Monday, March 23, 2015

Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo

By Ned Sublette

Chicago Review Press - 2004

A review

Ned Sublette has written a book that not only alters the way we look at Cuban music, or music in general, but possibly the history of the entire world.  As the title of his book states, Sublette starts his narrative with the drums.  He argues that before humans learned to talk, they had been communicating by beating sticks.  Even Chimpanzees have been seen beating sticks together. 

Then, Sublette introduced us to the music of the Pigmies of Africa.  Here we see that the Pigmies had a complex rhythm to their music that has a similarity to Cuban music styles today.

Then, Sublette introduced us to the Moorish or African colonization of Spain.  Here we see how the Islamic influence of Spain helped to transform all of Europe.  The music and dance of Spain clearly was influenced by this Islamic or African colonization.  Also mathematics as well as medical scientific study had many of its origins with the Islamic or African colonization of Spain.  Even the practice of bathing was a Muslim tradition that wasn’t routinely practiced in the rest of Europe.

The Spanish royalty expelled the Jews and Moors from the country in 1492.  One effect of this expulsion was the outlawing of dancing.  So, while the so-called classical music flourished in Europe, dancing on the continent floundered for hundreds of years. 

However, some of the most dynamic musical scores of classical music are noted for their rhythmic patterns.  While the Spanish clerics and royalty outlawed dancing, they could not eliminate the dance craze on the Iberian peninsula.    

Then, we see how the slaves, who Europeans kidnapped, had different musical traditions based on what part of Africa they came from.  Most of the slaves who came to the United States used rhythmic patterns that people who are raised in this country are familiar with.  Most slaves who came to Cuba originated from a different part of Africa.  They used polyrhythmic patterns that have been used for centuries on that island.

Sublette gives the following summary of the tortuous road Cuban music followed to become what it is today:

“It was not merely slavery that the Yoruba religion had survived.  It had survived Islamic jihad in Africa, the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, the closing of the cabidos by the Spanish after the end of slavery, the upheaval of the war for independence, the American occupation, and racist persecution in republican Cuba.  During all that time, the ability of Santeria to hide in plain sight proved important to its survival.”

Growing up ignorant of this music

At this point, I might introduce the reader to my own personal connection to this music.  In my younger years, I didn’t like most of the music I listened to that was labeled “Latin.”  In those years my main interest was in Rhythm and Blues. 

Then, when I was much older, Judi and I went to Atlantic City to listen to a performance of the former Japanese Salsa band, Orchesta de la Luz.  After listening to only a few notes of this group, Judi and I looked at each other and we understood that this was a special performance. 

After the performance, I asked someone about what they thought of this group since I clearly didn’t know many of the Salsa bands.  This person stated that Orchesta de la Luz was one of the best groups he had listened to.  Here I began to understand that the music I only knew as “Salsa” was as good as anything I ever listened to.  I also learned that this music had an international appeal.

Then, one day I was in a store that sold compact discs.  There aren’t many of these stores left.  At that time, the store set up stations where customers could listen to various artists.  I liked this arrangement and learned a lot by listening to the various artists.

One day I played a disc by an artist I never heard of named Mario Bauza.  The name of the album was Tanga.  After listening to just a few notes, I felt that something special was happening of that CD.

Later I learned that Bauza had been a father figure to Dizzy Gillespie and introduced Gillespie to Cuban rhythms.  Bauza also introduced Gillespie to the percussionist and songwriter, Chano Pozo.  

Cuban music

Ned Sublette wrote extensively about the contributions Chano Pozo made to Cuban music.  While in Cuba, Pozo wrote and performed many numbers that became hits on the island.  When he came to the United States he was able to adapt to the musical rhythms of the jazz artists in this country. 

However, many accomplished jazz artists in this country had a difficult time adapting to the Cuban polyrhythms.  For this reason, Pozo gave lessons to Gillespie’s band members on Cuban polyrhythms during their long bus trips.  The result of all this work was Dizzy Gillespie’s most popular hit Manteca.  When other jazz artists saw the popularity of Manteca, learning the Cuban polyrhythms became a necessity.

In the United States, the promoters of the Latin music of the Caribbean call it Salsa.  In Cuba there have been many musical styles.  These would include: habanera, rhumba, mambo, as well as Cuban country music. 

Arsenio Rodriguez was one of the most influential artists of Cuban music and claimed to have invented the mambo.  He argued that the word came from a saying in the Congo: “open your ear and listen to what I’m going to tell you.”

Anyone who is familiar with Latin music understands that those who have been raised in that environment usually know how to dance.  In Cuba they might call it Rhumba or Mambo, or Son.  In the Dominican Republic their dance is the Merengue.  In Argentina they dance the Tango.  In Brazil their dance is the Samba.  The place that had the most influence on all these dance styles was the nation of Cuba.     

The names of the Cuban performers mentioned in Sublette’s book are too numerous to mention in this review.  So far, I’ve mentioned Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo, and Arsenio Rodriguez.  We can also include, Machito, Miguelito Valdez, Benny More, Chico O’Farril, and Perez Prado.  Sublette also mentioned names of artists who performed in the Buena Vista Social Club.  Two of these artists are Orlando Cachaito Lopez and Omara Portuondo.     

I wrote about my experience with this music for the following reason.  Most music fans in this country aren’t familiar with the Latin influences of the artists we listen to.  Washington’s 56 year boycott of Cuba has had many horrendous effects.  One has been that people of this country are largely ignorant of the Cuban roots to the music we hear every day.

When we read Ned Sublette’s book, we see how Cuban music hasn’t just influenced the music of this country, we see how this music brings us back to the roots of where music came from.  Initially music was a group activity where some people performed the music while others danced.  Everyone participated.

Clearly the musical styles of Europe are compelling in their own way.  However, dancing while dynamic rhythms pulsate, provides the kind of experience that music was first intended to provide.  Cuba has played a unique role in giving us this link to our history.  Ned Sublette has given us the documentary evidence of that history.      


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