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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, July 24th, 2005


 

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

by Ned Sublette

The polyrhythms of life

A review by Stephen Brown

I heard Cuban music for the first time in the 1960s in New York's Central Park, played by an amateur group just standing on the grass with a crowd of listeners gathered around. It seemed to me the most wonderful approach to music -- no separation of artist and audience, everyone on the same level, each individual musician contributing some little part to the whole. There was even room for one guy who did nothing but beat two sticks together. Probably the leader's brother-in-law, I thought -- they gave him something harmless to do.

I learned later that the two sticks are the claves, and the musician who wields them plays the central role of setting the music's time. Ned Sublette, in his magnificent history of Cuban music (to 1952 -- a projected second volume will continue the story) explains that the claves started life as hardwood pegs made to hold ships together; musicians turned them into instruments that hold music together. The metaphor works on every level: clave means key, and the claves establish the rhythmic "key" to the music: their player locks in the rhythm of the group. In talking about a rhythmic key, Sublette is saying that the music is organized in a way that is fundamentally different from traditional Western music. If you look for adventurous harmonies or difficult melodies you will be looking for complexity in the wrong places. Here, complexity resides in the layers of rhythm. The clave, he explains, is not a beat but a key, a way to coordinate the different rhythms that are sounding simultaneously.

Philip Larkin was right: the world did change in 1963, and the Beatles' first LP was a big part of what happened. From that moment on, any attempt to establish a canon of musical taste was doomed. A little while ago, Robert Craft, writing in these pages, saluted, I thought somewhat forlornly, the rhythmic innovations of Anton Webern. But that train has left the station, with Webern and his innovations still standing on the tracks. The rhythmic innovations that count today are the ones resulting from the tectonic collision of the African and European cultural plates. Without this collision, the Beatles' first LP would never have come into being. Without the subsequent revolution in taste, books like Sublette's could not have been written.

The cultural collision between Africa and Europe occurred largely, but not entirely, in the New World. A historian friend of mine says that if you ask a member of his profession a question, he will tell you that first you have to understand the question that precedes it, and before long you're back to the Phoenicians. I thought of this as amusing hyperbole until I read Cuba and Its Music. Sublette takes it literally: "A Semitic people whose stronghold was at Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were trading people . . .". This sounds like the beginning of a tired old story, but is in fact the start of a story made fresh by a new perspective: the recognition that the influence of African music on European culture is more profound, prolonged and pervasive than most of us realize. From this perspective, the obscure fact that, owing to the Phoenicians, by the fifth century bc, black people were part of the traffic that circulated through Cadiz becomes a link in a chain of events that made Spain the first site of the seismic rumblings.

It is a difficult history to trace. Actual evidence about what past music sounded like is slim. The Roman Empire, for example, left a wonderful trail of art, architecture, drama, poetry and politics in its wake, but scarcely a scintilla of its music. Sublette relies in part on a kind of linguistic archaeology, where the Morris dance is related to the Morisca, or the Moorish, and the Sarabande, or Zarabanda, can find its roots in the Congolese Nsala-banda. Here we see another facet of his argument: from a very early period, Cuba was the portal through which African culture entered Europe -- the Congolese dance came to Spain on a return voyage from the New World. Which brings us inevitably to the subject of the slave trade.

When reading about the slave trade, one has to wonder: why such incredibly gratuitous cruelty? If, today, a farming enterprise ordered a shipment of tractors, it would try to ensure that all of those tractors arrived in working order and that once put to use they stayed in use through appropriate care and maintenance. A historical innocent might assume that farm operators would treat slaves at least as well as tractors. But in Cuba's sugar-plantation economy it was cheaper to wear out the slaves and discard them, replacing them with new arrivals from Africa. This, Sublette points out, was a fundamental difference between the North American and the Cuban slave trades. Where the North American slave population came to be generations removed from Africa, the Cuban slaves were constantly being reintroduced to their African roots as more slaves were imported. The roots themselves were different as well, Cuban ones lying predominantly in the Congo. And then there was the disparity in scale: many more slaves were imported to Cuba than to all of North America. Cuban slaves found it easier to maintain their African religion; in Cuba, a Yoruba god could become a Catholic saint. All of which helps to explain why Cuban music is Afro-Cuban music.

Sublette provides an admirable summary of the African musical aesthetic:

"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 always tutti, with all instruments playing, all the time . . . . But it was percussive, so that the durations of individual notes were very short, allowing plenty of space in the music for everyone to play and it was polyrhythmic with everyone following a rhythmic key. 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'."

That is what I heard in Central Park forty-odd years ago. And yet Cuban music is not simply African music. It uses European scales, chords, chord progressions, instruments like the guitar, the trumpet and the piano. Here is the tricky part: to make chords and chord progressions you have to line up your music vertically, which in practice means putting it into measures. African polyrhythms resist this discipline; they want to stretch out horizontally. Great creative effort was needed to marry these two separate musical cultures. For example, over a square (literally) European measure of four quarter notes, ONE two THREE four, a Cuban percussionist layers a series of eighth notes, grouping them in threes, ONE and two AND three and FOUR and . . . . The resulting integration of African and European rhythm is a cell called the tresillo. Sublette's desire to show the pervasiveness of the Cuban influence leads him to stress the similarities among its various progeny, including early boogie-woogie, tango and rock'n'roll, but he neglects their subtle variations. As I remember my old Jimmy Yancey piano-blues records, the accented "and" was really the last third of a triplet. When Piazzola uses the pattern he calls it a milonga and you can feel a rock-steady eighth-note pulse underneath it. When Stevie Wonder uses it, it's still an eighth-note pulse, but a more relaxed one, somewhere between rock and bossa nova in feel. In music notation these rhythms all look the same, but to our ears they sound distinct -- a sign that our notation is not designed for capturing rhythms.

There is nothing so difficult as explaining the obvious, because the obvious shouldn't require an explanation; it should be plain as the nose on your face. I admire Sublette for his good humour and geniality in guiding us through this history, although there is one point at which he seems to lose patience. After an exposition of the Yoruba pantheon, he remarks that "If anyone reading this thinks this is all so much mumbo-jumbo, perhaps Cuban music is not for you".

Which is not just bad-tempered, but wrong. No one much believes in universal languages any more, or in music as a universal language, but surely there is no doubt that it can be a transcendent language. At this very moment an eleven-year-old girl somewhere in Seoul is practising Schumann with perfect understanding, even though German Romanticism, Clara Wieck, Eusebius and Florestan are so much mumbo-jumbo to her.

Nevertheless, Sublette's basic point is well taken: polyrhythms make sense in a religious context. Polyphony, rhythmic or melodic, is appropriate for religious music because of the sense it gives of mystical unity. Our minds take in that there are independent voices speaking, though they may not be agile enough to disentangle the threads of the conversation; the fact that the voices at some level unite to make a whole is a matter of mystery. We cannot perceive the unity of a Bach fugue or of a Yoruba drum ensemble by concentrating hard on figuring out the individual parts; we can only relax and let the unity overwhelm us.

Once Sublette locates us solidly in Cuba he intertwines the history of classical and popular music with the country's political and cultural development, giving American readers plenty of reason to squirm. At times, one feels overwhelmed by the quantity of information, as the latter part of the book becomes more and more encyclopedic, and the niggling freshman thought "How much of this am I going to have to know for the exam?" begins to intrude. But how fortunate a freshman would be to have a music history text written with such clarity and grace and sense of narrative flow, grounded so firmly in the realities of the working musician's life! We learn not just that movie theatres were important performing venues in the early 1900s, with musical acts before the film, during the intermission, and after, but that the entire evening could be enjoyed for the price of a working-class meal. And that Gonzalo Roig, future founder of the Orquestra Sinfonica de la Habana, worked as a pianist at a movie house that showed silent pornographic films (in 1909!) with "variety shows that included live onstage sex acts between the films. One wonders what his accompaniments might have sounded like . . .".

The postcolonial history is full of outlandish incident and anecdote, from the American gangsters running their casinos, to the corrupt politicians running the country (on the whole the gangsters treated the country better than the politicians). Musicians find work in every imaginable locale, from Mexican films about the tragic lives of mulattas, to American jazz bands; from social clubs (like the Buena Vista) to brothels and bars and street parties (the rumba is named for the drink that fuels the party's energy). Amazing characters take the stage with oversized talents and, sometimes, oversized personalities. Chano Pozo survives three shots to the mid-section in an argument over money, only to succumb a few years later to seven shots in an argument about pride; in the interim, through his work with Dizzy Gillespie, he almost single handedly infuses the spirit of Cuban music into modern American jazz.

There are a few small errors: Comteans everywhere will be outraged that Sublette calls Cesare Lombroso the "chief theorist" of Positivism, and jazz musicians will be surprised to learn that swing is "not a rhythmically complicated music" (I doubt if there are a dozen musicians alive today who could sit in with Benny Goodman's 1940 quartet). But such complaints are few, and the book is well produced, well edited, well indexed, and a bargain besides. I do have one suggestion for the publishers: the book would be so much more fun to read if one could listen to musical examples alongside the text - why not provide a website indexed with the appropriate clips? If there were such a website it would be nice if it could include some of Ned Sublette's own music, like the wonderful Que Electricidad, which shows us how music from another culture can -to paraphrase the song -open its mouth and suck in your soul.

Stephen Brown teaches in the Department of Music at Southern Illinois University. He is the author of The Sense of Music, 1988.



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