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This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins with the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evo This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins with the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evolution of music in the New World. The ways in which the music of black slaves transformed 16th-century Europe, how the claves appeared, and how Cuban music influenced ragtime, jazz, and rhythm and blues are revealed. Music lovers will follow this journey from Andalucía, the Congo, the Calabar, Dahomey, and Yorubaland via Cuba to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Saint-Domingue, New Orleans, New York, and Miami. The music is placed in a historical context that considers the complexities of the slave trade; Cuba's relationship to the United States; its revolutionary political traditions; the music of Santería, Palo, Abakuá, and Vodú; and much more.


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This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins with the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evo This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins with the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evolution of music in the New World. The ways in which the music of black slaves transformed 16th-century Europe, how the claves appeared, and how Cuban music influenced ragtime, jazz, and rhythm and blues are revealed. Music lovers will follow this journey from Andalucía, the Congo, the Calabar, Dahomey, and Yorubaland via Cuba to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Saint-Domingue, New Orleans, New York, and Miami. The music is placed in a historical context that considers the complexities of the slave trade; Cuba's relationship to the United States; its revolutionary political traditions; the music of Santería, Palo, Abakuá, and Vodú; and much more.

30 review for Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

  1. 4 out of 5

    Missy J

    "The masters, not the slaves, wrote the history; the slaves' culture was invisible, even as it transformed that of the masters." I learned so much from this book - about Cuban music, the history of the people in Cuba and even a little Cuban politics! I love reading books where you can tell that the author loves the subject matter that he writes about. His only wish is to share knowledge where he feels not much has been written of or people don't even know how something has a significant importanc "The masters, not the slaves, wrote the history; the slaves' culture was invisible, even as it transformed that of the masters." I learned so much from this book - about Cuban music, the history of the people in Cuba and even a little Cuban politics! I love reading books where you can tell that the author loves the subject matter that he writes about. His only wish is to share knowledge where he feels not much has been written of or people don't even know how something has a significant importance to our history. Ned Sublette knows what he is talking about. He is a musician and has traveled numerous times to Cuba to learn about Cuban music and enjoy it! Right at the beginning of the book, he states that this history of Cuban music is written from the perspective of the Cuban people. And what a history book he wrote! It is accessible to anybody and not written in a difficult "academic" way. He starts off with the history of Spain of which I didn't know much. How various people and religions came together in Spain and fought each other. How knowledge prospered when the Muslims ruled at a time when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages. Sublette also tries to introduce African history, which is more difficult because there's not a lot of material and studies devoted to this area, which is a shame. There's a lot of diversity, but for understanding's sake he divides the Africans into two big musical groups; those influenced by Islam and its trade routes in the Sahara Desert (referred to as "Sene-Gambians" from the Dry part of Africa) and those not influenced by Islam (instead inspired by the music of the pygmies) and living in the rain forests of sub-Saharan Africa ("Congo" from the Wet part of Africa). Sublette has another book on African slavery into the Americas, which I didn't know about, but from his writing it definitely struck me that here was a person who studied slavery times extensively (The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry). Sublette argues that the first Africans who were brought to the Americas were crucial in determining the direction of the music. He compares the development of music in Cuba with Southern USA and it is interesting how different musical traditions sprung out. The US received mainly slaves from Sene-Gambia, who were already used to playing string instruments. Compared to Cuba, in USA slaves were forbidden to speak African languages and play drums. Drums are so important in Africa, where it was used as a means of communication between villages, later developing into music. Drums could well have been the first human language. So in USA, drums were forbidden early on, slaves were separated from their families and tribes, forced to live among different groups of people, which is how they lost their language. In Cuba, slavery was practiced in a different manner. After Columbus bumped into the Caribbean, slaves were brought to the Caribbean, mainly from the Congo region. Spain specifically requested that no "Muslim" Africans ("Sene-Gambians") be brought to their colonies, influenced by their experience of the Inquisition. Plantations didn't exist in Cuba until the 18th century. So for the first 250 years, slaves were living close to their Spanish masters in small-scale farms and households. They were allowed to play drums and socialize with fellow Africans, which is how they preserved African languages. There were more flexible rules regarding buying one's own freedom. Free blacks lived in Cuba long before in the USA. But slavery lasted longer in Cuba than in USA (slavery was only abolished in Cuba in 1880). "There were, then, two seats for the maintenance and growth of the African traditions in Cuba: in the cities, the cabildos; and in the countryside, the barracones." Things changed drastically when Britain and Spain declared war against each other in 1762. Britain won and the British occupied the island for about a year. But a year can change a lot of things! The British saw money and potential in setting up sugar plantations in Cuba. What does this mean? More slaves! This is the time when slaves were brought into Cuba in huge numbers and treated like objects. It was more profitable to just buy and bring more slaves to the island than to feed the slaves during the low season when no plantation work was needed. Brutal. From my understanding, the slaves that were brought after 1762 were from another region - the Yoruba, who brought with them their own musical traditions, language and religions (later mixing with Catholicism into santeria to avoid religious persecution). The Yoruba culture appealed to all the different Africans living in Cuba and added an extra layer to the Congo foundations. So many musical traditions came out of Cuba. To name a few: Tumba Francesa developed when the white French fled Haiti and moved to Eastern Cuba with their slaves, who introduced their dance and music to the Cubans. It is also important to note that the musical traditions in Western Cuba and Eastern Cuba developed differently, but ultimately inspired each other and was very enriching for both sides. The habanera and how it influenced the development of the tango. Rumba! I finally get the difference between Cuban Rumba and Ballroom dancing Rumba. The Cuban Rumba is percussion only and lives in the houses of the working class, using their furniture as instruments if none were available. 3 types of Rumba: columbia (solo dance, virtuoso), yumba (older couple, slower) and guaguanco (young, virile couple). The Danzon was extremely popular until the Son came along. Trovadores, the travelling musicians with their guitars. Guajiras, the farmers who would improvise verses and duel each other. Bolero developed from the working class blacks, who did music on the side to make their lives more interesting (the work was monotonous in cigar farms). Conga, which filled the streets and was driven away as well depending on the politics of the time. Later, the Mambo developed, which became a huge hit in the USA. Salsa came later and isn't covered in this book. Most of the music and song titles mentioned in this book are focused on the 30s, 40s up until 1952. We only get a little glimpse of Fidel Castro. Sublette is still working on a second volume of Cuban music. Can't wait when that comes out! I learned about a lot of musicians that I've never heard of before: Arsenio Rodriguez, Chano Pozo, Miguelito Valdes, Cachao, Sindo Garay, Manuel Corona, Pepe Sanchez, Lecuona, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve, Mario Bauza, Benny More... Sublette tries to cover as much as possible. Cultural aspects such as the Negros Curros. Abakua fraternity. Mysterious Palo from the Congo basin. Santeria and the many orishas. How the instruments developed. The claves came out of the shipyard and is the most important foundation in Cuban music. How politics shaped orchestras and the people who dared to do things differently. How the bass developed. How the drums needed to sometimes be hidden but were always played. All the different types of drums ("For decades the timbales had been part of the danzon orchestra, the congas were a thing of the rumberos, and the bongo was for the son.). How the montuno became the heart of the son. Throughout the book, Sublette gives us updates between the musical relationship of Havana and New Orleans and how military bands influenced music. The connection between Cuba and Mexico and the technological progress in film and radio. The connection between Cuba and Puerto Rico and how the Puerto Ricans played Cuban music in USA when they received US citizenship. Regarding politics, all I will say is that the US has really intervened a lot. When Cuba was fighting for independence from Spain, the Americans intervened and the voices and hopes of the Cubans were completely ignored. The Communist takeover isn't included in this book, but one can easily see why things ended up the way they did. An event I never heard of is the Conspiracion de la Escalera (1844) when blacks were persecuted in Cuba. The whites feared a slave revolution and many talented musicians were killed. During that time, racism became worse. In the beginning of 20th century, drums were forbidden to be played. But it was too late. So many musical traditions had already developed in Cuba. Cubans have given a beautiful gift to the world with their music. The horrors of slavery can never be ignored when talking about Cuban music (and music in general).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Barry Hammond

    For anyone interested in the history of music, especially black music in North America, this book isn't just a must-read, it's a revelation. Not just a history of music, it's a history of music from a Cuban perspective. Cuban music legend, Mario Bauza, says it all, when in the opening of the Preface he's quoted by critic, Robert Palmer: "The Cubans, we came here and changed your American music from the bottom up! And nobody knows this! He is shouting. 'AND NOBODY WRITES ABOUT THIS!'" Well, Ned Su For anyone interested in the history of music, especially black music in North America, this book isn't just a must-read, it's a revelation. Not just a history of music, it's a history of music from a Cuban perspective. Cuban music legend, Mario Bauza, says it all, when in the opening of the Preface he's quoted by critic, Robert Palmer: "The Cubans, we came here and changed your American music from the bottom up! And nobody knows this! He is shouting. 'AND NOBODY WRITES ABOUT THIS!'" Well, Ned Sublette does. The book's 672 pages start off in prehistory, with the Phoenicians, and tracks its way into the 1950's mambo craze just a Fidel Castro is starting his rise into politics. And he's not just talking about music. He's giving you the social and political history that shapes the music, the economics of slavery, and much more. The amount of research put into this book is staggering. No one has ever tackled history from a black Cuban perspective before and the terrain reveals a topography that's completely different from what white European historians not only write about but what they can even see. There's revelations every few pages in this book with the research to back it up. Your take on North American music will undergo a sea-change and never be the same again. One of the things that got me reading it in the first place, was a quote from a musician in Ben Ratliff's book, The Jazz Ear, talking about being able to trace the history of the type of blues played in North America by the area of Africa the slaves came from. Sublette makes a pretty good case for his theories and drops a few other bombshells along the way, like: "I tracked the most common bass and saxophone riff in 50's rock 'n' roll back to its originator (Dave Bartholomew) and he told me he'd nicked it from a Cuban rumba record. An interview with Richard Berry, composer of Louie Louie," revealed that immortal song's origin in an obscure Cuban cha-cha record... I began to feel like a guy who's discovered a monument the size of Mt. Rushmore hidden in his own backyard." If any of the above intrigues you, you owe it to yourself to check this volume out. You won't be disappointed. Not only that, it's the first volume of a two-volume set. I can't wait for the next one, which he's no doubt still researching. Mt. Rushmore indeed. - BH.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Murf Reeves

    This book was amazing. I have talked about going to Cuba for some time and a friend and I were talking about taking a vacation, so I finally decided to read this. A friend had given it to me a couple of years ago. This book blew my mind!! Being about music was the surface, but what this book really describes is the history of Cuba and how imperialism and slavery created Cuba. Ironically bringing all of these different people together also unintentionally created kinds of music that have been inf This book was amazing. I have talked about going to Cuba for some time and a friend and I were talking about taking a vacation, so I finally decided to read this. A friend had given it to me a couple of years ago. This book blew my mind!! Being about music was the surface, but what this book really describes is the history of Cuba and how imperialism and slavery created Cuba. Ironically bringing all of these different people together also unintentionally created kinds of music that have been influencing us since. If you are a fan of music, Cuba history or just an interesting read, this is a must!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Reggie

    What can I say? You want to know about Black people in Latin America? You want to know about US?Cuban relations to 1952? You want to know about good syncopated music? Read this book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    sphamilton

    This is a wonderful book, the first half of an epic history which starts with an outline of the roots of pre-Roman Spanish culture and its African influences, and runs to 1952... It puts Cuban music in its cultural, political, historical, religious and anthropological contexts, and makes a very coherent case for its influence on jazz and rock and roll. It's incredibly readable, lovingly researched, full of ideas (I kept reading bits out in an annoying way as I worked my way through it). Sublette This is a wonderful book, the first half of an epic history which starts with an outline of the roots of pre-Roman Spanish culture and its African influences, and runs to 1952... It puts Cuban music in its cultural, political, historical, religious and anthropological contexts, and makes a very coherent case for its influence on jazz and rock and roll. It's incredibly readable, lovingly researched, full of ideas (I kept reading bits out in an annoying way as I worked my way through it). Sublette is also responsible for the only album I know which fuses salsa and country music, the wonderfully odd and enjoyable Cowboy rumba, and he has been travelling to Cuba to interview musicians and make recordings for about twenty years, so he knows his stuff. Can't wait for the next volume, but notice in the meantime that he's just brought out a book on New Orleans (which comes into the Cuba book a lot as well - the ties are close).

  6. 5 out of 5

    Wes Freeman

    Holy shit is this a good book! Wow! I switched from riding my bike to work to taking the bus just so I could have more time with this thing. Ned Sublette is a straight-up believer in Cuba and its music; he's a musician himself, and is bilingual, so he does his own translations (Spanish, apparently, has changed comparatively little in the last 500 years) and breaks the musicology down so that sleepy dudes on buses can understand what he's talking about while they're riding on their way to work. S Holy shit is this a good book! Wow! I switched from riding my bike to work to taking the bus just so I could have more time with this thing. Ned Sublette is a straight-up believer in Cuba and its music; he's a musician himself, and is bilingual, so he does his own translations (Spanish, apparently, has changed comparatively little in the last 500 years) and breaks the musicology down so that sleepy dudes on buses can understand what he's talking about while they're riding on their way to work. Sublette says in the intro he's gonna take his time with this here and he does, laying out the Spanish and African roots of the music for four chapters before he even gets going with Cuba. He has an interesting story and he knows it well, he puts it down so you can pick it up. Go ahead, Ned. Can't wait for volume 2.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Levinson

    This is another friend of mine and once again I will set aside the fact that he is the smartest person I know to tell you that this book is the finest work of musicological scholarship I have ever read. Even if you are not a Cubanophile you owe yourself the treat of reading this monumental work asap. The story stretches across Africa, Europe and America and you will be gripped by every page. Ned has made all this accessible to a layperson and at the same time this work will engross even the most This is another friend of mine and once again I will set aside the fact that he is the smartest person I know to tell you that this book is the finest work of musicological scholarship I have ever read. Even if you are not a Cubanophile you owe yourself the treat of reading this monumental work asap. The story stretches across Africa, Europe and America and you will be gripped by every page. Ned has made all this accessible to a layperson and at the same time this work will engross even the most sophisticated academic audience as well. I cannot say enough about this book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Amari

    This is a thrilling history of much more than Cuba and much more than music. It truly provides a complete education; Sublette is very opinionated and assertive, and yet he enabled me to open my mind and ears to an utterly new way of thinking about music, history, and music history. Outstanding. My only complaint is that the writing can occasionally waver between academic (but in a very engaging way) and oddly colloquial. Sometimes the prose is noticeably awkward.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    This is deafeningly good book. It showed me how little I know and what impeccably good taste Mr. Sublette has.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Naeem

    I have read the first 100 pages -- astounding! This is the definitive book, I have been told, on Cuban Music. It is long and this is only volume 1.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    An absolutely astounding work of music history. The sheer amount of research put into this volume boggles the mind. Sublette goes to great lengths to place the music of Cuba into proper context. This isn't just music history; it's world history, linguistic history, religious history, political history. I am a lover of Latin music with a degree in music performance, and this book was still full of revelations. Reading Cuba and Its Music will illuminate the true extent to which the music of one is An absolutely astounding work of music history. The sheer amount of research put into this volume boggles the mind. Sublette goes to great lengths to place the music of Cuba into proper context. This isn't just music history; it's world history, linguistic history, religious history, political history. I am a lover of Latin music with a degree in music performance, and this book was still full of revelations. Reading Cuba and Its Music will illuminate the true extent to which the music of one island shaped the traditions of an entire continent. The tone is serious, but with an appropriate amount of room for humor and without getting lost in academic technicalities. If I had any criticisms of the book, they would be that I wished it included even more musical analysis—Sublette writes for the general reader—and that towards the end of the book, as more historical records become available to describe the times in question, the number of names grows a bit dizzying. The prospective reader should note that this book ends with Batista's re-ascension to power in 1952. Post-1952 developments in Cuban music are not discussed. Throughout the text Sublette references a second volume discussing Cuban music from 1952 to the present day, but as of the time of this review, 17 years after the publication of the first volume, the second has never been released. A shame, because I would love to read what Sublette has to say about more contemporary Cuban music. Coincidentally, Cuba and Its Music serves as the perfect antidote to Music: A Subversive History, which mentions some Afro-Latin genres but does not use the word "Cuba" once. Sublette does for Cuban music what Gioia couldn't quite accomplish for the music of the whole world. In my opinion, one of the greatest books I have ever read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is a book for readers who want to know absolutely everything about Cuban culture, anthropology, history, religion, and politics. Although it begins in prehistoric Spain, the author takes the perspective of Afrocubism; that Cuba is an African culture. He relates African religion and ritual in Cuba in great detail, but has little understanding of the iconography of Saint Barbara. He has done a tremendous amount of research and woven it into a cohesive narrative. While it starts out fascinatin This is a book for readers who want to know absolutely everything about Cuban culture, anthropology, history, religion, and politics. Although it begins in prehistoric Spain, the author takes the perspective of Afrocubism; that Cuba is an African culture. He relates African religion and ritual in Cuba in great detail, but has little understanding of the iconography of Saint Barbara. He has done a tremendous amount of research and woven it into a cohesive narrative. While it starts out fascinating, towards the end the level of detail and lists of performers gets a little mind-numbing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    William Turner

    Ig you want to learn about Cuba's history or its music this is the book for you! Ig you want to learn about Cuba's history or its music this is the book for you!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    This book was an incredible read, and can delight readers with varied interests, because though it focuses, as the title says, on Cuban music. It also goes into detail on a myriad of other topics, taking a holistic approach to the development of Cuban music. This is necessary because Cuba, as with all parts of Latin America (and really any country for that matter), is an agglomeration. It is not just that the Spanish came to the Americas conquered the island and brought in slaves thus creating a This book was an incredible read, and can delight readers with varied interests, because though it focuses, as the title says, on Cuban music. It also goes into detail on a myriad of other topics, taking a holistic approach to the development of Cuban music. This is necessary because Cuba, as with all parts of Latin America (and really any country for that matter), is an agglomeration. It is not just that the Spanish came to the Americas conquered the island and brought in slaves thus creating a musical tradition. This book digs deeper than that and talks about the history of Spain and Spanish music pre-conquest. Author Ned Sublette also details the music from Africa pre-conquest and the regional variations of African music and how that contributed to the creation of Cuban music and what shape that took due to the region where the bulk of Cuban slaves came from. In the first half of the book, digging deep, Sublette touches on religion, how the African slaves kept their religion, mixed it slightly with Catholicism and what effects this had on the music. He also directs a great deal of attention to Cuba with reference to the global political economy throughout the centuries and the ways in which this impacted the music in the early days. The latter half of the books shows how Cuban music progressed within Cuba and how it travelled through parts of the world, making its mark on the development of music in the US and Mexico. The whole book is fascinating and a seamless read. The journey through the pages will fill you with knowledge on an array of topics, history, Africa, Spain, Cuba, Cuban politics, US and Cuban relations, Cuban pop culture, US music, slavery, many others, but of most importance, Cuban music. This is a must read!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    This book is full of amazing information from the earliest forms of music. Be ready for one of the most historical books you'll find on artists that helped create one of the greatest genres known to music. I might be slightly bias for my love of Cuban music and culture but I had a high lighter in one hand and post-its in another. This is definitely a book I will be referring back to sooner rather than later! This book is full of amazing information from the earliest forms of music. Be ready for one of the most historical books you'll find on artists that helped create one of the greatest genres known to music. I might be slightly bias for my love of Cuban music and culture but I had a high lighter in one hand and post-its in another. This is definitely a book I will be referring back to sooner rather than later!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nick Moy

    A tour de force of cultural history and musical analysis. This is not a crash course in Afro-Cuban music: it's a deep dive. Audacious in some of the connections drawn, but ultimately brilliant, compelling and at times, exhilarating. A tour de force of cultural history and musical analysis. This is not a crash course in Afro-Cuban music: it's a deep dive. Audacious in some of the connections drawn, but ultimately brilliant, compelling and at times, exhilarating.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charisse

    An excellent, well-researched, and comprehensive reference on Cuban music, integrating popular and classical music with social, economic, and political history.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Brilliant book. Worth reading again. Packed full of information. Wish I could see the dances described that are no longer here.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cody Malcolm

    The best book I've ever read about Music and Culture... The best book I've ever read about Music and Culture...

  20. 5 out of 5

    patty

    About 1/3 in - so far, what an amazing read on the history of Spain.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Curt Eriksen

    Unlikely to ever be surpassed as a history of the many diverse influences that came together to make Cuban music what it is today.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jorosel

    Re reading for the second time on my Kindle.Have the book edition sitting on my bookshelf.Have given it out as a gift to friends. Need I say more? Please tell me he has started the second book!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    A feast! I'll be buying a copy to keep around for reference. If you care about music you should read this. You don't have to be a Latin music fan. A feast! I'll be buying a copy to keep around for reference. If you care about music you should read this. You don't have to be a Latin music fan.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Eddie

    This book is fucking amazing and should be mandatory reading for all musicians and music lovers.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Geoffrey Cobb

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ashish

  27. 4 out of 5

    Linda Crum

  28. 4 out of 5

    Herb

  29. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  30. 4 out of 5

    Robin

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