Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo by Ned Sublette
Remember “Babalú”, Desi Arnaz’s kitsch theme song in I Love Lucy? In Cuba and Its Music we learn that Arnaz made his mark in a hugely popular 1946 Hollywood short, singing a cheesy, hip-swivelling rendition of this Afro-Cuban praise song to a Santeria deity. And that in the dark of a Memphis movie house, the clip may have had a civilisation-altering impact on the 11-year-old Elvis Presley. We also discover that Arnaz’s father, the rightwing mayor of Santiago de Cuba in the 1930s, made it a crime to play the conga drums that were to become his son’s meal ticket. Moreover, “it is hard to imagine a less fitting subject for a joke than Babalú-Aye, the terrible, smallpox-afflicted Dahomeyan god who walks with a crutch, attended by dogs who lick the ulcers on his legs.” (And “Spanish has no word for cheesy. It badly needs one.”)
Ned Sublette planned a book about Cuban music in the Castro era. But a preface setting out the historical background ballooned into this “prequel”, covering the subject “up to March 27 1952”. What might have been a specialist tome aimed at buffs like myself is actually an astonishing work that explains much about our modern world - why, for example, white people can’t dance. The structure is hour-glass shaped: early influences range from pygmies in pre-historic Africa to mulatto dancing girls in Phoenician Cadiz in 200BC and Manichaean Visigoths invited into Spain by a Christian Roman emperor to destroy all vestiges of polytheism. Later chapters delineate the worldwide influence of Cuban music, I Love Lucy being the least of the cultural fall-out. Did you know that “Louie Louie” is a reworking of a cha-cha riff? Or that jazz always “swung” within a conventional 4/4 beat until Cuban musicians began emigrating to New York in the late 30s? Or that the tango’s and the torch song’s origins lie in Havana?
Running through the book is the theme of religious and racial control of percussion. The church forbade drums because they represented polytheistic religion as well as licentious dance movements. After the fall of Rome, Europe barely heard the sound of percussion until its terrified soldiers cowered before the thunderous Ottoman tympani on a 15th-century battlefield. Centuries later, white Cuban politicians like Desi’s dad were horrified at the power of African ceremonial drums and their growing popularity in parades and dances. “There is no better way to epater la bourgeoisie than to rub their noses in the negritude of Cuban culture.” (It has been suggested that the fury of Florida Cubans owes more to Castro’s egalitarian racial policies - and the omnipresence of mixed couples in modern Havana - than to his communism.)
White exiles will not be reassured by Sublette’s book. Among its distinguishing virtues is the author’s matter-of-fact treatment of the religions of Africa with the respect and thoroughness usually only applied to “major” religions. His analysis of the cultural wealth imported along with the captured slaves is presented with vivid detail and engaging wit. How does the Christian line-up of Trinity, Virgin Mary and Devil compare with the Yoruba deities? For me, at least, it’s no contest: Elegguá the trickster and guardian of crossroads (Robert Johnson’s Mephistopheles); Ogún, the Thor-like, machete-wielding warrior-blacksmith who “lives with the guilt of raping his mother”; Yemeyá, the warrior-goddess of the sea, who “dances with the undulating motion of the waves”; Orula, the oracle whose green and yellow beads mark the Santeria initiate; Ochún, “the Yoruba Aphrodite”, protector of prostitutes who laughs when she dances; Chango, owner of the drums; Obatalá, god of wisdom and harmony; Babalú-Aye, god of sickness and guardian these days of Aids victims - plus other equally vivid equatorial Olympians.
For colonial Spain, Cuba was more a staging port and whorehouse-filled R&R stopover than a big importer of slaves. The English put paid to that when they ruled the island briefly in 1762 and introduced the joys of investment capital and free trade. The sugar plantations that soon covered much of western Cuba needed slave labour: boatload after boatload were brought to the island and worked to death in the brutal business of cutting cane. The Cuban slave trade lasted into the 1880s, so African culture remained fresh and strong in the barracones. The revolutions of 1868 and 1895 went down in Cuban history as romantic struggles against imperialism, but the awkward truth for the white establishment was that many of the commanders in both wars - and most of the fighters - were black. The American investors who controlled much of Cuban sugar were mostly southerners “who knew the pain of losing your slaves”. They lobbied President McKinley to intervene, worried that independence from Spain might lead to a dangerous populism or even, heaven forfend, socialism. The prescient Platt Amendment prevented Cuba becoming an actual, rather than a de facto, American colony, but the Afro-Cuban leaders were none the less marginalised and los negros relegated to their downtrodden post-slavery status.
Until Castro, the only riposte was music. Sublette describes the entry of the conga and bongo into mainstream Cuban dance music and - starting with “El Manicero” (“The Peanut Vendor”) in 1930 - its worldwide triumph. Erudite explanations of complex rhythmic forms and accounts of personnel changes in the great orchestras may deter the general reader. But fascinating revelations about the sociological or political background to the musical developments, or rich accounts of Cuba’s reciprocal exchanges with New York, New Orleans, Seville, Mexico City, Haiti, Puerto Rico and even London appear on almost every page. The great stars of the first half of the 20th century - Benny More, Celia Cruz, Chano Pozo, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve - spring vividly to life. Some may view this study as more than anyone would ever need to know about pre-50s Cuban music; to me, it is a magnificent and startling book that has more original insights into our own culture and history than a library full of other works of musical, social, religious or political history.