Caught Between Piety and Desire: A Q&A with Author and Musician Ned Sublette

Caught Between Piety and Desire: A Q&A with Author and Musician Ned Sublette
American musician Ned Sublette
(© Paula Court)

There sat Ned Sublette at a table near the rear of the FB Lounge in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem a couple years ago, as drummer Bobby Sanabria’s big band played loud and great. Sublette was surrounded by stacks of T-shirts he’d designed — he wore one, as did each member of Sanabria’s band — and copies of his brilliant 2007 book, “Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.”

Both the shirt and the book were expressions of what Sublette calls “Postmamboism” — “a portable theory that places music at the center of understanding” and “begins with the study of African diaspora musics,” as he explained in a post on Boing Boing.


“Not deconstruction, not postcolonialism, not semiotics itself can boast of a triumph to rival the Postmamboism T-shirt,” Sublette told me then. Sublette is a lot of things — author and historian, singer-songwriter-guitarist, producer, radio commentator, and occasional music critic — but he’s neither shy nor humble. He is, however, always original in style, usually sweeping in concept, and he knows how to correctly hawk what he’s come with. Recently, he released “Kiss You Down South,” an album of original songs.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sublette is something of a trickster figure, popping up in various guises to inform, yes, but also to challenge our notions about music and culture, language and shared history, throughout the Western hemisphere.

There he was last January, singing an original bolero based on Cuban poet Carilda Oliver Labra’s verses to help Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra celebrate its 10th anniversary at Manhattan’s Symphony Space. Later in 2012 — in Brooklyn and Marfa, Texas, and London — he starred as “R,” the narrator in “Vidas Perfectas,” Alex Waterman’s Spanish-language version of Robert Ashley’s opera “Perfect Lives.”

Earlier this year Sublette returned from Angola; he spilled out his findings in a four-part series within the “Hip Deep” series of Afropop Worldwide, the radio program and online magazine with which he’s had a long association.

Back in the 1990s, through his Qbadisc label, Sublette produced and marketed releases by some of Cuba’s defining musical voices, including Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, NG La Banda, and Isaac Delgado. Willie Nelson’s 2009 album, “Lost Highway,” included “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” a waltz Sublette composed in 1981, long before “Brokeback Mountain” essayed such a theme.

“I’m kind of unusual in that I don’t cultivate a web presence and don’t do social media,” Sublette wrote to me recently in an email. “I’m a Facebook refusenik, nobody’s tweetheart, don’t have a web page, don’t blog, don’t provide Google or Youtube with free content.” But if you’re on his personal email list, you’ll receive all sorts of provocation, especially as concerns Cuba or New Orleans or just stuff smart people who care about culture need to know, and maybe some of his photos.  

As an author, Sublette tends to begin at the beginning, however far back that leads. For his first book, “Cuba and Its Music,” he took as a starting point Cadiz, circa 1104, and spent 600 pages just to get to 1952, when mambo was still a craze and Fidel Castro a rabble-rousing lawyer. He tempered such ambition with his 2008 book, “The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.” “My story begins in 1492,” he wrote, “in Roman Catholic Europe.” His goal? To explain “how New Orleans got to 1819,” drawing that date from a traveler’s description: “On Sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” Along the way, he detailed how those Africans got to Congo Square, what their dances probably looked like, why they were identified as “Congo,” and how we came to say that they “rocked” in the first place. Sublette constructed a social history staked to the course of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere with a backdrop of musical development.

In his 2009 book, “The Year Before the Flood,” music jumped to the front seat, but the legacy of slavery rumbled along throughout the ride. The book took its title from the 2004-05 academic year, when Sublette lived in New Orleans, on a fellowship at Tulane University. But he started his narrative four decades earlier, in Natchitoches (pronounced Nackatish), Louisiana, with his first-grade teacher explaining to students why coins must not be put in mouths. (“It might have been in the hands of a colored person.”) By the seventh grade, Sublette and classmates are asked to dramatize a slave auction. “Some people lived between the piety of knowing that slavery was bad,” he writes, “and the desire of living it once again.” Sublette was born in Texas and his family later moved to New Mexico. He’s lived in New York City for more than three decades.

Though the narrative of Sublette’s first New Orleans book ended in the 19th century, he had no choice but to acknowledge the wake of the flood that resulted from the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina. “The destruction of buildings in 2005 was fearful, but so was the loss of something intangible,” he wrote in that book. “African America took a blow when the collective knowledge of black New Orleans was scattered to the four winds. Dispersing that population was like tearing up an encyclopedia in front of an electric fan.” If that volume attempted to restore some of that information, his “The Year Before the Flood” explained how he got his hands on the encyclopedia in the first place, just before the cruel winds blew, and what it means to him.

Sublette’s only previous album under his name, 1999’s “Cowboy Rumba,” may have seemed like a post-modernist combination of Afro-Cuban tradition and Manhattan’s Downtown aesthetic (his earliest New York musical associations were with the likes of Glenn Branca and Peter Gordon), and featuring an all-star Latin cast: On one track, Sublette reworked Buddy Holly’s  “Not Fade Away” with the great Cuban rumba group Los Muñequitos De Matanzas; on another, he turned “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” into a merengue. For “Kiss You Down South,” it’s just Sublette, singing and playing the Ramirez guitar he bought in 1969, in Madrid. As always, he takes the long view. One song, “Sally,” appropriates “Money Musk,” a fiddle tune that apparently was among Thomas Jefferson’s favorites. Sublette wrote some of these songs 30 years ago. Most of them speak of his year in New Orleans.

Recently, Sublette and I sat down and talked about that year and the making of this CD.

I remember something you wrote in “The Year Before the Flood,” about settling into your apartment in the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, and it sounds like a prologue to this CD: “When I got back to our house, I pulled out my guitar and started to sing.  I was singing a little more relaxed.  I had found something new in my old, ragged voice.”

There are people who say that sound waves travel differently in New Orleans because the air pressure at low altitude. I have no idea if that’s true. But I do know that personally, because of my own history, New Orleans affects the way I make and hear music. I was 53 when we went to New Orleans and it took me that many years to connect all my dots. Once I was there, my singing changed, and for the better.

But Natchitoches, where you lived as a boy, wasn’t quite New Orleans, was it?

It wasn’t New Orleans. New Orleans was the mysterious place I didn’t have access to. Natchitoches is a colonial town, a racist town. As a child I lived in an apartheid environment. I accessed black music through the radio, and it was New Orleans radio.

But let’s just say that when I got to New Orleans, there was a lot of stuff nobody had to explain to me. Certain dialects and details, like how you would naturally leave a package for someone underneath their house because the house itself was raised. And this ever-present sense of racism.

In what ways did your voice change or find itself in New Orleans?

It became more natural. I 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.

Is the song “Between Piety and Desire” the heart of this CD?

Originally I was going use that for the title of my last book. But then I realized there was already a book by that name — and I suppose it’s an obvious title if you know New Orleans streets. This CD was originally meant as a companion to that book. But I ended up not recording it until 2010, and putting it out last year. The unifying device of my first book about New Orleans was the street grid. Everyone in New Orleans is negotiating the city’s history every single day just by getting around. They are driving or walking through a web of history referencing different periods of colonization and conflicting human impulses. Eventually, I took up the task of researching what or who each of these street names referenced. In “The Year Before the Flood” I tell the story of the song, “Between Piety and Desire.” I was visiting my friend and inadvertent mentor, Robert Palmer, in 1992. During that trip, as I was driving around in a rented car, not knowing my way around New Orleans, I came upon two parallel one-way streets that ran in opposite directions: Piety and Desire. So a first verse popped into my head:

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.

The second verse didn’t appear until 2004, until I was living in New Orleans and trying to get to airport. I found myself at the corner of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King Boulevard. And suddenly I had that 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.

And you ended up recording the song at Piety Street Recording, which is right near that first intersection, isn’t it?

It’s on Piety, just a block away from Desire. And that place is special to New Orleans and it’s extremely special to me. It’s like a home away from home, in a way.

In your previous New Orleans book, you cracked the whip of scholarly reevaluation with particular force on Thomas Jefferson. You dug into how his annexation of Louisiana made him a key figure in American slavery’s expansion, creating, as you wrote, “a major industry in domestically raised humans.” With your song, “Sally,” are you joining in the chorus of revisionist views on Jefferson, the man, as well?

The slave breeding industry in the United States is at the center of my next book [“The American Slave Coast,” co-authored with his wife, Constance Sublette, due in late 2014]. It’s really the one book with my name on it that won’t be very much about music, though music of course creeps in there.

As for Jefferson, the man and the historical figure, Henry Weincek’s “Master of the Mountain” is one of my favorite books of the past year. That book points to the fact that the defensive perimeter around Jefferson has retrenched. Not so long ago, most historians thought that Jefferson’s reputation would be permanently shredded if he were proved to have fathered children by Sally Hemings. But guess what? Jefferson survived that, right? He’s been repurposed for the modern era. I wrote “Sally” in 1985, after reading the book that kicked this whole thing off — Fawn Vrody’s book about Thomas Jefferson.

I tweaked it and added the final couplet later:

All men are created equal

But Sally, you’re not a man

I was just trying to respond. I was trying to process what this all meant in human terms, I just tried to imagine this very unequal thing between these two people. Song seemed to be the way to address it — to get to the subject of this very unequal relationship where one partner owns the other, and that this is at the heart of our republican being somehow. This is a mind-blowing thing that I have not ceased to think about for the last 30 years. This song was my first effort to deal with it. I used to be unspeakable and now it’s impossible to ignore.

How did you come upon the tune you base this song on, “Money Musk”?

I knew it was a favorite of Jefferson’s. It’s a well-known old fiddle tune. There are a number of versions floating around. I found a notation of it. I’ve heard various recordings of it. I found a version of the tune that I could work into my song. Constance and I were trying to figure out what feel to give the song. She suggested a Tidewater feel. It was trying in some sense, to conjure up an 18th-century dance in Virginia.

You and I have both written and talked a great deal about New Orleans during the past several years. How have your feelings about New Orleans changed since the year you spent there, before the 2005 flood, and in the years since?

I was dealing with the issues raised by the flood even back in 2004, because I felt like I was seeing something threatened. I kept telling everyone, “They’re in denial; the place is going to get creamed.” The viability of the city was already a question in my mind. I didn’t expect it to play the way it did, of course. The BP thing was going on while I was there in 2010 making this CD. It was a very hot nasty summer. We were still feeling this threat to the viability of the place. My anxiety since has gone down. After watching what’s happened to New York and looking at climate doom — in that sense, New Orleans is starting to seem less exceptional lately.

But I think you share my ambivalence about the perception of recovery and renewal in New Orleans, don’t you?

New Orleans is alive and kicking. It’s not all wonderful. It’s a struggle and it’s going to remain a struggle. People are still moving back and getting their houses back. There are people who are still in some sense living through Katrina. Everyone with a certain consciousness is aware of what happened to New Orleans’ African American community. We can’t forget that. The city has in many ways become more segregated. These are problems. But I will say even though the culture is being marketed harder and more effectively now, those who defend the culture are doing a fabulous job I think. Any tendency that was there to take it for granted was washed away in 2005.

You know, when people look at the cover of this CD, they see a guy with a cowboy hat playing an acoustic guitar. What kind of music do you tell people is contained within?

It’s funny — I’m thinking today about how I’ve had a real problem with this album in terms of putting it on sale on online services. They have all these genres and categories that you can slot yourself into. But none of them seem to fit, no matter how finely sliced and diced. But they don’t have the category it is, which is the oldest of all: troubadour. In Cuba, they have that category. Here, we say “folk.” I don’t think this is “folk.” But I think this is in the troubadour tradition. My hero for that sort of thing — singing, playing nylon-string guitar, and singing intelligent songs is João Bosco. He’s my ideal.