsa and that began to solidify his interest in Afro-Caribbean music. Eventually, he traveled to Cuba and began his journey to becoming a real scholar about that island’s music.
Sublette is a classically trained guitarist, a Guggenheim Scholar, a Knight-Luce Fellow for Reporting on Global Religion at the University of Southern California and was producer of a series on Angolan music for the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. He is also the founder of the recording label Qbadisc, which champions Cuban artists and their music.
Given his love for Afro-Caribbean music and his scholarly approach to everything he does, it should come as no surprise that in 2004 he wrote an all-encompassing and thorough book on Cuba’s music titled Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press).
If it has escaped your attention, this is what Rolling Stone had to say about the book: “The most daring, thorough and lively social history of music ever attempted.”
The good news is that it’s never too late to acquire the book and learn.
Sublette starts the story in ancient times in the Iberian Peninsula—long before Cuba was named—setting the historical background that would lead to the “discovery” of the Americas, the creation of the slave trade, the development of polyrhythms. . . all the way to the birth of the mambo.
And believe me, the stops he makes along the way are fascinating.
A few of my favorites . . .
Chapter 12: The Western and Central Sudanic Blues
“If you’ve ever heard an American sax player fail to lock in while jamming with a salsa band, or heard a Cuban band take on a bluesy jazz tune that doesn’t feel right, you know that for all that Afro-Cuban and African American music might have in common, they’re also very different from each other.
Why? Because essential elements of these two musics came from different parts of Africa, entering the New World by different routes, at different times, into differently structured societies.”
Chapter 17: Rumba
“Rumba can refer to the dance or to the music played. But, most important, it refers to the party where it all goes on, a collective, rum-fueled atmosphere. María Teresa Linares described the workings of such a party: ‘Rumberos are selective. Everyone who participates has to be good, and everyone struggles to be the best.’
Chapter 30: The Liberation of the Drum
“The single most important thing that happened in Cuban music in the post-Machado era was the liberation of the drum. With drums decriminalized and black musicians more assertive, the clave—the thing that gave the melody its nerve, defined a tune as Cuban, made the music snap and dance . . . ”
It’s true that Sublette makes difficult stops too. There is the brutal suppression of slave uprisings and the corruption of the Batista regime. But the backdrop of music, melodies, dances and rhythms take us to the mambo and the journey is worth it.
I won’t pretend this book is an easy read. But to anyone serious about the music, it is highly recommended. Take it as slow and easy as you like. Just make sure you finish it because he has promised more.
Ending his book in the 1950s, he writes: “To be continued . . . ”