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Cuba Libré

Marc Ribot's Caribbean Adventure

By Chris Barrett | Posted 9/23/1998

Marc Ribot

Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos

Whether or not you've heard of him, you've almost certainly heard guitarist Marc Ribot. For the second half of the '80s, he balanced and uplifted John Lurie's saxophone clowning in the Lounge Lizards. During that same period, Ribot lent his brilliantly musical trash-man clatter to some of Tom Waits' most interesting records; memorable sessions with Elvis Costello and Marianne Faithfull followed, and some of his prettiest and most lyrical playing turned up on 1996's best set-the-mood record, Madeleine Peyroux's Dreamland (Atlantic). He's been a cornerstone of New York's downtown scene, often heard with upsetters such as saxophonist John Zorn, organist John Medeski, and the Jazz Passengers. In the meantime he has filled up his own header card in music-store bins with his bands, the Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek.

But even if you've heard a lot of Ribot's music, you've never heard him do anything quite like Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos ("the Prosthetic Cubans"). This new project devoted to the music of Cuban maestro Arseñio Rodriguez is Ribot's best and possibly most accessible album to date. It's a somewhat unexpected tangent, but once you consider the breadth of music Ribot has played, this kind of Swiss-Army-knife adaptability is not so surprising. Not to him, anyway.

"I've been pulled in a lot of directions," Ribot says by phone from his New York digs. "In a way, that ultimately has been good. I mostly work as a side musician. That has altered my outlook. I may not have ended up learning a lot about tango if Evan Lurie hadn't started a tango band and called me up and asked me to play in it. It might have taken me a lot longer to develop a style of free-jazz playing if I hadn't been given a lot of room to stretch out in the Lounge Lizards."

For his latest foray Ribot convened a band of past associates--Brad Jones on bass; E.J. Rodriguez on percussion; John Medeski on organ and Mellotron; Robert J. Rodriguez on drums, clave, and percussion--to take on the works of Arseñio Rodriguez, the late Cuban bandleader, composer, guitarist, and tres player who wrote eight of Cubanos Postizos' 10 songs, and to whom the record is dedicated.

Rodriguez composed in a Cuban song style, rooted in folk music, called son. Unlike your American hit parade, where rhythm rides backseat and keeps time, son incorporates rhythm into the melody. Rhythm instruments play notes instead of bullets, and brass, vocals, reeds, and keys declaim their tunes in rhythmic waves.

"He was a rare person," Ribot says of his current muse. "Arseñio Rodriguez was both the Duke Ellington and Robert Quine of Cuban son. I don't think there is a comparable figure in los Estados Unidos. He doesn't solo very much on his records. Even though he was a master of the tres"--an instrument that's somewhere between a six- and 12-string guitar--"he was quite content to just lay back and groove."

A friend turned Ribot onto Rodriguez's music several years ago. He pulled Los Cubanos Postizos together to work up his own transcriptions of some Rodriguez songs. The band is called the Prosthetic Cubans so that no one will misinterpret its intentions: "This is not scholarly reconstruction; this is simply great music played by a handful of appreciative musicians.

"Other than the fact that we're non-Cuban ex-punk rockers and have a band a fifth the size of Rodriguez's, sure, our versions sound just like his," Ribot cracks.

As a leader, Ribot has a lot in common with Rodriguez. The bands Rodriguez led over a 30-year career that ended with his death in 1972 were remarkably tight and cohesive. While bandleaders like Count Basie or Tommy Dorsey arranged songs to pimp their most popular soloists--say, Lester Young or Frank Sinatra-- Rodriguez wrote for 25 instruments (brass, reeds, keys, multiple vocalists, percussionists, and guitarists) as if they were all one enormous instrument. The effect is shaking, and Ribot pulls it off with aplomb. Even when he solos or plays ahead of the band, Ribot's six strings have an orchestral air about them. He explains that the effect is a result of the process by which he learned the material.

"I would listen to a song and transcribe the whole magilla--horn lines, vocal lines, bass lines, piano, and tres figures," he says. "I transcribed as much as I could, then I would try to learn it as a solo guitar piece, which is, of course, impossible. But it forced me to decide which of those lines were absolutely necessary, which lay well on guitar, which don't, you know? Then I would teach it to the band. But only after I'd learned a way to perform it as a solo piece.

"It also made me feel more secure. You know musicians--I figured if anybody in the band blew me off and didn't show up, we could still do the gig."

On Rodriguez's "Aquì Como Allá" percussion and organ murmur in unison alongside Ribot's strolling groove. Using nothing more than an undulating tempo and carefully counted notes, this illuminating rendition of a beautiful song tells you all you need to know about living on an island--the difference between a palm tree and a light pole, the difference between a horizon of sunlit liquid azure and one of soot-stained concrete. There is also a Ribot original, "Postizo," that would no doubt cause Rodriguez to happily spring for a round in whatever next-world cantina he happens to haunt, as Ribot does a fine job of evoking a rocking, sweaty brass section with nothing but his own six strings.

Maybe Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos is fake Cuban music. But if they teach music for non-music majors, shouldn't there be fake Cuban music for fake Cubans? Then again, maybe it's not fake.

At one point, talking about some of the seemingly unconventional musical choices he makes, Ribot acknowledges, "Things are seldom what they seem." He pauses for about the same fraction of a second Groucho Marx might take between removing his cigar from his mouth and raising his eyebrows, then adds, "Actually, things are always what they seem. But they can be other things as well."

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More from Chris Barrett

The Song Is Him (6/10/1998)
Cool-Jazz Pioneer Lee Konitz Gets Not Just Older, but Better

The Once and Future Tango (3/11/1998)
Astor Piazzolla's Music Dances Its Way Into the Classical Canon

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