Ned Sublette on New Orleans and Himself | Bleader

Ned Sublette on New Orleans and Himself


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Ned Sublette
  • Ned Sublette
A few weeks ago I got a copy of the latest book by Ned Sublette, a chronicle of his history and connections with New Orleans—namely the period he spent there just before Hurricane Katrina, which gives the book its title, The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans (Lawrence Hill Books). Sublette, who was born and raised in the south, was in New Orleans as a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane, where he conducted the research that went into his previous book, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008).

I adore Sublette’s first book, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, a brilliant analysis of the historical, cultural, religious, political, and economic forces that made Cuba what it is today. No book has taught me more about Cuban music and what makes it tick—and because it only covers up till the point when Castro seized power, I’m still eagerly waiting for the next installment. The World That Made New Orleans didn’t grab me the same way—I set it down after a couple of pages, put off by the barrage of historical detail—but since reading the new book I’ve gone back to it, and what I’ve read so far has been characteristically illuminating. Sublette traces how colonial struggles in the New World and the evolution of the slave trade laid the foundation for modern New Orleans.

Sublette is an interesting guy with strong opinions, and that goes for his music as well as his books. He’s probably best known for his unlikely hybrid of country songwriting and Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures, though it never made a fan of me—Willie Nelson, on the other hand, liked Sublette’s “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” enough to cover it and help get it on the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain. Sublette studied composition with Kenneth Gaburo before moving to New York in 1976, and once there he worked with folks like Glenn Branca, LaMonte Young, John Cage, and Peter Gordon; he recently participated in Rhys Chatham’s New York performance of A Crimson Grail for 200 electric guitars. During the 90s he ran the excellent Qbadisc label, giving much-needed exposure to both classic material from Cuba and groundbreaking contemporary talent at a time when such music was very difficult for Americans to hear.

In The Year Before the Flood Sublette uses the same kind of meticulous research and wry humor that’s gone into his earlier books, applying it this time to his own history—where he lived, who he hung out with, and what he could hear on the radio all shaped his aesthetic. The telling is rooted in his year in New Orleans, for which he clearly has a deep affection, warts and all. As he recalls the horror of Katrina and its aftermath, it's impossible not to be moved all over again.

His deft analyses of music from the Crescent City—he discusses brass bands, Ernie K-Doe, and Lil Wayne with equal seriousness and candor—is laced with healthy indignation at American racism, especially in the south, and at the Bush administration’s nonresponse to Katrina. That anger and disgust sometimes border on self-righteousness, but for the most part Sublette’s tone suits the gravity of the situation he’s describing. And The Year Before the Flood passes my own personal test for books about music too: its erudite enthusiasm is so infectious that it had me digging up every record I own that was cut in New Orleans, eager to listen to them all with fresh ears.

Today’s playlist:

Freddie Hubbard, Breaking Point (Blue Note)
Don Covay, Super Dude: The Mercury Years Volume 1 (Shout!)
Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey)
Om, God Is Good (Drag City)
Paulo Sérgio, Me Ajude a Morrer (EMI, Brazil)