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

AAJ Staff By

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African groups in Cuba, which Sublette traces to four distinct regions on the dark continent, kept a lot of their culture and traditions intact through the formation of cabildos, something like 'town councils,' for blacks of related ethnic groups.
Ned Sublette
Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo
Chicago Review Press
672 pages
2004
ISBN 1556525168

It's worth pausing now and then to appreciate the fact that our understanding of music and culture is a direct product of our exposure to that music and culture. But with the heavy impact of politics and the market on our outlook, we're bound to lose touch with vital parts of the human experience. Nowhere is this more true than with the music of Cuba, which has since the (most recent) revolution been cut off from the United States and much of the world, after spending hundreds of years in intimate cultural proximity. The history of music in Cuba is inextricably intertwined with events in this country, but we're thousands of miles away from understanding those relationships in contemporary culture.

The other aspect of Cuban music that makes it seem mysterious to outsiders is that it's heavily imbued with folkloric elements, much of it having been passed from generation to generation through word of mouth (and instrument). The central role of secretive Afro-Cuban religions like santeria, palo, Abakuá, and vodú in the rituals and customs of drumming makes it virtually impossible for the curious to get a first-hand glimpse of the music in its native form.

With Cuba and its Music , New York musician, producer, and musicologist Ned Sublette takes on the mammoth task of piecing together a story for outsiders (and especially Americans). He's well aware of the enormity of his mission:

Afro-Cuban culture didn't happen in history, exactly, because for a long time nobody was writing it down. It happened parallel to history, or perhaps, in another kind of history: the oral tradition that still lives today in Cuba and reveals itself in religion, story, song, dance, family knowledge, and pieces of language, all the way back to the slave ships, and before.


Amazingly enough, the almost 700 (big hardcover) pages of Cuba and its Music don't even stretch past 1952. But that's a wise choice on Sublette's behalf, because the African and European roots of Cuban culture go back for centuries. There's already plenty to talk about.

In putting together this study, Sublette touches on religion, language, politics, economics, and a number of other related topics that tangle together to yield the twisty threads of Cuban music. You have to remember that Cuban music as we know it is a product of people whose ancestors were not originally from Cuba, and so their European and African (mostly) roots play a dominant role in anchoring its development.

For a long time Havana was the gateway to the New World, and the influx of European colonists and African slave labor alike proceeded in waves across the sea. That has important implications for music. For example, the ships that passed through the port of Havana were held together by hard wooden pegs called clavijas, from which were derived/invented the musical instrument known as the claves.

Sublette argues that the slaves of North America were fundamentally different from those of Cuba in that they were bred, rather than imported. The sugar trade formed the backbone of the Cuban economy, and the harsh working conditions meant that new slaves had to be imported all the way through 1873, when the last slave ship arrived in Havana, over fifty years after other New World areas stopped the trade.

African groups in Cuba, which Sublette traces to four distinct regions on the dark continent, kept a lot of their culture and traditions intact through the formation of cabildos, something like "town councils," for blacks of related ethnic groups. Despite prohibitions on the use of African drums (which lasted well into the 20th century), underground music flourished, along with plenty of inventive deviants, who would play boxes and furniture instead in order to comply with the rules. The first public (nonceremonial) performance on batá drums took place in 1936.

Spanish colonists brought their own musical traditions to the New World, including guitars, European dance forms, and styles of lyrical performance. It's no accident that the Cuban beans and rice dish is known as moros y cristianos ("Moors and Christians"), because the Iberian peninsula was under Moorish occupation for quite some time before it became Spain as we know it today. (And thousands of manuscripts were summarily burnt as the Arabic language was banned in 1525.)

North African music, which emphasizes single melody lines, metric rhythm, melismatic delivery, and erudite lyrics, can be differentiated from the music of sub-Saharan West Africa, which is polyphonic, polyrhythmic, syllabic, and relatively simple in its use of words. Both made independent contributions to the Afro-Cuban musical identity.


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