Saturday, August 26, 2006

Voodoo in New Orleans

I recently read Ned Sublette's superb Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, and would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in one of the world's most musically brilliant cultures. Sublette cofounded the QubaDisc label and is coproducer of public radio's Afropop Worldwide. I don't know how well-founded is his account of musical commerce in the ancient world between Phoenicia, North Africa, and Cadiz, and the steady flow of African rhythmic innovation into Europe and the Western hemisphere over the last millenium. For example, a Kikongo etymology for sarabande seems rather fanciful when a very similiar Persian word for "song" is at hand. Nonetheless, a North American reader should be especially grateful to Sublette for his ambition to detail all the musical options available to Cuban musicians.

Many of these are really quite different from those available here. Spanish and even Moorish song forms are still typical of son, for example, and there really is no Cuban equivalent of the 12-bar blues (though Guillermo Portabales's "Hay Jaleo" in in AAB form). There are also significant differences in the African material that predominates here and there respectively. Dizzy Gillespie, whose musical understanding of the rumba (the additional 'h' was some strange marketing trick) was beyond reproach, thought that the differences between jazz and rumba were due to drums having been "taken from" North American slaves. However, the slave trade to Cuba and that to North America didn't work the same way. The trade to Cuba continued longer; in Cuba, Africans could much more readily maintain their particular traditions (or, more accurately, they could build on them within Cuba, a comparatively large place; they could also integrate the musical forms brought by refugees from Haiti, or shipments of slaves from different areas). On the other hand, there's really no Cuban music that has "blue notes."

Paul Oliver noticed decades ago (cf. Savannah Syncopators) that blues sounds more like Malian than Ghanaian music, i.e., solo string instruments figure much more heavily than percussion ensembles. Gerhard Kubik built on this idea in such works as Africa and the Blues (American-Made Music). Slaves brought to this country may have lost some of their percussive knowledge, may have had less to begin with, or may simply have selected from among their musical options those most useful: those of savannah herders. Hence the "field holler," etc.

I have one quibble with Sublette's book, and that is that the rather nasty cultic practices of palo (conjury with dead body parts, etc.) are treated rather too enthusiastically. For me, only the music justifies the religion. As for New Orleans voodoo, I'm rather skeptical about how profoundly anyone has ever believed it.

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