Out with the Geezers

Englishman Rupert Mould takes Cuban music to new frontiers

The Buena Vista Social Club's wrinkled musical veterans may still be basking in critical hosannas and standing ovations as they continue their tours of the United States, Europe, and Japan, but back in Havana the cultural czars are turning downright bitchy. Two weeks ago Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban regime, trumpeted Buena Vista's brief return home for a rare show at the Karl Marx Theater, but then blasted those foreign figures who would “present [Buena Vista] as a mere nostalgic picture postcard,” as if the island's music was “trapped in a time warp and thus must always hark bark to an ostensibly eternal prerevolutionary Cuba.”

After turning up its nose at Wim Wenders's cinematic portrait of the band because of the film's “whiff of neocolonialism,” Granma went on to refer to Buena Vista executive producer Nick Gold as a “wily fox,” and its orchestrator Ry Cooder as someone “expert in finding in the Third World what the First World needs.”

Over in Bristol, England, Up, Bustle and Out's Rupert Mould is bit less catty than Granma, but his attitude toward Buena Vista mania is no less critical. Although his own group's new album, Master Sessions 1, also is an onsite collaboration with an assemblage of Havana salseros, Mould insists his project couldn't be further removed from Ry Cooder's -- neocolonialist aroma and all.

Che gets funky: Up, Bustle and Out remix the Cuban revolution
Che gets funky: Up, Bustle and Out remix the Cuban revolution

“I didn't like the way [Buena Vista Social Club] avoided anything that was slightly controversial,” Mould says by phone from his Bristol apartment. After turning down a frantic drum and bass tune and shushing several voices in the background, he continues, “When you spend that much time working with musicians in Cuba, you're going to come across the daily struggles in their lives. And we did -- every day!” Of the twelve days in April 1998 that Up, Bustle and Out spent recording in Havana's Sonocaribe Studios, he says, “Among the twenty musicians it would be quite a debate: economic issues, the government, the blockade, the Cuban equation of their situation.” Referring to Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club, he adds with obvious disdain: “To record a whole project on film, present it to the world on that scale, and never to have covered any of that is a bit superficial.”

That's an accusation no one's going to level at Up, Bustle and Out. The group first appeared as part of Bristol's trip-hop milieu in the early Nineties, releasing several albums on England's influential Ninjatune label alongside that city's Portishead, Smith and Mighty, Massive Attack, and Tricky. But while all those artists shared a common love for hip-hop, Seventies funk, and dub reggae's cut-and-paste aesthetics, Up, Bustle and Out also drew upon a wide range of world-music sources: Indian ragas, Andean flute riffs, and salsa. (A current work in progress focuses on the Balkans, utilizing the Serbian No Smoking Orchestra heard in several of Emir Kusturica's films.)

Suffused through all this is Mould's unabashed embrace of revolutionary politics, a driving force that led him in 1994 to backpack through the jungles of southern Bolivia, retracing the steps of Che Guevara's doomed 1967 guerrilla struggle there. With obvious relish he notes that the spot where Guevara was felled is not far from where famed bank robber Butch Cassidy (another man of action dear to Mould's heart) was killed.

Accordingly Master Sessions is both a tribute to and a sonic reworking of Cuba's Radio Rebelde, the clandestine station established by Fidel Castro's July 26th Movement in 1958 -- and now the primary internal mouthpiece of the Cuban state. Impressed by Mould's stance (and no doubt his donation of several thousand dollars' worth of computers, CD players, CDs, and DAT recorders to the Radio Rebelde studio), the Cuban government opened its audio archives to him. Snatches of Guevara broadcasting from the Sierra Maestra waft eerily between the album's mix of classic descargas and shuffling, of-the-moment breakbeat constructions.

“Radio Rebelde was a pirate station when it started,” Mould explains, “and pirate radio in Bristol is what started me in my career. Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, and all of us did shows together on a pirate station here. It's a medium where you can still reach out to popular culture and go against the grain.”

Although the Cuban musicians with whom Mould worked at Sonocaribe were corralled by flautist Richard Egües, long renowned for his pioneering work as a key member of Orquesta Aragón in the Fifties (as well as his recent appearances on the Cooder/Gold-conceived albums from Buena Vista pianist Rubén González and the Afro-Cuban All Stars debut), he insists Master Sessions is no nostalgic retread.

“The Buena Vista thing was a bunch of old-timers resurrected for some burst of jaded glory. The only reason I wanted to have a maestro involved in the project is because people look up to them. They provide a certain level of discipline in the studio. But a lot of the musicians we used were my age: late twenties, early thirties. A couple of the lads on percussion were as young as eighteen; they were telling me about their hip-hop demos. It was a broad spectrum of generations and musical backgrounds.”

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