Cuban musical wave keeps on coming

by Paul Fisher

At the beginning of next year, not much will have changed from this year, when it comes to the pick of world and roots music concerts. More Cubans!

Marc Ribot isn’t exactly Cuban by birth, but for the moment, he should qualify as an honorary citizen. Ribot is an inventive American guitarist, whose musical roots range from garage rock bands in New Jersey during the 1960s to classical guitar, which he studied under Haitian guitarist Franz Casseus. After crossing the river from New Jersey he became a mainstay of the New York City downtown scene.

He is probably best known as a sideman with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Marianne Faithfull, but cut his teeth playing with soul greats Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas and Solomon Burke. He joined the Lounge Lizards (led by John Lurie) for five years, and found himself much in demand as a guitarist in New York, working with John Zorn, the Jazz Passengers, Sun Ra, Arto Lindsay and many others. His own albums and compositions mixed up his own brand of soul, punk, funk and jazz, before he turned his hand to the music of Cuba.

What started out as getting together with a few friends to play some Cuban music in a local bar has turned into Ribot’s two most successful albums, and has him, and those friends, touring the world.

Ribot cannot be accused of jumping on the Cuban bandwagon. In comparison to the Buena Vista Social Club, his group, Los Cubanos Postizos (the Prosthetic Cubans), sounds like a Havana garage band, and is very definitely Ribot’s own take on the music. Nevertheless, the worldwide upsurge of interest in Cuban music probably had something to do with Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos being signed by Atlantic Records after only their third gig. Suddenly, Ribot’s fun get-together had become trendy.

Ribot was mostly inspired by Arsenio Rodriguez, the legendary blind Cuban bandleader and the father of Afro-Cuban music, who furthered the sound of son in the 1940s and ’50s. Pianist with the Buena Vista Social Club, Ruben Gonzalez was a one-time member of Rodriguez’ band. Rodriguez’ own roots lay in Congolese rituals, inspired by his grandfather, who was a slave. The African elements particularly appealed to Ribot, as did the fact Rodriguez was a player of the tres, the Cuban version of the guitar.

Much of the original music, including compositions by Rodriguez on the band’s two albums, the 1998 release “Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos” and this year’s “Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining),” was intended for a big band. This necessitated invention, with organ and guitar substituting for the horns. The group take a refreshingly nonscholarly approach, learning as they go along.

The Prosthetic Cubans touring in Japan include Cuban drummer Robert Rodriguez of the Miami Sound Machine and keyboardist Anthony Coleman, himself a leading light of New York’s downtown scene, who originally introduced Ribot to the music of Arsenio Rodriguez.

Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos Japan Tour 2001, Jan. 18-19, 7 p.m. Tokyo Shibuya Club Quattro, 6,000 yen in advance, 6,500 yen at the door. For information, call (03) 3477-8750. Jan. 20, Kanazawa Shimin Geijutsumura, 5,000 yen in advance, 5,500 yen at the door. Call (076) 231-0096. Jan. 21, Osaka Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, 6,000 yen in advance, 6,500 yen at the door. Call (06) 6281-8181. Jan. 23, Sapporo Bessie Hall, 6,000 yen in advance, 6,500 yen on the door. Call (011) 251-8870. For information on all concerts, call Tom’s Cabin (03) 5292-5577.

Ribot’s approach is, to a degree, the antithesis of Ry Cooder, in that the music of Ribot is very much his own, whereas Cooder was really just along for the ride with the Buena Vista Social Club. Somewhat annoyingly (through no fault of Cooder himself), “Buena Vista Social Club” is sometimes credited as Cooder’s album. The fact is Cooder knew very few of the musicians beforehand; they were assembled by bandleader and arranger Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Cooder’s real contribution came in helping to select the repertoire and adding an extra marketing dimension.

When Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo visited Japan earlier this year, tickets were sold out within hours. These three real stars of the Buena Vista Social Club will make a hasty return next February, with tickets going on sale Dec. 8. If you don’t expect to hear exactly the same music as on the CD, or a repeat of the two concerts in the film, you’ll be in for a treat, but get your tickets early.

Buena Vista Social Club presents Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo, 7 p.m. Feb. 8-9, 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at Yurakucho Kokusai Forum Hall A. Admission (S) 8,000 yen, (A) 7,000 yen and (C) 5,000 yen. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Dec. 8 from Ticket Pia, (03) 5237-9911, (03) 5237-9999 (from Dec. 9th); Lawson Ticket, (03) 3569-9900; e+ (, (03) 5479-9911 (available for pre-order); JCB Ticket Center, (0422) 48-9999 and CN Playguide, (03) 5802-9999. For information, call Conversation, (03) 5280-9996.

Before his involvement with the Buena Vista Social Club or the Afro-Cuban All Stars (with whom he visited Japan in October), Juan de Marcos Gonzalez had already started reviving classic son material in 1976 when he formed Sierra Maestra.

At the time, traditional son, with its characteristic tres, trumpet, claves and bongo lineup, was performed by only a few groups who had survived from the original era of the ’30s and ’40s. They infused the compositions of Arsenio Rodriguez and other greats with a new energy and a more melodic variety. Gonzalez himself penned several new songs, with witty and modern lyrics. They became a huge success in Cuba after winning the television competition “Todo el Mundo Canta,” and had a hit with “Guanajo Relleno,” a classic 1930s tune.

They subsequently toured the world, including Japan in 1989, and had one of the best-selling Latin records of that year in this country.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez will not be on tour with them this time, nor will another esteemed member, Jesus Alemany, who has formed his own group, Cubanismo. Nevertheless, the standard of musicians in Cuba is so high the musicianship is guaranteed. These days the group incudes salsa, one of the offshoots of son, forged in the barrios of Puerto Rico and New York.