And still he gave it a shot. In a single conversation here at the Casa de Las Americas in Havana, we are trying to justify Zurbano’s premise that, as he says,”the most important thing about Cuban music is the indirect way musicians are always talking about what’s going on in Cuba,” and also to account for the waves that Cuban music has never stopped making in the US, Europe, Africa and Japan. The trick was to get from Chano Pozo to the Cuban rappers today on a thread that touched the revered jazz singer Benny Moré; worldwide classic songs like El Manisero or “The Peanut Vendor;” the Mambo Kings and the cha-cha-cha; the Bolero and the post-Revolutionary New Trova singers like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes; the modern bands of Chucho Valdes and Irakere, which married Cuban sounds to jazz, and Juan Formell‘s Los Van Van, which adapted a Beatles sound to Cuban tradition… Also to make some mention of Cuban rock music and a hit rap group like Ogguere; the proliferation of choir music in Cuba today; younger stars like Goza Pepillo emerging from the Interactivo band; the social criticism of feminist rappers; the jazz innovations in rumba sounds by Maraca, for example; and the adaptation of conga drumming to symphonic music by Grupo Sur Caribe. Listen here, and then shout if you want a playlist. Thank you, Roberto Zurbano!
Podcast • January 5, 2009
The polite name for it was folklore, but it was the daily stuff of peoples’ lives. Dancing and music were never very far away, It didn’t mean people were happy. It meant that — not for all Cubans, but for many — dancing was the way they walked, and singing was the way they breathed. It is still that way, which is one reason musically attuned visitors to Cuba today come home so excited.”
Ned Sublette in Cuba and its Music: From the first drums to the Mambo, 2004. Page 586.
We came to Cuba to get a week’s taste of what Brown students had a 4-month semester to absorb. Their native guide, our mentor Adrian Lopez Denis, implants in all of us the idea that the Revolution – even at its 50th anniversary – isn’t the most interesting thing about Cuba, and Fidel and Raul Castro aren’t the most interesting things about the Revolution. My own prejudice is that music beats sugar as the all-time expressive Cuban export; and that in Cuba the rumba feel of life will outlive and outrank the revolution in the long run. So this first 15-minute introduction is with a master of Cuban jazz and dancehall music, Bobby Carcasses. He’s a singer who plays congas, and flugelhorn and alto saxophone. You’ll hear him say that in sports and in music he is a decathlon man — “a decathlonist in art.” He drops other tell-tale bits of a Cuban musical profile: he’s a religious man who believes in reincarnation, to begin with. He lives and loves Italian opera, Miles Davis, the blues and Bobby McFerrin — that is, his music has no categories of nation, style or the moment. He makes light of his anti-American Castro government, which suspected that jazz was a CIA trick. And he believes in a dark unexplainable genius – and geniuses – in music. Duende is the Spanish word for “these dark sounds,” as Garcia Lorca famously put it, “the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.”
This is the first of several posts from Havana — about the beat-up and tumble-down but all-the-more bewitching city itself, in conversation with the international architect Mario Coyula; also about a thrilling encounter with three American students at the Latin American School of Medicine — marking a sort of culmination of the civil rights revolution in the US and the most exalted Cuban vision of its own healing touch in a global healthcare emergency; and with Adrian Lopez Denis about a time coming when the US obsession with Cuba and Cuba’s obsession with its world role both fade — when fetishes give way to understanding and the unmistakable bonds of affections across the Straits of Florida.
Podcast • March 20, 2008
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.
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: 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.