Ned Sublette never expected to be writing about the ancient Phoenicians when he set out to write a history of Cuban music.
“I never set out to write a ‘Big History,’ he laughs, “But the more I dug, the deeper the roots got. At a certain point in my research, I just made a decision and said, ‘Yeah, I really am gonna go there,’ since connecting all these dots was the only way to really tell the whole story that I wanted to tell.”
The first installment of that story, Cuba And Its Music: From The First Drums to The Mambo (Chicago Review Press), is a 768-page opus that connects the musical cultures of Spain, Islamic North Africa and Bantu-speaking and West and Central Africa to their relentless creolization in the New World crucible of Cuba.
As the first of two volumes, Cuba And Its Music weaves all this together with the history of Cuba up to 1952 (the second volume will cover 1952 to the present). Granted, it’s a story that’s been told before, but seldom with the combination of scholarship, passion, intuition and sheer common sense that Sublette brings to his work. The result may just be the best work yet published in English on the topic.
It’s not surprising, considering Sublette’s longtime involvement with Cuban music. As the co-founder of the tiny-but-influential Qbadisc label, Sublette has been responsible for licensing some of the hottest contemporary Cuban music, including Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and NG La Banda, and making it available Stateside for the first time. He’s also been a longtime contributor to the nationally syndicated Afropop Worldwide radio program, producing shows on Cuban music and beyond, and occasionally even leading musical tours of the island.
But most importantly, Sublette is a musician. He’s played with the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young, fronted his own bands, and worked with some of the best Latin musicians in the business. He also recorded 1999’s Cowboy Rumba, a full album of his own creolized Cuban compositions, which boasted everyone from Yomo Toro to Los Van Van.