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."

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.

On "Talk To Me (Angels With Dirty Faces)," Ribot's guitar impersonates a metal mouse skittering away from a black bowling ball the size of the moon. For "6 Minutes" (notable for Tricky's rhyming of "pre-menstrual" with "vegetable"), Ribot's dirty "Loose Booty" riff provides the track with its funk axis. And while Ribot's acoustic is indistinguishable amidst the gospel choir and marching snare of "Broken Homes," the fact that the Tricky-Polly Jean Harvey duet is the most lucidly moving music either of these often-inscrutable artists has made thus far is at the very least intriguing. For his part, Ribot again demonstrates his awareness of how, as a sideman, he can serve a leader's needs best.

"Working on Tricky's album was great," Ribot says. "They had the rhythm tracks set up, and I went in and freestyled over them. It was a much more relaxed process than when you're building a pop song and you say, 'OK, where does the hook go?' It enabled me to play around, use feedback. There's this wide-open space right now between electronica and songwriters, and Tricky has found a great range of expression inside that space."

Such expressive expanses wind back to where Ribot, by evoking Arsenio Rodriguez with Los Cubanos Postizos, has learned to have fun in his musical ghetto, thereby creating his first thoroughly enjoyable headlining date, his first truly danceable record, and the record with which he finally abandons the ironic distance that marked his previous work to play with real--not prosthetic--soul.

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