Cuba libre

Marc Ribot and his Prosthetic Cubans are Habana good time

Los Cubanos Postizos begins with the easy tease of "Aurora En Pekin," smoky guitar over a languid rhythm cured of cowbell, the breathing room of its bassline perfect for pork-eaters in need of digestive mood music. The tempo steps up slightly on "Aqui Como Alla," the song tracking the missing Havana vignette from Jim Jarmusch's cab-tastic flick Night On Earth before the ripple of John Medeski's keyboard sends the song out over Cuba's rural belly to chase Che's motorbike. But lounge scroungers looking for a retro Cuban touchstone will find much more than they embargoed for in what follows. The combination of the record's informal gestation and Ribot's personal intentions makes for a particularly heady evocation of Arsenio Rodriguez's spirit on "La Vida Es Un Sueno," undeniably the heart of the album.

"It's a very sad, almost bitter song, and also one of Arsenio's signature songs," Ribot offers. "Anybody who knows Cuban music knows it, like anyone here would associate Duke Ellington with 'Take The A Train.' It ends with the words el mundo esta hecho sin felicidad--the world is named without happiness. Rodriguez wrote it after discovering that his blindness was irreversible."

At first, the Anglo-ization of the lyrics in Ribot's doleful en Espanol delivery creates a jamon-fisted prosthetic-ethnic aesthetic akin to Jon Spencer's white-boy blues yelp. But Ribot's solo dances upward toward pure catharsis, so that when Ribot intones the lines "Ay que gozar lo que pueda gozar / porque sacando la cuenta en total / la vida es un sueno," the impact combines Rodriguez's nihilism with the triumph of Ribot the gringo feeling his way to the center of a familiar emotion in a foreign language. "What he's saying is that you have to live for the beautiful women, because there's absolutely nothing else," Ribot explains, "and there's something in that, to my mind, of punk rage."

When asked why he chose to deliver the lyrics to "La Vida Es Un Sueno" in his own voice rather than adopt a Spanish accent, Ribot chuckles. "There's nothing quite as bad as someone who's trying to speak a language perfectly and not succeeding," he says. "I was dealing with my heavily New Jersey accent in Spanish. When I sang it, I was wondering how it would be heard by Spanish speakers. Since then, I've gotten a partial answer. We did the Cuban night at the Knitting Factory Texaco Jazz Festival, and New York's Cuban population turned out. Maybe 25 percent couldn't deal with it--not just the lyrics, but the whole thing. But a lot of other people there seemed to be enjoying it. I mean, they laughed their heads off."

If "La Vida Es Un Sueno" is the heart of the album, its guts are its sole Ribot composition, "Postizo," a sizzling number with a huge grin of a guitar riff and a call-and-response chorus consisting of one word: postizo. While "La Vida Es Un Sueno" and "Postizo" are opposite poles in the record's wide range of mood, the instrumental "Fiesta En El Solar" spans the emotional spectrum. For three minutes its plaintive melody hints at a restless longing, before the song suddenly spirals upward, picking up speed through frenzied dervish-like passages of pumping bass and reeling guitar that party on the verge of human combustion and tenement-house eviction. The way the song expends its energy carefully at first before fully cutting loose makes it a prime example of Rodriguez's explorations over the course of four decades of music-making.

"To get at the productivity of Arsenio Rodriguez, imagine if Charlie Christian had survived and changed his playing into the era of Jimi Hendrix!" Ribot exclaims. "As one of the founders of Afro-Cuban music, Arsenio was a very sophisticated big-band arranger for the danzon orquestas of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Maybe he would have continued that way if the economic situation hadn't changed, if he hadn't wound up in the States. On his earlier records there was always a singer--sometimes his wife--with a chorus behind. But in the '60s he no longer had the clout to put together the kind of ensemble he wanted, and his West African influences became stronger and stronger, until by his last record [1972's Leyenda] he was screaming the lyrics himself!

"He was swimming upstream toward the source of his music. I have to be careful with words: Primal isn't wrong, but lest it be confused with primitive, which that music was not. It wasn't simplified rhythmically, and maybe harmonically it was more complex as well, the way it fluctuates further out at times but basically uses the same chords as rock and roll. I don't understand Arsenio Rodriguez's motivation, but I'm choosing to decide that there were similar impulses to what made me make a lot of noise and feedback instead of playing melodically complex post-bebop jazz. In my own path I've been attracted to Albert Ayler, who was similar in that he got away from form. Not that Arsenio Rodriguez sounds like Albert Ayler--he doesn't--but form-wise they're responding to the same problems."

What's fascinating about Ribot's response to the problem of form inhibiting expression is the way his playing adapts differently in different settings. One example is the recent hip-hop track "Famous Last Words" by Word A'Mouth. The song takes a couple of bars of the sprightly plank-walking guitar figure that begins Tom Waits' "Singapore," looping it to draw out the rhythmic propulsion contained within Ribot's riff. (Prior to this interview, Ribot wasn't even aware that he'd been sampled, but is intrigued enough to ask where he can find a copy: "Famous Last Words" appears on Rawkus' recent Lyricist Lounge Volume One compilation). A more varied instance is Ribot's presence on the new Tricky album, Angels With Dirty Faces.

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