Marc Ribot, Mongo Santamaria and Israel Cachao Lopez

Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos (the Prosthetic Cubans)

Mongo Santamaria
Watermelon Man

Israel Cachao Lopez
Descarga Cubana

FROM RY COODER'S formation of an Afro-Cuban "all-star" jam band, the Buena Vista Social Club, to the prominent appearance of the theme-night "Salsa Inferno" on the First Avenue calendar, we've been besieged by a bona fide boat-lift of Cuban music--all of it as appreciably distant as it is instantly familiar. And, as you could probably guess, a lot has been lost, found, and (most importantly) redefined in the translation.

Cuba has long been a site of false American assumptions: The Spanish-American War began with a lie, so why shouldn't our interpretations of Cuban music be just as suspect? And, by the same token, what makes that so wrong? In an age when most American hipsters would happily bring back Batista if it meant an increase in leisure wear, a stately waltz from 1907 and a flushing rumba from 1951 might sound less differentiated to modern ears than the macarena and "Wannabe."

A series of recent releases and reissues places several different outsider approaches to Cuba in proper perspective. New York guitarist Marc Ribot has been called on by songwriters from Tom Waits to Freedy Johnston to create a sense of pomo "otherworldliness" that is often at odds with the music it is asked to evoke. His latest is a tribute to the great, blind Cuban conjunto composer and proto-salsa bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez (1911-1971). Yet it is really a tribute to Our Lady Of the 99-Cent Bin--just check out the dust on the shrink-wrap, the plump nude of Boteroesque proportions on the cover. Throughout the album, Ribot's CD sound manages to carry the warp of vinyl. In short, he and his Prosthetic Cubans pay homage to the entire experience of discovering and reintroducing a groovy obscurity.

As with the Beasties, he plays his tastelessness with enormous taste. This falters only when a few displays of well-meant emotion interrupt the actual feeling within the music, as on "No Me Llores Mas" and "La Vida Es Un Sueno," both faux-Latin-lover recitations that come complete with dry American accent. Yet downtown percussionists EJ and Robert J. Rodriguez more than make up for this; their polyrhythms are both emotional and persuasively authentic.

Compare Cubanos Postizos to Milestones' Watermelon Man, a recent re-repackaging of some of Mongo Santamaria's early-'60s sides and unreleased live tracks. Santamaria's version of "Watermelon Man," and John Coltrane's and Abbey Lincoln's covers of his "Afro-Blue," keeps this great Cuban percussionist on the supper-club circuit to this day. His bands of the period counted among their elite Chick Corea and Sun Ra baritonist Pat Patrick. Yet, this music isn't "out there" in the least. In fact, it's compromised in all the right ways.

Santamaria gave America what he imagined would be considered "exotic." He's not as oily as Xavier Cugat, but he does cover the Brylcreem theme. Plus he offers us the hypnotic "Mazacote," an eight-minute piece centered almost entirely around a repetitive bass pattern and the polyrhythmic drumming of Santamaria, Cuco Martinez, and Willie Bobo. A little voodoo will do you, even if it's just a dab. And if Santamaria's music does seem adulterated, this is also what gives it a resonant, lasting charm.

So on one hand, we've got Ribot, a musician re-creating the beauty of exotic inauthenticity; on the other, we've got Santamaria, the authentic Cuban musician creating inauthentic music to sate an audience's craving for authenticity. Where do the twain meet?

Descarga Cubana, a collection of 1957 large (if not big) band recordings by the legendary Cuban bassist and ballroom bandleader Cachao, has been souped up with noise-reduction so as to sound utterly contemporary to untrained ears. This could be an acoustic band of contemporary Cubans playing in the downstairs Alterknit to the Knitting Factory while Ribot jams upstairs. Although his ballroom orchestrations were enormously commercial (read: slick) to the Cubans of his day, they strike us as rustic and quaint, even if some of these short pieces are so multisectioned as to seem suite-like.

That the Cuba of Descarga could bleed into the imaginary soundscape of the Lower East Side ultimately is no surprise: Just as no man is an island, no island is an island either.

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