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Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

3.3 3
by Ned Sublette

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The music of Cuba is "a fundamental music of the New World" and has been deeply influential on the music of its northern neighbor, the United States. Addressing the neophyte, Sublette (a former coproducer of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide and cofounder of the record label Qbadisc) explores the history of Cuban music, which in his eyes cannot be


The music of Cuba is "a fundamental music of the New World" and has been deeply influential on the music of its northern neighbor, the United States. Addressing the neophyte, Sublette (a former coproducer of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide and cofounder of the record label Qbadisc) explores the history of Cuban music, which in his eyes cannot be disentangled from Cuban history generally. He characterizes the history of the music as one "of cultural collisions, of voluntary and forced migrations, of religions and revolutions." His narrative travels from the Spanish and African roots of Cuban music through colonial times and up to the eve of the revolutionary period. Distributed by Independent Publishers Group. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
If you're not an expert on Cuban music, you will be by the time you finish Ned Sublette's unequaled treatment of this most unexamined (in English, at least) subject. A musical explorer who has visited Cuba dozens of times in the past 14 years, run a Cuban music label, and fronted what's probably the world's only salsa-country band, Sublette tells three stories in this hefty volume, stories that have not been told particularly well in this country up to now. The first concerns the African musical diaspora, which of course makes up the lion's share of both Cuban and American music. The varied expression of these African roots in the United States and its Caribbean neighbors is the jumping-off point for a fascinating discussion of African cosmology, history, and musical traditions, as well as the slave trade. The dozens of pages that Sublette devotes to detailing ethnic migrations across the African continent is perhaps the most concise encapsulation of Africa's precolonial history that casual readers will come across. Alone, it provides an invaluable understanding of a wide swath of music history, from flamenco to jazz to Cuba's many rhythms. Concurrently, Sublette tells the history of Cuba -- again, a subject little known in this country, where relations with "the pearl of the Antilles" went south nearly a half century ago. Cuba and Its Music follows the story up until 1952; even without engaging the divisive topic of Fidel Castro, Sublette's book is shocking. The U.S.-backed kleptocracy of 20th-century Cuba is laid bare in a scenario that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone reading about Iraq today. Finally, of course, this book tells the story of Cuban music, tracing the long roots of its Spanish, African, Native American, and French antecedents. From dock-working rumba groups to the modernist lights of the concert hall, Sublette makes a compelling narrative from a dizzying riot of musical forms. He not only puts the careers of the Buena Vista Social Club, Celia Cruz, and Desi Arnáz in perspective but also provides a field guide to an island overflowing with music. Of the many things this invaluable guide does masterfully is to inspire voracious listening. With engaging writing, coherent arguments, and enviably thorough research, Cuba and Its Music is the best kind of popular scholarship. Even longtime aficionados of Latin music will hear their favorite records with fresh ears after this read. Very highly recommended. Mark Schwartz
Approachable both for readers new to the country's rich musical history and for devotees who have already succumbed to its rhythms.
Global Rhythm Magazine
Told with humor, affection and authority, this account...is destined to become one of the definitive texts on the subject.
New York Times
A magnificent labor of love and advocacy...Remarkably thorough yet genially readable.
New West Indian Guide
"Ned Sublette knows what he is saying and how to say it."
The Village Voice
The most thorough and colorful argument for just how elemental Cuban music has been to American culture.”
LA Weekly
Casually mind-blowing . . . this belongs on your shelf between Joseph Campbell and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Jazz Times
A stunning achievement, immensely valuable to Afro-Cuban music newbies and experts alike.
Rolling Stone
The most daring, thorough, and lively social history of music ever attempted.
The most ambitious of the recent studies of Cuban music . . . Essential.
Afropop Worldwide
A work of radical obsession, driven by a profound love of Cuban music.
Publishers Weekly
As the cofounder of the important Cuban music label Qbadisc and coproducer of public radio's Afropop Worldwide, Sublette is a well-known figure among elite mambo aficionados. Still, the sheer size and historical precision that makes this volume essential is a bit surprising coming from this proud nonacademic. The first two chapters, for instance, offer a fascinating narrative that explains the complex formulation of Iberian culture, beginning with the appearance of Phoenician traders in what is now the southern Spanish city of C diz in 1104 B.C. When the Cuban story finally kicks in with chapter five, Sublette makes the most of his prehistory to create a visceral and astute vision of the island as incubator of musical revolution. Most of the story has been told before, but rarely in such painstaking detail, and Sublette's easygoing and engaging writing style makes the reading almost painless, although sometimes his analysis is overly determined by politics. His most important accomplishment is combining information from rarely translated musicological works from Cuba with data from his active involvement with surviving giants of the music to produce one sustained, living history. Given all this, it is odd that he ends the book so abruptly, in 1952, especially since he has participated so much in the music's recent permutations. While not exactly for beginners, this book is a solid, supremely lush effort. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Magesterial . . . absorbing . . .fascinating . . . enlightening . . . compulsively readable pages . . . anyone [interested in Cuban music] should be reading this right now.
Library Journal
In this fascinating first volume of a two-part chronicle, Sublette, a musician, self-made scholar, radio show host, and record producer based in New York City, ranges across Africa, Spain, the Caribbean isles, and Central, South, and North America from the 16th century to 1952 to document Cuban music's wide influence. While paying particular attention to societal changes, he describes in great detail how the music of certain African regions was brought over to the New World and helped produce the rhythmic and dynamic music of Cuba (which, in turn, influenced ragtime, jazz, and rhythm & blues, a point that will be traced fully in Volume 2). His grand scope is a reminder of how little most Americans know about their nearby neighbor and its culture, and though not novel, this point deserves reiteration. Sublette's accessible writing should appeal to a popular as well as a scholarly audience. Maya Roy's recent Cuban Music makes similar historical and sociological connections, but it lacks the depth and accessibility of Sublette's book. A welcome addition to the very small field of books available on Cuban music.-Bill Walker, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“Ned Sublette is widely regarded as one of Cuban music's most knowledgeable and passionate experts. As enthralling as it is comprehensive, his book breathes life and fire into the whole history of Cuban music.” —Bonnie Raitt

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Cuba and Its Music

From the First Drums to the Mambo

By Ned Sublette

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 Ned Sublette
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-420-6


The Highest-Priced Slaves

... Tyre will become like the whore in the song:
Take your lyre, walk the town,
forgotten whore.
Play your sweetest, sing your songs again,
to make them remember you.

— Isaiah 23:15–16

An accomplished singing-girl has a repertoire of upwards of four thousand songs, each of them two to four verses long, so that the total amount of poetry contained in it, if one multiplies one figure by the other, comes to ten thousand verses ... They are all founded on references to fornication, pimping, passion, yearning, desire and lust.

— al-Gahiz (776–869)

Separated from Europe by the Pyrenees on the northeast and from North Africa by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar to the south — through each of which gateways it has been invaded various times — the Iberian peninsula's physical isolation created its identity. The drainage of its rivers toward the southwest and the mountains of its central area suggest that the peninsula, as Barry Cunliffe put it, "turns its back on the Mediterranean and faces the Atlantic." In ancient times, then, from the Iberian point of view, Europe was inaccessible, there was an endless ocean of water to the west, mountains separated the Mediterranean coast from the rich southern Iberian basin, and to the south was Africa, an ocean of land.

Spaniards visiting Havana today sometimes remark that it reminds them of Cádiz. The oldest city in western Europe, Gadir, or Cádiz, was established on an island off the southern (Atlantic) coast of the Iberian peninsula as a silver-mining center by the people who called themselves can'ani (Canaanites), and who are more commonly known by their Greek name: Phoenicians. Evidence in Greek literature dates Cádiz's founding at or around 1104 B.C., though that date may refer only to early maritime contacts, since the earliest archaeological evidence for a permanent settlement suggests a date somewhere around 760 B.C.

A Semitic people whose stronghold was at Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were trading people. Known for their purple-dyed textiles, they created the first seagoing merchant empire. Their language was mutually intelligible with that of the Israelites; they are depicted in the Bible as commercial partners of the Israelites (with Tyre the more commercially powerful of the two) but more often as immortal enemies. The king of Tyre sent builders and sold wood from the cedars and firs of Lebanon to King David for his palace and to King Solomon for his temple; on the other hand, the wicked idolatress Jezebel was a Phoenician, and the Tyreans committed "fornication with all the peoples of the earth" and trafficked in Israelite slaves.

The Phoenicians' greatest legacy to the world was disseminating the alphabet; variants of their names for the letters (alef, bet ...) survive today. In pulling the southern part of the Iberian peninsula into the orbit of the eastern Mediterranean, the Phoenicians brought their literate, mercantile, urban culture to Iberia, along with their religion.

The world at this time was polytheistic. In the time of King Solomon and later, Israelites worshipped the Phoenician gods Baal-Shamem (known to the Greeks as Zeus), Baal-Melqart (Herakles), and Astarte (Aphrodite). The Phoenicians practiced child sacrifice, which, the Bible tells us, Israelites also did at times: "They disregarded all the commandments of the Lord, their God ... and served Baal. They immolated their sons and daughters by fire."

The silver from Cádiz supplied much of the Phoenicians' wealth, and the town was an important port, in continual use from the time of its founding until today. The Phoenicians must have brought a variety of peoples with them at one time or another, almost certainly including the people we now call Jews. They soon established other coastal settlements along southern Iberia, which historians refer to, at that time, as Tartessos; they also established trading posts along the northern coast of Africa, across the Mediterranean from Iberia.

* * *

There seems to be no definitive explanation of the origins of the early Iberians. Since Iberia and North Africa are separated by only thirteen kilometers at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, it seems plausible that Africans might have arrived in remote times from the south (as refugees on wretched rafts do today). If so, coming directly from Africa, they might have been the first homo sapiens to enter Europe.

The skillfully executed cave paintings at Altamira in northern Spain are approximately eighteen thousand years old. Whether the Paleolithic people who made those paintings vanished, or whether they were ancestral to the people whom the Phoenicians found when they arrived, it is clear that the Iberian peninsula has been densely occupied for thousands of years — except for the cold, dry, rocky Central Plateau, which was barely settled in prehistoric times, and which effectively divides Iberia into northern and southern regions.

A wave of aboriginal Iberians might have come to the peninsula at some point across the Pyrenees from the northeast; conceivably, they might even have arrived via the Mediterranean. In the north, the Basques, whose origin is unknown, seem to be Europe's oldest extant culture, and their language seems to predate the spread of Indo-European languages. But, certainly, there was contact with Africa from early on: in the south, ivory from North Africa is known to have been imported into, and worked locally in, the present area of La Mancha about 1700–1600 B.C.

To live in a coastal town in the ancient world was to be cosmopolitan, in frequent, prolonged contact with people from other civilizations. Through the port of Cádiz, the Phoenicians' jewel at the western end of the known world, passed the luxury goods of the day. Like other far western colonies of the Phoenicians, Cádiz was a highly organized urban center, with houses arranged on rectangular street blocks. From the time of its founding, Cádiz must have boasted — like her granddaughter Havana more than two thousand years later — a robust service economy of taverns, gambling, dancing, and fornicating to accommodate the traveling sailors and merchants.

The indigenous society the Phoenicians penetrated was already politically stable, had elaborate art, and practiced magical religions about which we know little. The Gaditanos (people of Cádiz) were known for the number and extent of their fishing voyages in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, which they undertook in small boats. The Greek geographer Strabo (63/4 B.C. to about A.D. 21) wrote of Dídyme, a part of Cádiz: "Few reside there, since they all spend most of their time at sea." The Phoenicians, writes a Spanish historian, "had at their service large boats, which were manned by [Gaditanian] sailors who came from the humble ranks of fishermen and driven by expert pilots of the same origin."

How far down the west coast of Africa the Gaditanos traveled is a matter of some conjecture. If aboriginal Iberians originally came from North Africa, there may already have been some knowledge of what lay south. The Phoenicians, who as traders would have been interested in the rich raw materials and exotic products of Africa, established, apparently in the seventh century B.C., the colony of Mogador, a small island off the African coast some 600 miles south of Cádiz. This was probably the colony referred to in Greek writings as Cerne, and may represent the southern extreme of the area known to the Gaditanian fishermen, whose knowledge of the area likely preceded its commercial exploitation by the Phoenicians.

The Greek writer Pseudo-Scylax wrote of commerce at Cerne in the early sixth century B.C.:

The Ethiopians are found on the mainland. It is with these same Ethiopians that [the Phoenicians] trade. [The Phoenicians] sell [their wares] in exchange for the skins of gazelles, lions and leopards and also for skins and tusks of elephants and domestic animals. ... [The Ethiopians] also have a great city to which the Phoenician traders also sail.

Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C., tells of the three-year circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors at the behest of the Egyptians; and Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., wrote of the Phoenician Hanno's voyage down the West African coast, which would likely have been sometime after 425 B.C. (since Herodotus doesn't mention it). Some historians doubt that either of these events could have actually occurred; even Pliny seems doubtful about Hanno. A tenth-century A.D. document in Greek purports to be a copy of a translation of Hanno's account of his voyage, though scholarly opinion is mixed as to the document's authenticity. Among the adventures it narrates is a journey up a river called Chretes, perhaps describing the Senegal River. According to this document, Hanno's interpreters on his voyage were "Lixitae," assumed by some scholars to mean the indigenous people of North Africa, now called the Berbers, a fair-skinned people who had trade routes that ran down across the Sahara into black Africa.

The Sahara was not a desert until some 3,600 to 4,000 years ago, though it probably had an inhospitable desert core for much longer. The contact between black Africans and the proto-Berbers was, according to Oliver and Fage, "probably continuous since the wet phase of the seventh to the fourth millennia B.C., when much of the Sahara was grassland and the hunting grounds of Afroasiatic and black peoples overlapped."

The extent of black influence on Semitic society has been much debated. At the very least, it appears that the Phoenicians were in direct contact with black Africans from their earliest days of trading in North Africa. A sculpture found in a Phoenician cavern-tomb near Cádiz appears to depict the head of an African; it is also well established that the Phoenicians had at least some black slaves. In short, it seems very likely that, one way or another, black people were part of the traffic that circulated through Cádiz. Indeed, one could pose the question in the negative: given the location of Cádiz and its dedication to travel and commerce, why would anyone assume there were not black Africans in Cádiz, drinking and dancing along with everyone else?

* * *

There is evidence of Celtic presence in the north of Iberia from the seventh century B.C. By that time, the Celts, a people of unknown origin, already had iron swords. They mixed with the Iberian natives, forming the tribes historians call Celtiberian. Greek influence was felt in Iberia from the mid-sixth century B.C. The Greeks established the trading town of Emporion (as in "emporium") on the Mediterranean coast, but never colonized Iberia. In 237 B.C., the Carthaginians — Phoenicians who had colonized North Africa, with their capital at Carthage, in present-day Tunisia — invaded. By the end of the century, they had been driven out by the upstart Romans, during the course of which war the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched across the Alps from Spain with tens of thousands of men, as well as horses and battle elephants, the latter brought from Africa.

With the acquisition of what they called Hispania, the Romans reached the western end of the known world, and enclosed the Mediterranean. Around 206 B.C., the Roman general Scipio Africanus the Elder built the city of Itálica (today called Santiponce), a few miles outside of Hispalis (Sevilla), on the river Baeta (the Guadalquivir). Itálica boasted an amphitheater, built to entertain the plebes, with a capacity of twenty-five thousand people — the largest, but not the only, amphitheater in Hispania. As in Rome, there were gladiator contests, boxing and javelin matches, circuses, theatrical presentations, concerts, feasts, and orgies. To the Roman taste for wine, the Spanish added their own taste for beer.

Cádiz, the second largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome itself, was known for its licentiousness, even among the pagan Romans. There are no histories from antiquity devoted solely to the subject of Iberia as such, but four Roman writers (Juvenal, Martial, Pliny, and Statius) attest to the status of puellae gaditanae (girls from Cádiz) as lascivious singing and dancing entertainers who might seem very comprehensible in the modern pop world. They had a novel percussive sound — their crotala (castanets). There are images of castanets played by women in Egypt two thousand years prior to this time. The instruments, and possibly the dancing style itself, might easily have arrived in Iberia with the Phoenicians. The Gaditanas' dancing-masters seem to have doubled as panderers; it was an antique version of the music business, in which the performer's skill was fused with sexual attractiveness and the "manager" also functioned as a pimp.

Reading Juvenal we learn that the Gaditanas were celebrated in Rome for their prowess in libidinis arte (lewd arts). Satirizing the decadence of wealthy Romans in the first century A.D., he describes the after-dinner entertainment at a feast: a Gaditana with her troupe of prurient girls, singing words more shocking than one would hear from "a naked slave standing in a reeking brothel archway." They danced lasciviously by shaking their booties down to the ground (literally: "ad terram tremulo descendant clune puellæ"), and made "a noise of shells," referring to the Gaditanas' castanets, made of shells.

Besides their rump-shaking, their castanets, and their sexual services, the Gaditanas also got Romans singing what we would now call the "hooks" of their songs: Martial writes of the sexy Telethusa, sold as a maid and then repurchased as a mistress, who could "make lascivious gestures to the sound of Baetic castanets and play to the fashionable tunes of Cádiz." He also addresses the typical bellus homo (pretty man; possibly a transvestite) of Rome, who, smelling of balsam and cinnamon, "hums catches from the Nile, from Cádiz."

It's a matter of conjecture exactly what the song-and-dance that those pagan nasty girls shocked the Romans with consisted of. But I submit that, in addition to the obvious influence from the eastern Mediterranean, they might have been — as Egypt itself was — informed by centuries of direct and indirect contact with black Africa. The music of Africa was already ancient in the first century A.D., and it was as rhythmic and as infectious then as it is now.

* * *

In the third century A.D., with a Latin identity already established in Iberia for centuries, the Romans introduced Christianity to the peninsula; by the fourth century it was dominant, at least in the cities. In 409, as the Roman Empire was collapsing, Iberia was overrun from the Pyrenees by barbarian Germanic peoples pushed westward by the Huns at their backs: the Alans, the Sueves, and the Vandals. The name of the last became associated with senseless destruction. The Vandals and the Alans were driven out with the help of the population by another nomadic Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, who invaded Iberia in 412 at the behest of Rome. After only two decades in Spain, in 429 the Vandals retreated across the southern straits to vandalize North Africa and Sicily. They left their name — Vandalisia, or Andalucía — and began a legacy of piracy in the Mediterranean that would last, with different masters, for a thousand years.

The Visigoths were rewarded by the Roman emperor for their conquest with territory in southern France, to which they retreated, establishing their seat at Toulouse, with the Romans in shaky control of Iberia. In 454 the Visigoths invaded Spain again, once more at the invitation of Rome, and this time conquered the peninsula, which they ruled for almost three centuries. In ruling Iberia from their capital in what is now France, there was constant cross-Pyrenees traffic, a factor that would be crucial in the growth and development of the culture of northeastern Spain.

By then the Goths were Arian Christians: unitarians who rejected the concept of the Trinity and the authority of the Pope. On the part of the peninsula they had entered, they imposed their name: Gotha-landia, or Cataluña. After their conquest of Iberia, they made a remarkable transformation from nomadic plunderers to sedentary monarchy. They unified the territory politically and introduced a comprehensive body of written law that served as an important precedent for others; they were, writes S. P. Scott, "in large measure, the lawgivers of Europe." Among the aims of their law was to criminalize paganism; common people possessing books of magic could be beheaded.

In 587 the Visigothic king Recared converted to Catholicism, though remaining independent of the Holy See. At once there were prohibitions against immodest songs and dances. "These abuses, especially that of dancing, were regarded as survivals of paganism," writes Stephen McKenna.


Excerpted from Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette. Copyright © 2004 Ned Sublette. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

The Los Angeles Times
"[Sublette] has added a major work to the tiny canon of social histories of music--perhaps even the grandest of them all"
The New York Times Book Review
"It was Cuba that turned the beat around, and thanks to Sublette any serious music fan will now know why."
Anne Louise Bardach
"If you buy only one book on Cuba in your life . . . this is the one."
The Nation

Meet the Author

Ned Sublette is the cofounder of the Qbadisc record label. He has coproduced the public radio program Afropop Worldwide for seven years and travels frequently to Cuba.

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Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An encyclopedic history of Cuban music up to1952. The non-musical parts of the history is sometimes too glib for a historian and the musical history sometimes too technical and detailed for the non-musiian. But Sublette overall does a fine job of showing the development of Cuban music over time and its deep influences on pre-Rock American popular music.