Tom’s Music Salon: Things I’ve Learned from Ned Sublette

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Ned who??

He’s probably not a household name for most, but Ned Sublette is an amazing human being as far as I’m concerned.

I met him when he ran a fantastic label for Cuban music, Qbadisc, in the late 80s.  He produced CD’s by Cuban rumba groups like Los Munequitos, Cuban rock by Carlos Varela (currently on a US tour, after years of getting his visa refused by the Bush government), crooner Issac Delgado, and fantastic compilations of Cuban classics with Harry Sepulveda, the guy who ran the legendary Record Mart under Times Square in Manhattan (he was known as “The University of Harry” because of his encyclopedic knowledge of tropical Latin music).  This was before the Buena Vista Social Club exerted its monopolistic influence on Cuban music here in the U.S., and before Homeland Security stopped issuing visas to Cuban bands still living on “La Isla.”

cowboy rumbaNed later did his own album for Palm Pictures, Cowboy Rumba (a fusion of Cowboy and Cuban, since Ned’s from Lubbock, Texas and speaks a a wonderful mix of Cuban Spanish and Texas drawl).  On the CD, you find his merengue version of Vaughan Monroe’s 1947 classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” as well as the hilarious original “Cheater’s Motel.”

Ned’s mentor was one of my heroes: Fernand Braudel, the French historian who exerted enormous influence on historical writing, both in Europe and here in the U.S., and whose “Memory and the Mediterranean” and “The Structures of Everyday Life” remain compulsory reading for historians and sociologists around the world.

Ned, for his part, has also written some amazing books.  His book “Cuba and its Music:  From the First Drums to the Mambo,” traces Cuban music back to the Phoenicians’ seafaring dominance of the Mediterranean, the role of African drums on the Crusades and the Reconquista of 1492, to the modern mambo bands sweeping into New York in the early 1940’s.

From his book on New Orleans music history, “The World that Made New Orleans:  From Spanish Silver to Congo Square—which I’m reading now—he teaches us that most of the Peruvian gold that went through New Orleans is now in China, that “tango” went from Africa to New Orleans, then to Cuba and only then to Europe and finally back to Argentina.  Also, that tango was an African word meaning a place where Africans in New Orleans would meet and make music and dance in Congo Square on their Sundays off.

Music connects Africa, Spain, France, Haiti, and New Orleans in many ways that are not obvious.  The cultural DNA and social histories of these lands and of the world (think of the Silk Route, which joined Persia with India, China, and Italy) are ultimately connected by music.  Ned Sublette writes about these things with a fine and iconoclastic mind, with a shoot-from the-hip kind of way. The history is human and breathing, never sterile or academic.  Ned’s books are also a great anti-Alzheimer workout for the brain with their densely-wrought and fascinating prose.

KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel