Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em: The Cuban Cowboys' debut album rolls up genres, sets them on fire, and gets a good buzz going.
The Rustlers of Rumba
Latino surf-rock mavens the Cuban Cowboys head for town with a broadly comedic shtick and a saddlebag full of styles.
By Darya Gilani
If you've taken two years of Spanish or have worked in at least one California restaurant in your lifetime, you meet the prerequisites to appreciate the cuatro membres de the Cuban Cowboys. "Hialeah," along with his counterparts "Chulito del Fuego," "Diamante" and "Li'l Postino" (because he delivers), form the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Cuban Surf Rock Band. The Cowboys stop in Santa Cruz this week on their way to Los Angeles, kicking off the West Coast portion of their national tour.
At first glance, the group--or act, as it seems--is garish and eccentric, with a shameless penchant for corny, borderline racist gags that only people with insider status could possibly get away with. Its musical style could be described as the bastard love child of Ricky Ricardo and Tom Waits; members perform in cowboy hats and western-style shirts, making no attempt to speak only one language at a time or suppress any Spanglishism at all that occurs to them (and the thicker the Havana accent, the better). Their "guebsite" animation rotates two-tone busts of the band members with icons such as John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro. Altogether their online image, press and stage presence connote a swaggering ultra-machismo that could easily offend and deter some, but actually winds up entertaining and delighting many.
With lyrics such as "He was a macho sailor/ Havana Cuban man/ Even though he no speaka the Englistch/ He was a ladies' man," it's easy to see how the band could be misunderstood. Even the South By Southwest Festival promoters were thrown by the combination of kitsch and genuine artistry.
"He had been expecting a novelty act," frontman Jorge Navarro explains, referring to one of the organizers. "He was surprised. A lot of people are. I mean, we call our fans 'the little matadors.' I love them berry, berry much. It's not necessarily ridiculing or stereotyping. It is a part of me."
The image and visual impression of the Cowboys sometimes eclipses the band's actual, valid talent. The members, who are also known as Luca Benedetti on lead guitar, Andy Sanesi on drums, Angeline Saris on bass and Navarro on vocals and guitar, are musically and culturally diverse by nature and bring real life experiences and individuality to their work.
Navarro comes from a family of Miami Cuban émigrés and sings of his culture and traditions in two languages and an array of musical styles. Sanesi, a Cuban national, helps to supply the band with themes of revolution, refuge and rock. The band's stylistic fluency is evident in its debut album, Cuban Candles. The title track's lead-in recalls a slow mambo that's interrupted by strong ska-inspired percussion, all woven together with smooth, luminous vocals worthy of an Alkaline Trio album.
Catchy poetic Guajira choruses tell of the beauty and struggles of the Cuban campesinos, and it's easy to catch the influence of the Buena Vista Social Club in the instrumental solos that line the Cowboys' tracks. The Havana-based, Afro-Cuban sounds of bass and drums are smoothed over by streams of surf-rock chords. In "El Capitan," the guitar teases the listener with ascending and descending twangs.
Although the Cuban Cowboys are rooted in Cuba and Florida, they've toured both coasts with success, and in particular have found California to be a welcoming place for their brand of post-punk Latin country funk.
"There are lots of rock-loving Latinos here on the West Coast, more so and in greater numbers across California than we've seen in New York City, where we have a big following," Navarro says.
It's been two full years since the band has finished recording its full-length album, and it already has new material for a second waiting in the wings. Originally, the group signed with a label that quickly folded. Despite the company going belly-up, the Cowboys were forced to sue for their independence. Navarro came away from the experience a wiser hombre, he says.
"Do it on your own, get as far as you possibly can--it's a liability to sign to a major label in terms of getting music out to people."
In typical form, Navarro named his independent label Muy Nice Music. Cuban Candles hits stores this September, but gracias a Dios Santa Cruz surf en Español fans don't have to wait that long to experience the genre-bending mojo of the Cowboys. They just have to get in line.
The Cuban Cowboys play Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz on Thursday, July 12 at 9pm. Tickets $8 adv/$10 door. 831.479.1854.
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