Ned Sublette* is someone who’s been around the New York music scene since the late 70’s, playing his own, ever changing, often perverse, style of country music, which culminated in the classic album Cowboy Rumba (Palm, 1999), which fuses country and western swing with Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Cowboy Rumba should have kicked off a revolution in country music, the idea of adding percussion and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic elements seems like a natural progression for country, but it seems to have gone over most people’s head. I guess he’s not as cute as Ryan Adams. Another of his musical claims to fame is the song “Cowboys Are Often Secret”, a pre- Brokeback gay cowboy tune recorded by Willie Nelson (whose version I’ve never heard). Sublette also founded the Qbadisc label which imported real Cuban music for those who don’t need or want Ry Cooder’s pasteurization process.
In this century Sublette has taken to writing, the results so far are three of the books that should be on everyone’s mandatory reading list: Cuba and its Music: From First Drums To The Mambo (Chicago Review, 2004), The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver To Congo Square (Lawrence Hill, 2008) and The Year Before The Flood: A Story Of New Orleans (Lawrence Hill, 2009)
Cuba and its Music has already been acknowledged worldwide as a classic, easily the best book on the subject in English. The subject itself is a field nearly as wide as, say– jazz, for despite the small size of the island, Cuba has produced some of the most influential music and musicians in the hemisphere. Cuba and its Music, the first of two volumes (the second yet to be published will pick up the story in the late 1940’s) really does begin with the first drums heard in Spain– Almoravides war drums which arrived in Spain with an invading African army in 1086. Sublette follows the story from traveling troubadours of the middle ages (the first singer-songwriters), through the Inquisition, the discovery of the New World, the music of slaves, the diaspora that followed the slave uprising in Santa Domingo (now Haiti) through the various forms of music that developed around the island of Cuba from the earliest Spanish inhabitants to the mafia sponsored Havana of the mid-20th century, when the town was jumping. It’s a mind boggling piece of research, but if my description makes it sound dry or academic, this book is anything but, it’s a real page turner and Sublette’s passion for the subject (and his sense of humor) shine through on every page. Sublette’s thesis is that Cuban music is the lost link, one that has been suppressed since the earliest days of the embargo (1959), in the chain that makes up American popular music, he calls it “The Other Great Tradition”. He also explains the music and its rhythms and beats in way that even a non-musician can easily understand. For myself, it’s nice to finally know what the clave is, and how it differs from what we call swing.
The World That Made New Orleans won’t tell you much about Fats Domino or Professor Longhair, but it will tell you plenty about the town, the culture, and the times that cultivated the soil their music grew in. Again, Sublette traces things back as far as they go, you will learn plenty about Thomas Jefferson that they didn’t teach you in school. The Haitian diaspora again is a key element in the story (for those unfamiliar with history’s only successful slave revolt the standard text on the subject is C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, Random House, 1963 but a more fun way to learn about it might be Madison Smart Bell’s trilogy of novels-– All Souls Rising(Pantheon, 1985), Master Of The Crossroads (Pantheon, 2000) and The Stone The Builder Refused (Pantheon, 2004), he also wrote an excellent biography of Tousaint Louveture, the ‘Black Napoleon’). New Orleans, which at various times has flown the flag of France, Spain, the Confederacy, and the United States, is the most unique of American cities, and this book examines the groundwork laid by those cultures that would in time produce jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, even its own style of hip hop known down there as bounce, and this book is essential to understanding the hows and whys of what was to come.
The Year Before The Flood is Sublette’s mostly an autobiographical account of growing up in northern Louisiana (redneck country), Texas, and then spending a year in New Orleans in 2004, the year before Katrina demolished what might have been the last culturally unique spot in the U.S. (it’s the only place I know of where Starbucks failed to catch on). I spent half my time in New Orleans from 1999 until mid-2004, kept an apartment and my car there, and I can attest, at the turn of the century, New Orleans was undergoing something of a revival, a mini-golden age. Years after I stopped going out at night in New York, where everyplace was crowded, oppressive and full of the un-coolest people you can imagine (the very people I moved to NYC to get away from took over the town), I went out every night in New Orleans, there was always something going on, and it was fun. Where else do people dance to jazz? There was always a party or a crab boil or some great music to see. At the Circle Bar, a postage stamp size dump that I own a piece of, we were able to have Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the best baritone player in jazz, do a regular Monday night gig when he wasn’t touring. We could bring in talent like Andre Williams, Barbara Lynn, Classie Ballou, hell, with help from Dr. Ike we had Howard Tate and R.L. Burnside (on the same night!). Sublette captures the feel of the New Orleans I knew, everything good and bad about moving there from somewhere else. I must say, since my tenure in New Orleans started shortly after I was diagnosed with hepatitis C and had to quit drinking, I saw the town in a very different way that just about anyone else who lived there– I was usually the only sober person in the room. New Orleans has drive through daiquiri stands! Sublette’s book conjures up the music, the pot holed roads, the excess, the crime, the humidity, the day to day flow of New Orleans life. He also examines the conditions that allowed Katrina to happen, putting the blame squarely where it belongs (the most obvious being that the Bush/Cheney administration cut the funding for the upkeep of the levees 80% and the oil companies who demolished the wetlands south of the city that soak up the excess water).
Even if I hadn’t had such a close parallel experience than that described in The Year Before The Flood, I would have to say this is a great book. There’s plenty about the local music scene– brass bands, r&B, hip hop (including a very funny chapter about the Cash Money and No Limit scene and the now leveled housing projects that produced them), jazz, and plenty of stuff that doesn’t fit into any category such as the music of Mardi Gras Indians. I love the funny personal antidotes, and as in Cuba and its Music, there is a lot of very passionate writing about the music, which is what drew both he and I there to begin with.
Nothing good lasts long. I remember one night driving home on Tchoupitoulas when Lightin’ Hopkins came on the radio, and I thought to myself, enjoy it now, this can’t last. I’m naturally cynical, and while New Orleans has survived, I don’t think it will ever truly be what is was. It was targeted from above, just like New York in the 80’s, let go so far that companies like Disney could come in and buy it up cheap and rebuild it into a theme park. Walked down the Deuce lately? My bet is that New Orleans will look like modern 42nd St. in ten years. If you missed it, or just miss it, this book might be the best way to relive the New Orleans scene before Katrina.
I read a lot, and I buy a lot of books. As a music person, I probably have read 90% or more of the books written about blues, jazz, R&B, and rock’n’roll in the last thirty years, that’s a lot of bad writing to take in, and some really great writing too. I put Ned Sublette’s three books in that later category, and recommend ’em without reservation.
*For the record, Ned Sublette was the person who recommended WFMU recruit me as a disc jockey which resulted in my 13 year stint on the air.