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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

Latin dance music’s funky update

Posted May 12, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
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BY JORDAN LEVIN | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

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YERBA BUENA: From left, Rashwan Ross, Eduardo ‘El Chino’ Rodriguez, Andres Levin, Xiomara Laugart, Pedro Martinez, Cucu Diamantes and Ron Blake offer a fresh sound.
Latin dance music is in trouble. Salsa is in a creative and commercial slump. Merengue now tends to be so bass and production heavy it sounds like house music in Spanish. Even timba, Cuba’s fiery dance music, has become formulaic, while the combination of politics and a sound that won’t fit commercial radio has kept it unheard in the United States.

Enter Yerba Buena, a band that’s re-inventing Latin dance music into something both fresh and funkily familiar. The debut CD, President Alien, mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms, Nigerian Afro-beat, hip-hop, funk, soca, and cumbia, channeling most of the good African-rooted dance music of the past 50 years into one natural sound. Imagine Parliament-Funkadelic in contemporary Havana. They built their chops with two years of playing in New York, acquiring a reputation as the city’s hottest live band.

Yerba Buena is the creation of Andres Levin, a producer who has worked with funk (Chaka Khan), rock en espaņol (El Gran Silencio) and art-rock (Arto Lindsay). Levin came up with the concept of Yerba Buena (literally “good herb” in Spanish, it can mean either mint or marijuana) after producing records in Cuba, Nigeria, and Brazil with his Cuban wife Ileanna Padron in 2000. He put together the group to combine all the musics he loved, convinced that the African rhythms at their roots could bring them together.

“It’s a necessary marriage of styles that hadn’t been done,” Levin said last month, as he headed into rehearsal. “The only way was to create this band as a vehicle and really express that marriage of rhythms.”

The group has a heavy Cuban influence; lead singer Xiomara Laugart, percussionist Pedro Martinez, singers and occasional songwriters Eduardo “El Chino” Rodriguez and Padron, who uses the stage name Cucu Diamantes, all hail from Cuba. Laugart’s deep-throated,intense singing is pure Cuban—several songs on President Alien use Yoruban chants and santeria drum rhythms.

But there are also bass and drums straight out of 1970’s funk, rap, boogaloo, cumbia, dancehall, even a bit of Middle Eastern. Among the guest artists are singer Meshell Ndegeocello, legendary Brazilian funk musician Carlinhos Brown, rapper Stic of dead prez, and such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Roy Hargove and flautist Dave Valentin.

A phone interview with Levin turns into a kind of verbal jam session, with the phone being passed from one band member to another and the language switching from English to Spanish. “Yerba Buena is for all tastes, for whoever likes to dance or listen to good music,” says Martinez. “Each of us has their culture that dominates, and we keep on learning the music of each one. It’s real crazy, but with order.”

“The most important thing is to let things be as natural as possible, and just let them develop,” says Ron Blake, a Bahamian native and jazz saxophonist who does the group’s horn arrangements and injects soca and dancehall influences from the West Indies. “Music from West Africa and the Caribbean is so interconnected. It sounds complicated, but everything fits together naturally.”

Their agent is Michel Vega, who got his start managing the comeback of Mario Bauza, one of the key figures blending American jazz and Afro-Cuban music in the 1940s and ‘50s. Vega, who now works for William Morris Agency and took on the unsigned Yerba Buena after only half a dozen live dates, believes they’re making breakthroughs similar to those Bauza made over 50 years ago. ” “I had never heard such a terrific mix of authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms with electronica and hip-hop,” he says.

Yerba Buena’s sound developed onstage, in sweaty, improvisational club gigs where the music changed constantly, and singers doubled as dancers. The group has earned enthusiastic reactions opening for artists as disparate as Ray Charles, the Dave Matthews Band, and Celia Cruz.

But instead of trying to get signed by a major label, they opted for tiny independent Razor & Tie. Levin says the long, loose incubation period and the independent label were calculated to leave the band free to develop naturally. That’s a revolutionary attitude in an era when major labels fine-tune everything from an artist’s hairstyle to choice of songs for maximum commercial appeal. But Levin seems too fascinated by what he’s doing to worry about what people will think.

“There’s the beat that your heart and body understand and the stuff that makes your mind explode,” he says. “Ultimately it’s about putting people on their feet and putting something new in their minds.”

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