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Fusion With Tradition

On 'Mardi Gras Mambo,' Cubanismo! explores musical links between Cuba and New Orleans, exposing their shared history.

September 07, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might assume that the idea behind the new Cubanismo! album--an exploration of the musical links between Havana and New Orleans--reflects the artistic and musicological ambitions of Jesus Aleman~y, the band's leader.

But as is often the case in the music world, the reality is more mundane.

"Actually, it was the record company that came up with the idea," says Aleman~y. "Because both Cubanismo! and the Yockamo All-Stars are signed with Rykodisc, they thought it would be a good idea to have us do something together."

But if the project has practical origins, the music on "Mardi Gras Mambo" is anything but businesslike. The record is another demonstration of the skill and range of Aleman~y's group, which ushered in the renaissance of the island's music with its self-titled debut album in 1996, a year before the Buena Vista Social Club album came out.

Cubanismo! has continued to grow and change, fusing tradition with a contemporary approach. Think of Cubanismo! as the middle ground between the old-fashioned allure of Buena Vista and the frantic modernism of Los Van Van.

The new record, featuring the band jamming with a host of New Orleans artists, aims to push Cubanismo! closer to the American mainstream.

"We've visited New Orleans frequently during the last five years," explains Aleman~y, who brings Cubanismo! to the Conga Room on Sunday and the Galaxy Theatre on Monday. "We agreed that we would capitalize on the emerging popularity of Cuban rhythms, using them in songs that would be performed mostly in English, so as to reach the Anglo listeners of the United States."

The result is a fun-filled blend of New Orleans soul and Cuban dance music. In fact, the ease with which, say, "Mother-in-Law" turns into a cha-cha-cha, or the spicy flavor that results when you merge rich rhythm and blues vocal harmonies with the Cuban clave (the rhythmic pattern that dominates the Afro-Cuban pulse) underscores the closeness of the two cultures, which were brought together musically as early as the 18th century.

"The constant coming and going of commercial ships between both places resulted in the visit of military bands from New Orleans to Cuba," says Aleman~y. "Then again, you can hear echoes of the habanera in early American music, as well as a certain way of playing the piano and the brass."

Another point in common between the two regions was the arrival in Cuba and Louisiana of French colonists and their slaves from Haiti, after that island's liberation.

"It was the creation of the sugar cane industry," Aleman~y says, "and there came the French with their slaves to work on it. To this day, there are communities from Haiti and Jamaica in Cuba. Our national dance, the contradanza, was influenced by the French bourgeoisie. Another element we have in common with New Orleans."

Ironically, it was the unspeakable horrors of slavery and the insidious effects of colonization that created one of the most joyful musical genres in history.

"When you think about slavery, it fills your heart with sadness," says Aleman~y. "But it also signified the birth of Cuba's distinct cultural identity, and the creation of our wonderful music, which is 80% African and 20% Spanish and French. I feel very proud about being born in Cuba."

So proud, in fact, that he has even embraced the island's current musical movement, the alternately celebrated and maligned style known as timba.

"Lots of people dislike timba," he says. "I see it as an inevitable product of the cultural exchange taking place all over the world. Timba is influenced by hip-hop, by jazz and urban ballads, resulting in a funkier way of playing the bass, and a new way of dealing with the tumbao of the piano. Some of it has an almost Asian, pentatonic quality to it."

Before forming Cubanismo!, Aleman~y was a member of NG La Banda, the most technically dexterous group of the entire timba movement. But he does admit that this particular style gets tiresome after a while. "That's precisely what we tried to do with this band," he points out. "To avoid boredom by changing the tempo and the style of each individual song. For that, we've resorted to the plethora of Cuban rhythms available, from the pilon to the mambo and the guajira. We play traditional stuff, but introducing a contemporary element to it, like changing the harmonies or bringing the saxophones in."

He chuckles. "You can't keep making music as if you were still stuck in the 19th century, you know."

BE THERE

Cubanismo!, Sunday at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., 8 p.m. $25 and $50. (323) 938-1696. Also Monday at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 8 p.m. $22.50. (714) 957-0600.

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