Jefferson Faculty Write on Sustainable Design and Senegalese Afro-Cuban Music in New Books

In his book, Rob Fleming sought more powerful ways to communicate the complex topic of sustainable design of the built environment.

University faculty members wrote about their passions in a pair of recently released books. Rob Fleming, director of the MS in sustainable design program and the Salaman Family Chair in Sustainable Design, penned Sustainable Design for the Built Environment”; and Richard Shain, PhD, associate professor of history, authored Roots in Reverse: Senegalese Afro-Cuban Music and Tropical Cosmopolitanism.”

The two share a few words on their inspirations, writing process and more.

What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
Rob Fleming: My generation helped to create the problems we face today, and our generation has not stepped up to show the leadership needed to address those problems. This book is written for students from the next generation who will be burdened with the task of moving society forward to a sustainable or, at least, a “survivable” future. Also, I needed a textbook for my class! It was time to find new and more powerful ways to communicate the complex topic of sustainable design of the built environment to as wide an audience as possible.

Richard Shain: Since I was a teenager in New York City, I always have loved Latin music. Many years ago, a friend gave me a cassette labeled “African Salsa.” That was news to me since I never had associated Africa with Latin music before. I listened to it and was smitten. It was Laba Sosseh, the first Senegambian Afro-Cuban musician to become a star in Africa and later in the U.S.

When I returned to the U.S. after many years teaching in Africa, another friend played me a CD by the Senegalese Afro-Cuban group Orchestre Baobab. I loved it and resolved to find out the story behind the music. Around the same time, I became interested in researching transnational culture flows by non-elite groups like sailors, particularly groups unable to obtain much formal education. I discovered music, especially when recorded, was a prime means of cultural transmission between different societies in the Atlantic world. All these interests coalesced in “Roots in Reverse,” which looks at the question of why so many Senegalese have been attracted to Afro-Cuban music from the 1930s to today.

What was the creative and research process like?
Rob Fleming: We developed a “Table of Sustainable Design Elements” as the table of contents for the book. In other words, we collected all the topics needed to cover the subject and organized them in a visual relationship that communicates the breadth and depth of sustainable design. The Table became the driving force behind the book. At a deeper level, an attempt was made to “spiral” the information in the book so that each chapter can stand alone as a topic, but all other chapters are purposely presented within the context of a chapter. Chapter 12, for example, covers sustainable architecture, but previously covered topics of biophilia, resilience and health are referenced in direct ways. As a result, students can “connect” the themes of the book as a running thread that hopefully ties everything together.

History professor Richard Shain spent over a decade researching his book “Roots in Reverse.”

Richard Shain: I’m a trained oral historian and ethnographer, and I used methods from both fields in my research. I started off researching in the U.S. by listening to as much Cuban, Puerto Rican and West African music as possible. Simultaneously, I extensively read academic research in English or French on African music and Senegalese history. I also read Senegalese fiction that deals directly or indirectly with Afro-Cuban music.

When I arrived in Senegal, I conducted interviews with Senegalese Afro-Cuban musicians, civil servants active in Afro-Cuban music circles, impresarios, intellectuals, salsa dance teachers, journalists, Senegalese Cuban music record collectors, and radio and TV announcers. In addition, I spent hundreds of evenings in Dakar’s salsa clubs and socializing with musicians.

In the final phase, I worked in the Senegalese National Archives. Intensive research on my book lasted for over a decade with many trips to Senegal and a year spent as a Fulbright professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

What would people be surprised to learn about this topic?
Rob Fleming: Few people know what sustainable design is. Sustainable design is simply the application of sustainability values to a design project. The values are ecological regeneration, social equity, economic viability and beauty. Design projects that address all of these in an intentional way are more likely to persist and help the planet heal and move society forward in a positive way.

Richard Shain: What amazed me when I went to the clubs was that Senegalese musicians still lovingly perform Cuban music from the 1920s and 1930s in Spanish. Indeed, their repertoire of Cuban music only extends up to the Cuban Revolution. The audience all know these songs and never tire of hearing them. The music has been continually refreshed and redefined—for example, by adding electric guitars and Senegalese percussion.


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