In 1997, Ry Cooder released Buena Vista Social Club, featuring forgotten Cuban musicians being given a platform to get heard in the States and creating an album that masqueraded as a reunion of a multi-generational group that never really existed except as a fantasy music lineup. And it did gangbusters here – both in the U.S. and right here at Twist – which probably helped open the doors for this 1998 album, in which avant-leaning NYC guitarist Marc Ribot formed a (real) group he dubbed Los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans) to pay homage to Arsenio Rodríguez, a hugely influential Cuban musician in his own right.
Rodríguez was born in Cuba, lost his sight at any early age, and learned to play the tres cubano (a 6-stringed relative of the guitar), working in several bands before forming his own group in the 1940’s and laying the foundations for modern salsa (and, he claimed, the mambo as well) with his rhythmic acuity and songwriting skills. After emigrating to the U.S., he worked in New York until moving to L.A. and passing away in 1970, a largely forgotten figure. But Ribot was familiar with his work and here assembled a group of tunes either written or popularized by Rodríguez (plus one original and another classic Cuban tune) and scaled them down to fit his Prosthetics – a quartet of his guitar, bass, drums and percussion, augmented often by organ, less often by vocals, and once by a goofy baritone sax that suits the album’s playful vibe.
And that’s a key difference between the similar projects enacted by Ry Cooder and Marc Ribot – while both honor the traditions of Cuban music, Cooder’s approach is more folksy, more hands-off, allowing the musicians to play their own tunes their own way and then adding his own guitar (and less impressively, his son’s percussion) into the mix. Ribot, on the other hand, decided to have some fun with the music, to filter Arsenio Rodríguez’s tunes through his own post-modern, NYC filters to create something at once respectful and modern – postizo also translates from Spanish as “fake.” And it’s a gas to listen to in a way that the more stately BVSC record isn’t. Maybe you’ve heard Ribot’s own records, maybe you haven’t Maybe you know him from his stints with Tom Waits or Elvis Costello, or maybe the name is completely new to you. Doesn’t matter, ‘cause if you dig guitar, you’ll be a fan after about 30 seconds of this album.
The record kicks off with the lovely “Aurora en Pekín” (one of the non- Rodríguez songs, written by the early 20th century Cuban musician Alfredo Boloña). Given that aurora means “dawn” it’s a perfect opener, rising quietly and beautifully, but hardly giving any warning of what’s to come as the day heats up. By the third song, “Como Se Goza en el Barrio,” things are in high gear and it’s clear what kind of Cuban music Ribot’s got in mind – traditional yet modern, danceable and funky yet slightly bent; in a word – postizo, but not in a bad way, even if in a way that Cooder would never condone. This is followed by the only Ribot original of the set, “Postizo,” which further drives the point home. And though most of the album is instrumental, there are a few vocals – “La Vida Es un Sueño” (“Life Is A Dream,” a song Rodríguez wrote after he learned he’d never see again) is delivered in a disaffectedly humorous monotone and deliberately unaccented Spanish while he occasionally translates the Spanish of “No Me Llores Más” to an equally droll English language song. Elsewhere titles are sung or joyfully shouted from the background (“Postizo!”), but most of the record remains the core group – bass, drums, and percussion – with Ribot’s guitar doing most of the talking, sending out melodic lines or ripping leads as dictated by the songs.
The Cubanos Postizos released a second album that’s also well worth your time (2000’s Muy Divertido!), but it’s been in and out of print for a while. It has less surefire tunes – though Arsenio Rodríguez’s “El Divorcio” is a killer, as is Marc Ribot’s “Baile Baile Baile” – but more rocking lead guitar to compensate. Maybe it’s fake and the ethnomusicologists out there would find it too ersatz to take seriously. But as something of a fake ethnomusicologist myself, and one who revels in syntheses of music from all over the globe, I find it completely entertaining. Give it a listen and you probably will too.
- Patrick Brown