CUBA AND ITS MUSIC: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Ned
Sublette. Chicago Review Press. 688 pages. $36.
Journey to Cuba, through its music Posted on Sun, Aug. 29, 2004
An exhaustive study of how music is shaped by economics, politics and culture.
Cuba and its Music opens with a bold statement: ''This is a history of music from a Cuban point of view.'' That's a big claim, but it's true. Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo is a vital history not just of Cuban but also of Latin and American popular music. Not only does it trace Cuban music's deepest roots in Africa and Spain but also ties it together with a cultural and political history of Cuba. This is a fascinating story of how music is shaped by economics, politics and culture, and how it becomes a force of its own.
A musician, musicologist, producer, record company owner and occasional journalist with a long and passionate relationship with Cuban music, Ned Sublette is uniquely qualified to write this book. His combination of erudition and practical experience enables him to analyze everything from African rhythmic patterns to the importance of the island's first recording studio. And he's not afraid to go with his instincts. ''There are clues within music to the migrations of culture, if one knows enough music and listens deeply enough,'' he writes.
This leads to a lot of ''would haves'' in the narrative. But it also allows Sublette to make some thrilling leaps, as when he extrapolates from the musical traditions of the different African slave populations in the United States and Cuba to explain why Afro-Cuban music syncopates and African-American music swings. When he writes about Phoenician dancing girls shaking their booties down to the ground, it not only brings ancient history to juicy life, but also makes an instantly comprehensible case for funk as a force from pre-history to the present.
Cuba and its Music is actually several stories rolled together, which are as little understood as they are important to popular music. One is the story of how Cuban and U.S. music have influenced each other, from ragtime to rock. In the introduction, Sublette quotes Mario Bauza, the great Cuban bandleader/composer who was one of the architects of Latin jazz. ''We came here and changed your American music from the bottom up! And nobody knows this! Nobody writes about this!'' Actually, John Storn Roberts wrote about it in 1979's The Latin Tinge, but Sublette makes a much more compelling case. Together with the tale of how the United States influenced and bullied Cuba, from the economic takeover after Cuba's war of independence with Spain in 1898 through the sanctioning of mobster-run gambling, the story makes for a mesmerizing subtext about the complex relationship between the two countries.
The other important narrative here is that of African music as the central force in Cuban and North American music. Sublette has a profound respect for African music and culture, and an equally strong indignation over how racism suppressed the African side of Cuban music. For instance, the Cuban custom of working slaves to death and replacing them with cheaper new ones from Africa kept African culture in Cuba constantly, if cruelly, refreshed.
In balancing between general and musical history, Sublette sometimes gets into obscure terrain. Some of his musical analyses will be incomprehensible to the average reader, and he can go on for what seems like forever on who played with what band when and where. But generally Sublette manages this difficult balance well. After all, the depth of information is part of what gives Cuba and its Music its substance. Ending in 1952, on the verge of the Cuban popular music explosion of the 1950s and the Cuban Revolution is also puzzling. Sublette seems to plan a sequel, since his last line is ''to be continued.'' But the achievements of Cuba and its Music far outweigh the shortcomings.
His book comes at an interesting time. Cuban musicians are now virtually barred from visiting the States, and it has become much more difficult for Americans to travel to the island. That seems a pity. But given how closely connected the music is, one doubts the musicians will be separated for long.
Jordan Levin is a Herald arts writer.