Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Several days ago my friend and former bandmate Bob Jacobson e-mailed me his thoughts on my post where I cite Ned Sublette, author of “Cuba and Its Music,” as an authority that Cuban music influenced early rock and roll. Here’s Bob:

“I must read Sublette's book, for this is something I have been thinking about since getting involved in playing Afro-Cuban music for the last several months. Just some ad hoc thoughts not grounded in any greater-than-average knowledge of either the history of Cuban music or the history of rock. My half-assed theory places Cuban music as a sort of detour between Africa and rock, specifically a detour down Clave Road. Traditional African music contributed to Cuban and other Latin musics, among other things, the clave. The classic 3-2 clave, the most fundamental element of Cuban music, is found in early rock, but only as a highly specialized "exotic" groove. We call it the "Bo Diddly beat." In Afro-Cuban music, the Bo Diddly beat is the most elementary of grooves, kindergarten level. And the Bo Diddly part is only one aspect of it; you have to layer other percussion stuff on top of it--the special cowbell thing, the "cascara" spiel on the shell of the timbales. Even the shape of the bass line is determined by the clave. Then, once all that stuff is in place, you can get rid of the explicit clave entirely; it's just implied by all the other parts built on top of it, kind of like building a house of cards and then pulling selected cards out of the bottom floor. Rock does not even have a label for the equally elementary 2-3 clave, which you can hear in such tunes as "Our Love's in Jeopardy." I can't think of a single rock tune, early or otherwise, that is based on a rumba clave, which is like a 3-2 but with the third hit delayed half a beat, which makes it sound more like a 2-3 variant. Early rock was simply not allowed to get so rhythmically complex. It's as if the primal Rock Mama had read "Cuban Music for Dummies," and left it at that. The worst thing you can do in Cuban music is get the clave turned around backwards. In rock there's no danger of that happening. The beat is square. Whichever way you turn it, it's still square.
“Which is not to say that there is not plenty of early rock containing rhythmic intricacies. Well, maybe not plenty, but some. But those intricacies are (a) only rarely rooted in the intricacies of the Cuban clave family; and (b) way less intricate than the intricacies of Cuban dance music. A beginner playing Cuban pop will frequently have no idea where the hell the downbeat is. That does not happen in rock. It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it.
“The point of all this inane rambling being that, in my opinion, while there is probably a demonstrable historic relationship between Cuban music and American rock, I would tend to liken it to the relationship between the lemur and the orangutan. They have common ancestors and share certain traits, but neither was a major influence on the the other's development.”

JOHN REPLIES: This discussion has postponed my reading of “Cuba and Its Music,” while I read “Rock & Roll, an unruly history,” by Ned Sublette’s friend Robert Palmer (who has since died). Palmer quotes Fats Domino’s songwriting partner, bandleader, and record producer Dave Bartholomew as saying that the classic ‘50s rock bass lick -- an arpeggiated major chord, 1-3-5, on a clave rhythm (3+3+2) -- he originally borrowed from an old Cuban record. But you may be right that the rhythm survived independently in North America anyway; Bo Diddley’s use of the beat certainly feels indigenous. The 3 + 3 + 2 rhythm underlays Scott Joplin’s gorgeous “Solace, A Mexican Serenade” too; even 100 years ago North Americans felt that beat to be from south of the border.

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