Rumba With a View


1. Clave In the beginning was the clave. In Spanish, code or key; in music notation, clef or signature. For black slaves and freedmen working the docks in late-17th-century Havana, claves were the hardwood pegs used in shipbuilding. Clapping a pair of claves makes a sharp click loud enough to cut through the brassiest Latin big band. Crucially, the clave is the basic rhythm traceable to ancient African rites, the building block of all Cuban music: a cell of two measures—one syncopated, one on the beat—around which every song, variation, and improvisation revolves. The clave’s function, writes Ed Morales (no relation) in The Latin Beat, is “unlocking the ‘code’ of Afro-Cuban music.”

2. Diana Like a musician locked into the clave, Ned Sublette hears the island’s musical imprint everywhere. “Cuban music has to be regarded as the Other Great Tradition, a fundamental music of the New World,” he writes in the exhaustive Cuba and Its Music. A former producer for public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, he makes a compelling case. For Carmen‘s habanera, Bizet stole Sebastián Yradier’s “El Arreglito,” thinking it was a folk tune. According to Sublette, the tango originated in Havana—don’t cry for him, Argentina—with the same rhythm as the habanera. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton acknowledged “the Spanish tinge” of an early hit, “New Orleans Blues,” which had the same habanera syncopation of “La Paloma.” W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues,” considered the earliest blues number to be published, also has a tango rhythm. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” Sublette writes, “fits exactly the rhythm of the danzón.” As for rock, “Louie Louie” composer Richard Berry admitted the song’s cha-cha origin. The inescapable influence of Cuban music is Sublette’s diana—the opening syllables that set the key in a Cuban number—his rallying cry.

3. Estribillo (chorus) The author correctly assumes that Americans remain ignorant of Cuban history, though the U.S. has dominated island politics, directly or indirectly, since the 19th century. This book is a history of Cuba, not just its music. It opens, intimidatingly, in 1104 B.C. In fact, the book’s greatest strength, its encyclopedic scope, also elicits my only two quibbles: First, Sublette cuts his story off in 1952, postponing the golden age of Cuban recorded music for a sequel. Which means, secondly, that the two-page “suggested listening” appendix short-shrifts deities Benny Moré and Celia Cruz, to say nothing of Machito and Miguelito Valdés.

That said, Sublette’s strategy pays off in ample space. A “brief summary” of the Spanish-Cuban-American War fills a 10-page chapter. He leaves his predecessors, including Alejo Carpentier, in the dust. A musicologist, pianist, and theorist who in his spare time invented magic realism, Carpentier broke new ground in Music in Cuba (1946) by owning up to the African influence in Cuban music, even in the whitest-sounding classical compositions. For Sublette, however, the history of Cuba’s music is inseparable from its racial politics. Rumba-crazed Americans vacationing in Havana found that most percussion was banned there. Drums were too black. It was the same regardless of who ran the show—Spanish colonialists, the U.S. military, or American-backed, white-only Cuban administrations. Not only does Sublette devote entire chapters to Africa, he delivers the most cogent summary of Afro-Cuban spiritual traditions (the drumming rituals, the syncretism with Catholic saints, the secret Abakuá societies) that I’ve read by a layperson. “If anyone reading this thinks this is all so much mumbo-jumbo, perhaps Cuban music is not for you,” Sublette warns. “You simply cannot understand Cuban music . . . without knowing these figures.”

4. Soneo (call-and-response, mostly improvised) “The Peanut Vendor” made its Broadway debut on April 26, 1930, at the Palace Theater. Don Azpiazu’s Orquesta del Gran Casino Nacional, featuring Antonio Machín (“Cuba’s Rudy Vallee”), shared a bill with Rin Tin Tin. The Billboard called it “a waste of a good time as far as we were concerned.” It became one of the most recorded songs of the century. “They’re listening to it even at the wailing wall in Palestine,” Carpentier wrote.

In 1583, Seville outlawed the dance zarabanda, punishable by whipping or exile. Sublette calls the Cuban dance “the rock and roll of Spain in the late sixteenth century, right down to the guitar.” By the 18th century, Bach, a devout Lutheran, had composed 39 sarabandes.

Yoruba drums are traditionally made from wood found near villages. “A tree that is accustomed to hearing human voices will know how to talk,” Sublette explains. “A tree from the forest will not know language.” Fluent Yoruba speakers survived in Cuba as recently as the 1940s.

Berber slave armies first brought drums to Spain in A.D. 1086, nearly 500 years before drum became a household word in English, per the OED. Sublette complains that the New Grove Dictionary of Music fails to mention Africa in its 32-page entry for “rhythm.”