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"I think we've struck a chord that fills the void between urban and Latin and potentially pop," says Caracas-born producer and band leader Andres Levin during a phone interview from New York City. He, along with his Cuban wife Ileana Padron, conceived of Yerba Buena as a fluctuating collective of musicians based around six key players that includes vocalist Cucu Diamantes (Padron's alter ego) and (Miami's own) dancer, rapper, and singer El Chino. St. Thomas-born saxophonist Ron Blake and trumpeter Rashawn Ross supply the jazz chops, percussionist Pedrito Martinez brings authentic rumba in the form of Yoruba chanting and conga, and Sebastian Steinberg adds bass. Then there's the band's lead singer, soulful Cuban Xiomara Laugart, who has been compared with Celia Cruz for her sabor and with Diana Ross for her vocal power. Her Seventies Afro-inspired look serves as a visual indicator of Yerba Buena's syncretic good-time spirit. The band's name, a term that is used to mean mint in Spanish but that literally translates as "good weed," is another.
Since forming in 2000, the New York-based bilingual group has been touring cross-country over the past year, opening for Celia Cruz and Dave Matthews and playing alongside Hugh Masekela, Ozomatli, and Eddie Palmieri at the Hollywood Bowl. "At any point you can [see band members doing] Afro-Cuban dancing on one side of the stage and Blake blowing serious jazz on the other," says Levin when describing the vibe of the concerts. He's usually onstage as well, playing guitar and programming digital beats on his keyboards. "I play with my feet, so I don't get to dance much," he laments.
The group's performances have built a tremendous buzz for its just-released debut, President Alien, a wily studio mix of rumba, rap, Latin boogaloo, funk, cumbia, and Afrobeat that features guests like Meshell Ndegeocello, Roy Hargrove, and dead prez's Stic. "I just grab elements of pieces of music that I like and mix them," Levin says. "I don't think that there's anything you'd describe as pure boogaloo or son on the record. They're all hybrids, and by mixing new styles of music it creates a whole new flavor.
"I'm not doing this as a token gesture," emphasizes Levin. "Often fusions are two-dimensional, whether they're coming from the Latin or the hip-hop side. I try to make sure that I know the essence of the styles of music I'm mixing."
Levin grew up in Venezuela as the son of Argentine émigrés. After studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he moved to New York in 1989. At 33, he is known in the Spanish-speaking music scene as a prime producer of Latin alternative acts such as Aterciopelados (Caribe Atómico) and Los Amigos Invisibles (The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera). He also worked on Ricky Martin's upcoming album, Almas del Silencio. Significantly, Levin's diverse production and writing credits include cultural explorers Arto Lindsay (Prize) and David Byrne (Feelings). He was the principal producer on the great Fela Kuti tribute album from last year, Red Hot + Riot, and the punching horn riffs on President Alien songs like "Rompe el Cuero" are testament to the late "Black President" and his fans.
President Alien's heavily textured party mix, with its campy sing-along choruses and aggressive Afro pride anthems, sets a new standard for music that crosses boundaries, simply because it flows without evidence of the clunky culture clash that Latin hip-hop attempts often produce. While President Alien sacrifices artistic risk for easy accessibility, its frivolous tone is backed up by Levin's serious production skills. At times, like on the infectiously silly "La Gringa," the album recalls Eno-era Talking Heads. But instead of buildings and food, Yerba Buena offers songs about patio rumbas and guajiras, with lyrics that are not so much about the Latin urban experience as informed by it.
With suggestions of what 21st-century pop music can ideally be, Yerba Buena's music is categorically cosmopolitan rather than self-consciously global. As with groundbreaking bands before it, the group proffers a vision of popular music as the sound of an era and a place: the multi-everything cities in our crazy, mixed-up country. While doing so, it thankfully reminds us that there's more fun in this new world than we've recently had reason to remember. "I've been to Lagos, I've been to Mexico, I've been to Havana," says Levin. "For me it's kind of an abstract musical universe, and I was interested in what a band would sound like with all of these influences."