Cuba in Our Ears (IV): Ned Sublette

And then — deeper than the Revolution, coming and going — there’s the music of Cuba.

Our brilliant, besotted, utterly persuasive authority Ned Sublette drives head-on into Alex Ross’s theme in The Rest is Noise that the story of 20th Century was the migration of the world capital of music from Vienna and Paris in the 18th and 19th Centuries to Los Angeles in our time.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ned Sublette here (45 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

cuba music

Havana: the world capital of music

“The musical capital was Havana!” Ned Sublette roars — meaning yesterday, today and tomorrow. And if we actually knew how the un-recorded, un-notated music of Havana and New Orleans’ Congo Square actually sounded, we might say that the center and the future of world music had come to the Caribbean long before 1900.

In his irresistible, virtually danceable history of Cuba and Its Music, Ned Sublette’s grand argument is that Cuba was, and remains, the locus of the “tectonic collision” of the deepest plates of African and European musical expression. And because the traffic in slaves to Cuba was so huge (more than to all the rest of North America) and went on so long (into the 1880s), also because African religion, and drums, were never inhibited in Cuba as they were in the United States, Cuba was the place where the African musical aesthetic put down its strongest roots in the new world. This is the “aesthetic” that Ned Sublette describes in his book, underlying all the Cuban music we’ve heard from the mambo craze to the Buena Vista Social Club and beyond:

Ned Sublette

Ned Sublette: Born again of Cuba and Its Music… Brian Smale photo

It was communal in spirit and participatory in nature, without a rigid separation of performer and audience. It was not something separate from daily life, but part of life, with specialized music for various activities. It was charged with magical meaning. It was inseparable from dance, which was mimetic and overtly sexual. It was orchestral, and that orchestra was always tutti, with all instruments playing all the time… It was texturally so deep that the only way to hear what was happening was through mesmerizing repetition. It was open in form, allowing for extending the music indefinitely and requiring spontaneity — what has become known as ‘improvising.’

Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music, Chicago Review Press (2004)

Listen to Ned Sublette count the ways in which our music comes from Cuba, and let your ears decide. Jazz drum kits, he says, added hi-hats to simulate Cuban polyrhythms. He makes it clear that Richard Berry’s rock’n’roll classic “Louie Louie” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” were straight steals. All rock’n’roll, Ned Sublette likes to say, is derived from the Cuban cha-cha-cha. And then there’s Dizzy Gillespie’s own wondrous account of his historic alliance with Chano Pozo:

Texas born in 1951, Ned Sublette was a singer-songwriter in the country mode until a visit to Cuba in 1990 changed everything. Twenty-some visits since then made him an aficionado and then a scholar of the scene and its very long history. Cuba turned him into a record producer, a photographer and prolific writer. As he says: “My life is divided into before and after that first trip to Cuba.”

Ned Sublette’s new book, which will be another conversation soon, is The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.

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  • hurley

    Bravo, bravo, bravo. Also the last show.

  • hurley

    Not to draw attention away from Ned Sublette’s book, but anyone interested in Cuban music might also want to have a look at this:

  • ghostofdali

    Another great music show Chris, keep em coming.

    I liked the exchange regarding the “capital” of music. On the surface, it seems absurd to me that there can be a single city named as the center of all musical activity, especially considering the multitude of activities that different people consider to be music. But after thinking about it for a while, the metaphor reveals the hidden dynamics of power. In the sense of political muscle, sure Vienna is a strong contender – with the full force of cultural hegemony, its definitions of what music is and is not have radiated throughout the world. Case in point, the disparity between the Cuban musicians who read and write versus those who do not. But Havana represents a different type of power, one that has defined itself largely in resistance to the so-called “Western” culture. Like many other small islands, it has filtered incoming cultural influences and adapted them for its own use – resisting any power that attempts to subvert their essential identity. While Vienna may have written the rules of the game, Havana throws out the rule book.

    I don’t know if Havana has spread its musical ethos as far as Ned believes it has. Personally, I think “Duke of Earl” is a really far stretch, but tracing musical influences is a treacherous road. How much, or how little, one musician takes from another can’t be reduced to abstract rhythmic figures and disembodied melodic fragments. Are we to believe that Cuban music, itself an incredibly diverse recipe, is somehow genetically dominant, in the sense that when it mixes with other ingredients, its identity overpowers all others? When does a cha-cha or mambo stop being Cuban, and start being something else?

  • It was a great show. I do want to comment on one thing though. I have to admit to knowing little about Afro-Cuban music, but I do know rock music.

    First I must start by saying I don’t mean any of this to take away from the vast influence of Cuban music on the music of the world, however, if there is a Cuban influence in the examples he gives, I think it’s a lot more subliminal then he would hope it to be.

    When I hear how is claims Louise, Louise, La Bamba and Satisfaction as direct decedents of Cuban music, he’s only partially right. Firstly, these songs swing, and he said in Cuban music there is no swing. Yes, the chord progression and lyrics to Louise Louise are a Caribbean folk song. Well, almost, the flat thrid on third chord (I, II, Vm) is straight out of the American blues handbook, the Cuban example he gave is all major chords. The lyrics and lyrical melody and lyrical delivery are nothing like Cuban music.

    As for La Bamba, his point is much closer, however the melodies (guitar and vocals) are Mexican.

    As for Satisfaction, I think he’s just picking the notes he wants to hear out of the riff to make it Cuban. When Keith Richards first made up the riff, it was more likely in homage to American blues he’s spent his whole life playing, and not overtly Cuban. It’s the same three notes in an E blues shuffle timed out differently. It’s natural to try to make your own twist on the same old shuffle. As well the pumping drums behind the riff make it swing, a Cuban no-no.

    As for Duke of Earl, the rhythm of the introduction sounds more like a march to me than a cha cha cha.

    Oh and the tunable lug for the Conga drum was invented in Cuba? I just don’t know, however American drums had an adjustable lug way earlier then he claimed the Cubans “invented” it, so perhaps it was adapted.

  • Ned Sublette

    I don’t usually post comments, anywhere, but these are some thoughtful comments that I thought I’d respond to quickly.

    Thanks for the kind words, Chris. There is an exaggeration that I should disclaim: while I do identify the cha-cha-chá as a fundamental template for rock and roll, I don’t say that

    >All rock’n’roll, Ned Sublette likes to say, is derived from the Cuban cha-cha-cha.

    No, I don’t say *all rock ‘n’ roll* . . . just a lot of it, in the 50s and 60s . . .

    for ghostofdali and Marc McElroy:

    I can’t sum up my work in a blog post, but I wrote an extended article: “The Kingsmen and the Cha-Cha-Chá” that lays out the evidence, with a large number of examples. It’s unfortunately not on line, but it’s in a book that came out last year:

    There are some recorded examples that you might enjoy, in a 10-minute radio piece I produced, available at:

    ghost, you’re quite right to ask the question

    >When does a cha-cha or mambo stop being Cuban, and start being something else?

    I would say that once the mambo has become, say, “Tequila,” it’s started to become something else. “Louie, Louie” is certainly rock and roll. But my question is: where did that underlying “Louie” rhythm come from? For years, the standard account of the genesis of rock and roll was rhythm and blues plus country. But that leaves out the basic fact that the rhythmic basis of much of rock and roll, and a very large amount of ’60s rock and roll — straight instead of swung 8ths — comes in from Cuban music, which was omnipresent in the U.S. from the 30s to the 50s, and not just on “I Love Lucy”. (Next time you watch an old movie musical, wait for the Latin number. More likely than not, there’ll be one.)

    Another point: the 2-bar 3-chord loop, basic to rock and roll of the 60s, does not come out of African American music. African American bands in the 40s were playing chord changes to songs — even for jamming, the standard was the 12-bar blues. That 2-bar loop comes into U.S. popular music from Afro-Cuban music, going back to “El Manisero” in 1931.

    For Mark:

    Let me assure you I’m not just playing “sounds kinda like.” “Louie” and “La Bamba” are examples I choose because they’re particularly well-documented (see my article, referenced above). You’re right that the melodic treatment is different than it is in Cuban music. But for how the basic “Louie” lick — which was why the song became a classic, because you could jam on it for hours — was derived from the opening tumbao of René Touzet’s “El Loco Cha-Cha,” see Dave Marsh’s marvelous book “Louie, Louie”: a band in L.A., Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers, in the mid-50s was playing “El Loco” for Mexican kids who wanted to dance cha-cha-chá. Their lead singer was Richard Berry, who adapted that cool “El Loco” lick into a new song.

    Something quite similar happened with “La Bamba” — it is a Mexican song, of course, from the Vera Cruz region (whose maritime contact with Havana goes back to the beginning of both cities), but the rhythm of Richie Valens’s record isn’t that son jarocho rhythm. It’s a rocked-up cha-cha-chá, which Valens’s band played (over Valens’s initial objections, cf. Beverly Mendheim, Richie Valens, The First Latino Rocker (Tempe, AZ, Bilingual Press / Editorial Bilingüe, 1987), p. 34), for an audience of . . . Mexican kids in L.A. who wanted to dance cha-cha-chá.

    A mere six years after Valens’s record, it’s exactly the same rhythm that is playing throughout “Satisfaction”: 1-2-cha-cha-chá. Though by the time the Stones came along, the kids were no longer dancing cha-cha-chá, the rhythm, now played with a different edge, was still useful. And don’t tell me Charlie Watts didn’t know “La Bamba.” (Looking at the guitar lick is the wrong place to find what I’m talking about — listen to the *drums.*)

    As to the tunable lug, Mark, you’re quite right that drummers in the US were using lug tuning mechanisms before they came up with one for congas. My point is merely that the tunable lug for congas first appeared in Havana. In Chano Pozo’s time, this didn’t yet exist, so Chano Pozo had to tune his drum with open flame. The innovation of the tunable lug made the conga much easier to use, and made it possible for a single player to use multiple drums, is my point.

    Anyway, I won’t be posting further comments, but thought I’d respond to these. Thank you, gentlemen . . .

  • ghostofdali


    Thanks so much for your elaboration. It’s a shame you don’t usually post comments, you’ve clearly got a lot to add to the discourse.

    I look forward to reading some of your articles, and thanks again for your post.

  • Ok, ok, I get it, you’re a published author and I’m a yellow journalist. My history degree is from a state college and you’re is probably from a fancy place. However I resent people ransacking history to choose the information that suit their point. Of course there is a cuban influence in Rock music, but it’s one of 100. There’s as just much if not more of a Celtic folk influence, and there’s more of an influence of music directly from Africa. You speak as if it’s at the center.

    Satisfaction: The drums are 100% syncopated. Yes there is a tamborine overdub, perhaps not even played by Charlie Watts, my money is on Brian Jones. If you listen to it looking for the cha cha cha, yes you can hear it, but it’s a counter-point to the syncopation, didn’t you say there’s no syncopation in cuban rhythm? It’s there but can’t someone play 1, 2, 3 and 4 and not be playing a cha cha cha? Why do I hear DA du DA and not an evenly played CHA CHA CHA? Because I don’t have a cha cha cha obsession. I hear syncopation in the tamborine as well.

    I’m not saying there is no influence, but there’s SO much more going on that it’s trivial. What would Satisfaction be without that tamborine? the exact same song.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the interview, it was informative and interesting. I am not a musicologist, I’m just a musician. I can’t play a cha cha cha beat on a drum set, but I can play Charlie Watts note for note.

  • Louis Head

    I just came upon this, I am sure I heard about these interviews when they were done in 2008 but was too busy to check them out.

    But here’s a comment in response to Marc’s posts, especially his second one above.

    Ransacking history? In Sublette’s case, it’s more like diving in and moving in it like a seal does in the ocean. Try reading Sublette’s book. You may conclude that Sublette is a peer, and not above or below you. Or Dave Marsh, who I assume that you would agree knows far more about rock music than most do.

    I grew up being a child of the rock scene in the US, and playing that music along with jazz. Then I went to Cuba (30 years ago). I don’t have a history degree from a prestigious institution (nor does Sublette, for that matter), but the material about which he writes and presents is not exactly rocket science. Rather it reflects years of hard work – you have to dig and dig for it, in addition to listening to, playing, and absorbing the music. If like most North Americans you are cut off from the source as most of us have been over the past 50 years, this is not all that easy to do – in spite of the extensive Cuban scholarship that helps the investigator to put the pieces together.

    I believe that, both in the interview as well as in his book, Sublette barely scratches the surface of Cuban influence on the US, let alone US influence on Cuba. Yet Cuban popular culture developed in tandem with pop culture in the US, just as the national identities of both countries developed in this sort of pas de deux with one another over a period of nearly 200 years.

    By 1962 for all intents and purposes, Cubans and North Americans were cut off from one another. This separation has made it difficult for historians, ethnomusicologists (be they autodidactic or trained in “fancy” places) to understand the connections. Or maybe the separation has made it so the task of developing a mutual understanding is in fact easier, with each society providing a back drop or mirror for the other to contemplate.

    By the late 1990s, the level of interplay between not only scholars but also musicians was such that folks on both sides of the divide were beginning to get a handle on the profundity of the relationship. As Sublette suggests, this was cut off by Bush in 2003-04, to the detriment of all who may be interested in the subject.

    Louis Head