Cuba libre

Marc Ribot and his Prosthetic Cubans are Habana good time

"This is how some of us have fun in the ghetto," Marc Ribot says slyly from the stage of Los Angeles' cozy Luna Park, a dinner club nestled in West Hollywood. The handsome New Jersey Jew is way out on a limb--a prosthetic limb, at that--and soon the thing is swinging like Juan Gonzalez at an El Duque fastball. As a red-shirted Ribot bows his head to reveal a bald spot shaped something like Cuba, his guitar begins flinging notes freshly dipped in a fry vat of fuzz onto the meat of "Como Se Goza En El Barrio"--or, "How We Have Fun In The Ghetto"--a composition by the late, great Cuban composer-guitarist-bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez.

Behind Ribot, bassist Brad Jones (of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time) checks the hip-based percussive style of Cuban great Cachao, while Puerto Rican percussionist E.J. Rodriguez, the joints of his rawhided hands held together with duct tape, tenderizes the night with funky timbale fills. A stunner in a sundress and her novio torque the dancefloor while Benicio del Toro, at the back of the bar in a foam trucker's cap, is both working on and working off the Gonzo beer gut he wore in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The occasion for this celebration is the release of Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos, a super new album that isn't a straight ape of Arsenio Rodriguez (who was also a master of the tres, a guitar with three pairs of strings, each set tuned to a different note) but rather a tribute to the belief that life is but a dream, with Rodriguez's spirit its chief tributary. The ebullient music comes with a wry disclaimer: Los Cubanos Postizos means The Prosthetic Cubans.

"This is a New York band that is making our own music of Cuban music," explains the 44-year-old Ribot, long a sideman on records by the likes of Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. "This is not about creating an authentic reproduction of these songs," he says, alluding to the key difference between Los Cubanos Postizos and Ry Cooder's recent Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club. "It's about creating a fake history that I need, one that has electric guitars and distortion. I don't want to create a mythology that I have Cuban music in my blood."

Ribot says he tends to "build apologies into the names of my bands." First, there was the Rootless Cosmopolitans, a free-ranging combo whose name came from a poem by Ribot collaborator Allen Ginsberg; the band would release its self-titled debut in 1991. Then came Shrek, which is Yiddish for horror--"because we were so horrible-sounding," he explains. The proof exists on the band's eponymous album, released in February. Ribot, a member of John Zorn's avant-kosher Bar Kochba project, also released Shoe String Symphonies last year as part of Zorn's "Filmworks" series; released on the Tzadik label, it's the imaginary soundtrack to a prison riot.

But Ribot is best known for the metal-lurching rubber-gland guitar work that accentuated the musical madness of Tom Waits' Rain Dogs in 1985 and 1987's Franks Wild Years. With Los Cubanos Postizos, Ribot explains, "I realized a desire to go back to what I was doing in the mid-'80s and the different traditions that gave me the sound on the Tom Waits stuff: Cuban music, Django Rheinhardt, [Television's] Robert Quine. And instead of pushing them together, pull them apart."

By reclaiming his Waits-era guitar tone, Ribot highlights the kindred melodies of Rodriguez's "No Me Llores Mas" and Waits' "Cemetery Polka." The striking similarities are almost certainly coincidental, although Ribot's career is a bridge beneath which such improbabilities frequently flow. Having taken early tutelage from Haitian classical composer and guitarist Fritz Casseus, Ribot's arrow flew to New York, and as disco's last days wound down, he played in the Realtones, a New York City pick-up backing band for touring Stax/Volt stars such as Rufus Thomas and Solomon Burke.

Ribot's subsequent membership in the is-this-jazz? Lounge Lizards established his ability to forge a personal identity within an exotic songform, evidenced by the distinctive clank and twang of his solo on "Tarantella," off Evan Lurie's 1990 Selling Water By the Side of the River. After sidekicking for Marianne Faithfull and Elvis Costello (on his career-salvaging Spike and his near-career-killing Mighty Like a Rose), he got heavily into composing comic complexities such as the Rootless Cosmopolitans' "Nature Abhors A Vacuum Cleaner." He would also go on to play with the likes of Cibo Matto, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, torch singer Madeleine Peyroux, and release the back-to-standards solo album Dreamland in 1996.

Here, Ribot picks up the time line: "A year and a half ago, after the birth of my daughter, I wanted to do something that made me put my hands on the guitar and made me keep my hands on the guitar. I wanted to do a project about playing, not about writing. I thought I'd transcribe a few Arsenio Rodriguez pieces and get a couple friends and go play in a bar. And that's basically what we did, except that on the third gig, we got an offer to sign with Atlantic. I thought about it for a sec, said, 'Why the fuck not?' and here we are."

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