I n light of the whole sad Elian Gonzalez affair, the ¡Cubanismo! album Mardi Gras Mambo (Hannibal/Rykodisc) will likely draw more attention than it otherwise might have, specifically because of its Cubans-in-New-Orleans concept.
The recording, in which Jesus Alemañy's brassy 13-piece ¡Cubanismo! latin jazz orchestra collaborated on a selection of Big Easy standards with New Orleans-based musicians, was cut over a hectic week last fall as part of a city of New Orleans cultural exchange initiative.
And while reporters taken by the "hands across the water" aspect of the project will likely trumpet the bridge-building potential of such ambitious endeavours, the impetus behind Mardi Gras Mambo wasn't political, but rather a simple matter of economics.
¡Cubanismo! had made three fabulously fiery albums, drawing their inspiration from contemporary jazz and R&B. They expanded on a Cuban big-band sound rooted in the pre-revolution dance orchestra concept established by Machito's Afro Cuban Orchestra and Orquesta Casino de la Playa. Yet despite universal critical acclaim, ¡Cubanismo! album sales have always been disappointing.
It's hard enough for ¡Cubanismo! to get airplay on U.S. latin radio, which is notoriously resistant to Cuban nationals. And performing in Spanish, they'd never have a hope of breaking through to middle America -- latin craze or not.
Clever plot To rectify the problem, Rykodisc's resourceful idea man Joe Boyd -- whose failed scheme to record Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure with Havana musicians gave rise to the Buena Vista Social Club -- hatched a plot where ¡Cubanismo! would record a selection of familiar Crescent City R&B tunes like Mother In Law and Mardi Gras Mambo with a vocalist, John Boutté, singing in English. Alemañy was down with the idea.
"On the three previous ¡Cubanismo! records," explains Alemañy from his Havana home, "we directed our music to Spanish-speaking people who appreciate Cuban music. This time, along with Spanish lyrics, we also have songs in English that represent the sound of New Orleans.
"I think it's a good way to reach the anglo audience, because many people will recognize the New Orleans songs, and the strength of the rhythms will definitely make people shake."
In theory, at least, it seems like a good plan. However, the resulting Mardi Gras Mambo album comes off scattered, and some of the fusionary experiments just don't take hold.
They clearly had some difficulty getting down the subtle syncopation of the second-line strut, which is understandable considering that prior to the project Alemañy had never heard Ernie K. Doe's Mother In Law. In fact, the entire genre of New Orleans R&B was new to him and his ¡Cubanismo! cohorts.
"Everything really began when the musicians Glenn Patchsa, Mark Bingham and John Boutté came to Havana and we started talking about the sound of New Orleans and the many different styles of music that contributed to it.
"We listened to a lot of New Orleans jazz, R&B, hiphop, Mardi Gras songs, marching-band music and religious music to decide which elements we should represent.
Old schooling "I'd never heard the old songs like Mother In Law before. Growing up in Cuba, I was more a fan of American popular music of the 70s like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores, Ohio Players, Chicago and, you know, K.C. and the Sunshine Band.
"But when I first listened to the music of Professor Longhair and Dr. John, I could hear the influence of latin rhythms. Even though they had a different approach to the piano and the way to sing the melody, the latin flavour was still there."
In retrospect, their two-week crash course in cat houses and steamed crawfish probably wasn't sufficient to grasp the essence of what New Orleans is all about. And then trying to devise and document the cross-cultural blend in a matter of seven days seems overly ambitious even for musicians of ¡Cubanismo!'s calibre.
"It was recorded in very difficult conditions. We'd never played with those musicians before, so everything happened very spontaneously. Most of the music on the album was created completely in the studio.
"But I'm very proud of what we accomplished. From the very beginning this was a 50-50 collaboration. Everyone had ideas to share. In the end, what we created on Mardi Gras Mambo has never been done before."
CUBANISMO!, with KLAVE Y KONGO, at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), tonight (Thursday, September 28), 8 pm. $29.50-$39.50. 872-4255.