Later this week, Los Angeles gets a visit from one of music criticism’s leading lights, Cuba scholar Ned Sublette. Sublette arrives in town as part of a panel discussion with photographer Virginia Beahan and Cuban specialist Lillian Guerra for the Getty’s current photography exhibition, “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now.” Sublette authored the magisterial Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, which I’ve often described to friends in evangelical terms because of its expansive yet carefully researched depiction of the history of Cuban music, tracing its path from transatlantic origins to modernity.
When I first heard that Sublette was coming through L.A., I was reminded of his fantastic article, “The Kingsmen and the Cha-Cha-Chá,” which appeared in a 2007 Duke University collection of essays, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. In that piece, Sublette describes the influential role of Cuban music in the development of American music (and especially rock n roll) before political events sabotaged a fruitful musical exchange. As he persuasively argues, bands like Beatles and the Rolling Stones all took cues from Cuban music, sometimes through the use of maracas, as the Rolling Stones did in a number of songs, and other times through the direct incorporation of Cuban styles (either consciously or unconsciously) like the Beatles did with the bolero-reminiscent “And I Love Her” and the mambo-esque guitar licks of “Day Tripper.”
A couple Los Angeles references pop up in the Kingsmen piece, despite the Cuban context (which is more often felt in this country in places like New York, Florida, and even New Orleans). Particularly interesting for me was the discovery that Richard Berry, an African-American singer who gigged with Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Los Angeles (a band led by two Filipino brothers who performed for a primarily Mexican audience), wrote the words and music to “Louie, Louie” using a cha-cha-cha beat popularized by Cuban-born Los Angeles bandleader Rene Touzet. Later, the song migrated north, to Portland, where it was recorded by The Kinsgmen. Of course, the Kingsmen’s version became a Billboard-topping early milestone of rock n roll, though few knew of its origins as a cha-cha-cha cover or the way its Cuban rhythms would secretly spread into American pop music.
Here‘s a great interview with Sublette, this one concerning his equally wonderful tome about the history of music and race in New Orleans, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.
- Honor Among Thieves (HAT)
A person who is described as wearing a “hat” is an artist who is considered trustworthy in the graffiti community. A person who knows a lot of information about other artists but does not spread such knowledge to the authorities. “Dont worry about him, he wears a dope hat”