Musician turned musicologist Ned Sublette unravels the histories and sounds that shaped New Orleans, our most “American” city. Click here to read part one.
The following is the second of a two-part interview between Ned Sublette and Garnette Cadogan. Click here to read the first part.
Garnette Cadogan You said that there was something essential about New Orleans and Cuba in American music. I want to lock in on that word, essential, because its various meanings (something absolutely necessary; something fundamental or characteristic) seem to constitute a thread that weaves through all your work. Certainly, your books can be seen as part of this one story—searching for the essence of our music by exploring its sources: What is important about the connections, movements, and, of course, confluence at the beginning? And what might our history through song and sound reveal about our essential human drama? What, really, does the beginning of things reveal about the meaning of things? It seems that, for you, Cuba and New Orleans lie at the heart of what is essential about our music and, thus, our selves.
Ned Sublette You said it perfectly. And two parts of this same phenomenon, connected across the Gulf of Mexico. Our strongest musical connection, Havana and New Orleans.
GC But what about your adopted hometown, New York City?
NS The other great music city.
GC Isn’t there something fundamental about our music that has the mark of New York City on it? You should know: you were part of what is commonly called the New York downtown scene. Actually, wasn’t the downtown scene your musical gateway to New York City?
NS People don’t usually think of salsa as having been part of the downtown scene. My way in to what I’m doing now, was going to the Monday night Salsa Meets Jazz jams at the Village Gate. In retrospect, it’s like, What took me so long?, because I had the conditions.
GC The conditions? What period were you going to these jams?
NS Precisely in June 1985, I started going to the Village Gate every Monday night. I moved to New York in 1976, so I could have taken this step ten years earlier than I did. I didn’t take that walk across the street I should have taken. I was aware of it—I’ve spoken Spanish since childhood, I was trained as a classical guitarist in Albuquerque by a Cuban professor—so I had the necessary tools to begin understanding it. And I had some historical consciousness, having studied 16th century Spanish music in Spain, but I needed to go hang out at the Gate for it to all click. The music I was hearing live at the Village Gate on Monday nights satisfied me in a way that rock and roll had promised to satisfy me when I was a kid but never quite did. It satisfied me kinetically—I could throw my whole body into it—but it also satisfied me intellectually. We’ve gotten to think of dance music as something dumb, something that just goes thump-thump-thump, but dancing is an intense listening state.
The history of rock and roll as it had been written up to that point was, you know, black people playing rhythm and blues, and white people playing country and western, and they crossed over. But I came to realize that when you talk about these two sides of the fence, you’d better look for the Latin element, because that was the mediator. When you listen to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” his first hit, or Bo Diddley’s first hit, both of ‘em had maracas. And these three-chord loops that I knew and loved from rock and roll in the ‘60s came from Cuban music. Why was this? I started talking about it with Bob Palmer, who had already done a lot of work on the question, from which I benefited. Ultimately, I came to realize that the cha-cha-chá was a fundamental template for rock and roll. I wrote an article called “The Kingsmen and the Cha-cha-chá,” laying out that case in a book called Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, but I’m just starting now to think about telling this story in a more general-reader way.
I realized I was gonna have to go to Cuba if I was ever gonna understand what those guys on stage at the Village Gate were doing. It was the exact opposite of the joke stereotype of the rock drummer: Latin percussionists tend to be intellectuals, of a kinetic sort, and every one of them was carrying a part of this history. There was a profound dialogue going on. [Music critic and guitarist] Pete Watrous called it “the conversation.” We were all having the conversation. Everybody had learned this or that from their teacher, everybody shared bits of lore, everyone had a sense of what it all meant, but there was not an overarching historical narrative to put it into. Had I begun by saying I would supply that narrative, I would never have dared. I sort of eased into it, pretending I was doing something else, but I realized I was gonna have to tell the story of Cuban music from the beginning if it was gonna make any sense. (laughter) And I went very far back…
GC And your own playing—did [your 1999 LP] Cowboy Rumba come out of this?
NS My own evolution was curious. I was born in Lubbock, Texas, and grew up in Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico, and I felt very much like a lost cowboy when I got to New York in 1976. I found myself holding on to my Texanhood, and my New Mexicohood, but the music I was doing was something rather different. So although my lyrics partook of the storytelling tradition of cowboy music and country music, I wound up being part of this wave of guitar bands. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham—I was in both their bands at the same time. When I started my own band, which debuted in 1982 at CBGB, with the not-so-imaginative name The Ned Sublette Band, we were playing loud dissonant country music. It wasn’t country punk, because I always got musicians who could really play.
GC What was it, then, avant-country?
NS It wasn’t even avant, it was just my music. But also, I had learned guitar from a Cuban, and I’d be working with rock musicians and I’d say, could we change the chord on the 4 instead of on the 1? Which is what Cuban music does. And they’d say, no, you gotta change it on the 1, you don’t change on the 4! I was writing habanera rhythms. Long before, I had started to think of the Bo Diddley beat as the fundamental beat of rock and roll, without realizing what that implied.
1985 was my big moment of enlightenment, just, bang! When I started going to salsa shows and listening to Latin music full time. That August I was in residence at Sundance Institute for two weeks, as a composer attached to the choreographer Karole Armitage. We were working on a piece that was never produced, though I did it as a solo show and with my band a bunch of times at places like Tramps and the Lone Star. And while I was there in Utah, I had these cassettes that I’d taped off Latin radio in New York, that I was listening to all the time, and I was thinking about the Village Gate. That’s when I wrote the tune “Cowboy Rumba,” August 1985, which I finally had the chance to release as an album project 14 years later. But—and this is an element of my next book, which is a memoir—I never really found my voice as a singer until I spent that year in New Orleans. I was 53 when we went to New Orleans and it took me that many years to connect all my dots. But once I was there, my singing changed. For the better.
GC More soulful? More funky?
NS It became more natural. I was a child in Louisiana, and I kinda had to repress all of that when we moved away, because there was nobody I could talk about that experience with. Back in Louisiana again, living in New Orleans as an adult, I connected with parts of myself that I had always known were there but were put away. In some important way I had come full circle, and my singing became, in a word, jazzier. I got a lot more style suddenly, and it was a very natural style. I had always tended to sing in a tense, forced voice, probably because I started singing in the era of ridiculously loud music. All that fell away, and I feel like I’ve finally become the complete musician that I always was trying to be and took a very long circuitous path to get to.
GC Let’s return to New York City and your participation in the downtown scene.
NS There was this circle of people that I was really tight with, and I’m still tight with.
NS Well, my most important friendship was with Peter Gordon, whom I’ve known since 1972. We went to grad school together at UC San Diego.
GC You studied…
NS Music composition. I have a master’s degree in music composition, which is the most vocationally useless thing you can possibly have. I studied with Kenneth Gaburo, Robert Erickson, Pauline Oliveros, in this modern American movement that we called “new music.” I came to New York a graduated young member of the new music scene, with a good understanding of structure. I think still my comprehension of structure is one of my strong suits. A pretty good array of techniques at my disposal. But not very well integrated into society! (laughter)
I worked with Peter Gordon on many things over the years and we still do things together all the time. The first night I was visiting New York, Peter introduced me to Arthur Russell, and we became good friends. Probably the most visible thing I did was play in the very loud and very exciting guitar band—no vocals—led by Glenn Branca, which was very popular downtown in ’80 and ’81. The sextet I was in was Glenn, me, Lee Ranaldo (subsequently a member of Sonic Youth, a group with a sound derived directly from Glenn’s band), David Rosenbloom, Jeffrey Glenn, and Stephan Wischerth. At the same time I was also playing with Rhys Chatham, whom Peter Gordon had introduced me to early on in my time in New York, and who started playing hyper-loud music for multiple electric guitars. In both bands, I was the guy who knew how to play the guitar in a legit sense. I had worked with John Cage and La Monte Young. Rhys had worked with La Monte, and was very sophisticated in his understanding of tuning systems. Rhys and I used to spend hours talking about tuning. I was the guy who tuned all the guitars, in both bands. Rhys made these pieces where a lot of the composition was the composition of the tuning, and we saturated the acoustic with it. This summer, I have just—what have I gotten myself into?—agreed to be one of the subconductors of a 200-guitar piece that Rhys is going to do at Lincoln Center in August.
It was a big, permeable world of music through which any influence might enter and cross. If I had the money, which I often didn’t, I might go see Arthur Blythe at the Tin Palace one night, hear Wozzeck at the Met another, go see the Clash—who I thought were total bullshit—at the Palladium, and then there was all the neighborhood music—a La Monte Young Dream House, or Defunkt, ESG—that whole scene was going on—and all my friends’ concerts. And as soon as hip hop came downtown, we were listening to that.
GC If you could nail a distinctive ethic or aesthetic for that diverse group, what would it be?
NS To listen. Being a good listener means, you don’t talk or do something else while the music’s going on. You know? You don’t push “play” and then sit and have a conversation with somebody. You actually listen to the music, and you listen to it closely. Gradually since those days, more and more music is being made to be wallpaper.
The other thing that was special about downtown in the ‘70s was that the city was bankrupt. The whole country was undergoing a terrible recession, beginning, really, when the bill for the Vietnam War came due. Nixon took the country off the gold standard, and we got oil shocks and this frightening double-digit inflation. The job market disappeared. There was no job for me when I graduated with a master’s degree. I was getting food stamps. When I came to New York there were fewer opportunities to play than I had thought there would be, but nonetheless there was music going on all the time, and there were affordable places to live. When the city was bankrupt it was at its most creative. I remember that time—in many ways, a terrible period—as one when you needed a party.
GC Ahhh, the conditions!
NS And if there’s one thing I remember about the second half of the ‘70s, it was a party time. Which is part of why loud music won.
GC People too often think of the avant-garde as…
NS We never called ourselves that, never…
GC …merely serious music responding to serious times, but a good party is never far from creative experimentation or tough times.
NS I’ve experienced three great moments of creativity amid chaos. One was New York at that time. One was Havana during the Special Period of the early ‘90s, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, when Cuba’s economy imploded as their GNP dropped 35%, occasioning regular eight-hour blackouts and draconian food shortages. And the third was New Orleans after the flood. And in all three of those, partying was the affirmation that life goes on, that culture goes on.
GC So these creative scenes partially witness to the need for the spirit to persevere, the human spirit dealing with challenges: economic, political, racial…
NS And why is poor people’s music so insistent about being party music? Because no one needs a party more than poor people.
GC That observation speaks to the controversy in 2006 about whether it was appropriate for New Orleans to hold Mardi Gras celebrations a few months after Hurricane Katrina. Many thought it was carefree foolhardiness. But it was essentially an act of survival, a refusal to succumb to the disaster and its repercussions. The party—the celebratory ritual, really—was a way of coping.
NS Dancing doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re happy. But dancing means that you’re alive, and it’s exhilarating to be alive, especially when they’re trying to kill you. For New Orleans, white or black, Mardi Gras is the ultimate expression that you’re alive. If New Orleans didn’t have Mardi Gras, it wouldn’t be New Orleans.
GC And Mardi Gras, as experienced in New Orleans, is a rich, multi-layered event—a jubilant celebration infused with expressive rituals and traditions, as opposed to just catching beads or flashing from the wayside.
NS People have a very stereotyped idea of what New Orleans is. The entire year I was living there, the number one thing anyone outside of New Orleans would say if I mentioned New Orleans was about beads and tits. The irony is, that’s not even a part of New Orleans culture. That goes on for three blocks of Bourbon Street, and it’s done by tourists who come to perform their idea of what they think New Orleans is, but if a woman were to flash her protuberances at a real Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles, which is a family affair, she’d at the very least be given a stern talking-to.
And then the image of New Orleans changed and became about Katrina. Neither one of which is what the city is about.
I’d never experienced Mardi Gras until 2005, the year before the flood. And I frankly thought Mardi Gras was bullshit. And I didn’t realize. The last thing I expected was that I would have a spiritual experience on Mardi Gras day. But I did. I had a bona fide spiritual experience, seeing the Mardi Gras Indians on St. Claude Avenue, right there between St. Augustine’s [Catholic Church] and the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
GC Just a few blocks from Congo Square…
NS The thing that makes Mardi Gras so powerful in New Orleans is that the whole town shuts down for it. Everyone, whatever their sector of society, when Mardi Gras happens, the city stops and everyone does Mardi Gras all at the same time. I never experienced anything quite like that—not in the United States of America, anyway. Mardi Gras starts at daybreak and goes till sundown. A lot of people stay up all night the night before, but that feeling when you get up before dawn on Mardi Gras morning and you feel the whole city gearing up—this sense that something is rising and is about to happen—I’ve never felt anything quite like that. Then, of course, you turn on WWOZ and as the sun is coming up you hear James and Troy Andrews, “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Zulu King” with that great alto intro by Donald Harrison, Jr., or the Wild Tchoupitoulas’s version of “My Indian Red,” and it’s electrifying.
GC Yes, the streets become “freedom spaces,” so to speak—its songs, dances, and rituals assuming their role as colorful claimants of freedom. On the New Orleans streets, freedom widens its span and reveals its byways…
NS In The World that Made New Orleans, the unifying device is the street grid. Because New Orleanians, to get around, navigate this web of history on these peculiarly-named streets. Most New Orleanians don’t know who the streets are named for, but they know the name Carondelet because they drive Carondelet every day. They don’t know that he was the Belgian-born Spanish governor who dug the canal, lit the streets, tried to combat subversion inspired by the French Revolution…. I set myself the task of trying to find out who all the streets represented. I wrote a song called “Between Piety and Desire,” which is about New Orleans street names.
GC Piety and Desire: Two parallel adjacent one-way streets that run in opposite directions. How appropriate.
I live between Piety and Desire
On my one hand a blessing, on the other hot hellfire
By day I sweat, by night I perspire
At home between Piety and Desire.
I wrote that verse in 1992 when I visited the city, when I was visiting Bob Palmer, and I saw these two streets as I was driving around in my rented car. But I couldn’t ever think of a second verse. Twelve years later, when I was living in the city, I was trying to drive myself to the airport, and I stupidly tried following the map, but no, you can’t go all the way up on Broad Street, and I found myself at the corner of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King Boulevard. And suddenly I had the second verse:
O Death, where is thy sting?
I’ve been here six months and I don’t feel a thing
I hit a detour somewhere in the land of bling
And wound up where Jefferson Davis meets Martin Luther King.
If the street grid was a unifying device for The World that Made New Orleans, the unifying device for The Year Before The Flood, my next book, is the rhythm of the year. Anything less than a year in New Orleans is parachute journalism, because you have to watch the seasons wheel around and see how every week is marked by some annual observance of something. Occasionally other periodicities, such as the presidential election every four years, but in New Orleans, you’re constantly marking some kind of observance, with a ritual that is appropriate to that observance. And your job, the work you do at your job, is what you do to relax between these festivals, parades, and celebrations.
GC As the old New Orleans joke goes: There are only two seasons—festival and between festival.
NS I was in New Orleans this March, and after I got done with the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line, I ran into a St. Patty’s Day parade — seven days before March 17th. I asked, why so early? They said, we gotta practice. Halloween lasted three days. There’s always another festival. And pretty much every Sunday, for a lot of the year, there’s a second line going on somewhere.
GC In The World That Made New Orleans, you focus on movement—to the city, on the rivers, from New Orleans to elsewhere; while in your book-in-progress, The Year Before The Flood, you focus on the streets—its zest, its allure, its dangers. How’s that for pigeonholing your work?
In both, but especially in The Year Before The Flood, you suggest that the streets hold the city’s meaning—even its future. You make the argument that vernacular culture, particularly street culture in tightly-knit neighborhoods, is central to the life of New Orleans. Not only its cultural life, but also its economic and political life; for it is chiefly the streets of New Orleans, and the sounds they emanate, that capture the hearts and imaginations of those fond of the place. Once a metaphor for charm, playfulness, and infectious rambunctiousness, New Orleans is now held up as a symbol of indifference, incompetence, and callous neglect. This is due in no small part to the shift in the general perception of its streets. The poet Katie Ford poignantly captures this new sense in her poem “Earth” (from her recent collection, Colosseum):
If you respect the dead
and recall where they died
by this time tomorrow
there will be nowhere to walk.
It’s still too early to tell, although we’ve read innumerable dispatches delineating New Orleans’s post-hurricane changes—spiritual, racial, economic, cultural, and political—but I’ll foolishly ask, nonetheless: In terms of its vernacular culture, what do you think is changing? has changed? More importantly, how do you think New Orleans will adapt to the disintegration of its streets—and its communities?
NS It’s too early to tell what will happen. It’s too early to say whether New Orleans will survive. Maybe this is all just a prolonged final breath. Because if they don’t get those wetlands to the south of the city reinforced, if they don’t get those levees right, New Orleans is gonna be taken out. It’s the canary in the coalmine for what we might be seeing in other parts of the country. That tsunami in South Asia that killed 200,000 people? One reason the casualties were so high was that they had taken out the mangrove swamps and replaced them with shrimp and fish farms. The oil companies don’t even necessarily want South Louisiana to exist. They want to get the oil. And they’ve cut thousands of canals that erode away the land. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which is a lethal water gun pointed at the low-lying areas, is still there. So if we don’t have real protection, we won’t have this city and culture. It’s by no means saved. It’s very much too soon to tell. But one thing we can see in the years since the tragedy of August 29, 2005, is how essential music is to the identity of the city. How essential it is to resisting the erasure of the city and its people. And also how creative the response of New Orleans has been. Music never stopped. The Banks Street Café was having gigs by candlelight before the power was back on. Coco Robicheaux was in a bar in the French Quarter when the power first came back, and he immediately took out his guitar and started playing. Music was one of the first things to get started again, and the response on the part of musicians has been so eloquent. It’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Have you heard Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will? Gave me goosebumps. At Jazzfest 2007, Henry Butler—this great figure of New Orleans piano, who lost his house, he’s living in Denver—he was back for Jazzfest, and every gig I went to Henry Butler was playing, and he was testifying. When a trumpet player drives six hours each way from Houston to make his Thursday night bar gig, you can feel his commitment in every note he plays. The second lines these days are sublime. I always finish these things by encouraging everybody to go there and see it for yourself, and participate in this culture that is so fundamental to who we are.
Click here to read Part 1 of this two-part interview between Ned Sublette and Garnette Cadogan!
BOMB VIDEO: Watch Ned Sublette perform at BOMB’s 25th Anniversary event on June 14, 2006 at The Kitchen in NYC!_
Garnette Cadogan writes about arts and culture for various publications. He lives in New York City.