Playing By Ear: Cuba And Its Music

Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music. [Source: Radio Open Source]“It was communal in spirit and participatory in nature, without a rigid separation of performer and audience,” writes Ned Sublette (left), Cuba and Its Music. “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 had a fascinating conversation about Cuban music with Chris Lydon on Open Source. He talked about the impact of Chgano Poza and Mongo Santamaria on many kinds of American music, from jazz to R&B and rock. Who realized (not me) that the 60s garage band classic “Louie Louie” was really a cha-cha-cha? Download the Open Source MP3 and listen for yourself. Here are Chris Lydon’s show notes:

“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:

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