January/February 2005

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

You know you’re in for a major time commitment right away with this book: In the introduction Ned Sublette says he doesn’t even get to Cuba until chapter five 287 pages into this 768-page tome. If you’re the impatient sort who doesn’t care that in 1104 B.C. Phoenician traders arrived in what is now the southern Spanish city of Cádiz you can skip to the Cuba section. But for those who want to know why music that comes from seemingly disparate and geographically distant cultures can sound so similar, Sublette’s manic connect-the-dots adventure is a complete joy. His breathless prose, filled with quips and asides, lucidly conveys mountains of data he gathered through hundreds of interviews, numerous visits to Cuban and a huge amount of socio-political in addition to musical research.

Beginning with the intersection of Spain and Africa through trade and, more commonly, slavery, Sublette shows how cultures collided, connected and co-opted customs and music, which then spread even farther via various diasporas. Cuba, being the Middle Passage of the slave trade to the New World, was a meeting point for all sorts of people. Hybrid musics rapidly developed, which were then exported to America primarily through New Orleans, New York and Miami. Sublette shows direct examples of how blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll musicians borrowed liberally and directly from Afro-Cuban devices to create their new styles.

Cuba and Its Music is a stunning achievement, immensely valuable to Afro-Cuban music newbies and experts alike. But what’s most remarkable is that this book, whose timeline ends in 1952, is just the first volume. Sublette is now hard at work detailing the past 50 years of Afro-Cuban musical trends and inventions. If that book’s even half as good as this volume, Sublette will have two masterpieces in his oeuvre.

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