Cuba And Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo
by Ned Sublette
Chicago Review Press
Ask any respected writer and you’ll find that a burning curiosity usually precedes good writing. For Ned Sublette it certainly fueled the penning of Cuba and Its Music. Sublette is honest and frank from the start that his book is not an encyclopedia and is just one of many perspectives on the history, influence and importance of Cuban music. And even though it’s dense in appearance the book never gives way to snobbery or academic pretension. Sublette tells the rich story of Cuban music– a first of two volumes, he notes– in a flowing narrative starting with archeological footnotes from as far back as 760 B.C. and following the rhythmic evolution until March 10, 1952.
His point is to “illustrate that in the United States, Cuban music has to be regarded as the Other Great Tradition, a fundamental music of the New World.” Sublette has succeeded in this first volume on two levels. First is the following through of his vision of documenting the influence of Cuban music on Rock n’ Roll– which he notes has never really been done in a way he felt did Cuban music justice. Secondly, he spins the narrative by using a voice that both educates and keeps you reading all through the 600-plus pages. Of course, Sublette does assume a few things from the reader; that you have a love for music (you probably wouldn’t be reading this review if you didn’t) and that you want to genuinely know the detailed and cultural history behind the American rock music that woos you every time you reach for your favorite classic Rock n’ Roll tune.
The Lubbock Texas-native and Qbadisc label owner’s initial love affair with Cuban rhythms began when he became a “salsaholic” in the late 1960s and early 1970s after gravitating away from three-chord rock, and started hanging around the New York salsa scene.
After immersing himself in the New York salsa scene, a series of circumstances planted the book’s seed. While at a New York party Sublette met music writer Robert Palmer during which Sublette says the two “jabbered” about Cuban music’s influence on Rock n Roll. Shortly after their meeting Sublette headed to Cuba for the first time. More conversations transpired with Palmer who joined Sublette on his second Cuban voyage. On that trip Palmer elaborated on his disappointment concerning the lack of writing about the influence of Cuban music on Rock n Roll. Sublette laments that Palmer died in 1997 without publishing those thoughts or much beyond his 1988 Spin article “The Cuban Connection.” Ever since Palmer’s passing, Sublette wanted, “to transmit those ideas that Palmer gave me.” Sublette didn’t realize that he had already started do so during his first trip to Cuba where he began interviewing any Cuban artist he could. What followed, after subsequent trips, was the creation of Sublette’s Cuban music show on National Public Radio as a part of Afropop Worldwide. From there he says the book existed in several forms without him fully realizing that he was actually writing a book.
Even though the book appears academic it reads like a flowing musical novel– complete with a suggested listening index– and is a fantastic read that demands your attention without slamming you over the head with gobs of historical facts. The history of Cuban rhythms is painted in broad strokes and engaging touches of detailed historical context. All this history could’ve been a snore-fest but Sublette guides you like a gifted storyteller through years of rich musical history. He will keep you turning the page and soaking up hidden knowledge of rock n roll that follows a basic priciple; “musicians lost their viginity a long time ago, so reports of immaculate conception are to be viewed with suspicion. Every new spark illuminates something that already exists.” Sublette also believes artists work with already existing elements and it’s up to the musical historian to uncover the historical influence behind those elements.
Rightfully so, he gives due respect to the thousands of Latin musicians who have contributed to the evolution of the Cuban sound, and as a fan/musician himself, he writes with a fanatically contagious excitement and the astuteness of a trained artist– which together made me want to run down to the nearest music shop (or download, I guess) and pick up the music, mirroring his mentorship under record story owner Harry Sepulveda. Sublette explains amusing revelations, like when he discovered that the roots to the classic rock song “Louie, Louie” can be traced to the Cha Cha and how his favorite elements of mid-sixties rock were revisited. Other similar moments confirm that this book is designed to enhance the life of any music fan who lives, breathes and depends on the very fabric of music to survive everyday.
With his vast knowledge of Cuban music history, Sublette could easily come off as a snob but that never happens. He admits he’s not an academic and he probably left some things out. Omission was unavoidable to tell this story which hasn’t been fully told and needs to be. We need Sublette’s historical perspective; especially in a culture that often lacks proper context or knows its history. Cuba and Its Music is a courageous first step in the right direction to understanding rock’s past and understanding what musicians and music writers can offer here in the present. Let’s just hope that Sublette doesn’t take too long with volume two.