Long before the hipsters of Manhattan began lining up to see the venerable elders of the Buena Vista Social Club, country boys Nicholas Woloschuck and Aaron Halva were scraping together a meager living playing traditional Cuban son in New York City's subways. Oregon-born Woloschuck and Iowa native Halva formed the band Mo'Guajiro to re-create an old-time rural Cuban sound in the bowels of the Big Apple. Woloschuck remembers the early days, playing the trains. "People would come up and sing with me," he recalls warmly. "It was mostly older Latin people who would respond really strongly, because it was music they had grown up with. One time this older woman was walking by and I was playing a bolero by Julio Jaramillo. It goes something like 'lejos de ti' -- so far away from you. The lady walked by me, looking at me, and her son was kind of leading her along. Then she looked back and started crying."
Those faraway sounds that bring tears to nostalgic eyes captured the imagination of the young men in Mo'Guajiro. Woloschuck first encountered traditional Cuban music as an eighteen-year-old exchange student in Ecuador. "I started listening to salsa, like Willie Colon," he explains, "but then I started working at this small club where there was a little conjunto that played son. They were all Ecuadorians and they had just fallen in love with the music, the same way we did."
Woloschuck in turn introduced the music to Halva, who at that time was an electric guitarist playing straightforward blues and funk. "The first time I heard it, I just went under," recalls Halva, who quickly taught himself to play the tres, the three-string instrument prominent in son. He continues with a laugh, "I learned how to string a tres from a guy down the street."
Roaming around New York City, the two met up with other Cubanophiles from around the hemisphere. Puerto Rican vocalist and conga player Jainardo Batista Sterling joined the group after exchanging numbers with Woloschuck and Halva in a health food store in Brooklyn. Spontaneous jam sessions in Central Park drew three South Americans who had come to New York to study music at the New School: Venezuelan timbales player Tony DeVivo, Argentine guitarist Martin Quaglia, and Colombian bass player Ihan Betancourt. Asked why Mo'Guajiro, a group with such an affinity for Cuban music, never picked up any Cuban musicians, Halva responds with a shrug: "That was fate; there certainly is no reason for that other than the Lord Himself, I guess."
An international collection of amateur enthusiasts, making up in sheer passion for what they lack in formal training, Mo'Guajiro secured what Woloschuck calls their "first legitimate gig" playing for weekly parties at a salsa school. The experience may have earned them only the princely total of $50 for the whole group, but it also forced the musicians into a new stylistic discovery. "It was funny because the students were dancing in class to hard salsa, like El Canario," says Woloschuck. "Then we come in with this laid-back old Cuban stuff. They were always asking us to play faster and faster. We would try to go faster, and from there we sort of started to play descarga."
Paying dues on New York City's cuchifrito circuit, Mo'Guajiro made some important friends. Halva remembers meeting Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, the legendary trumpet player. "This friend of Choco's invited us to play this political fundraiser up in Harlem, at Lexington and 111th," says Halva. "That was Chocolate's neighborhood, so his friend hooked us up. We were all nervous because there was Chocolate, but he just played with us like it was no big deal. After that he kind of took in the group and has always given us encouragement."
As Mo'Guajiro added new musicians and new styles, the venues shifted from salsa schools and campaign stumps to established clubs like Bayamo and SOB's. This past September the band members took up temporary residence in Puerto Rico, playing regular gigs at clubs across the island and promoting their first compact disc, Pueblo Alegre. Playing in Puerto Rico, however, puts extra pressure on this merry, self-taught group. As Halva points out, Cuban music "isn't automatically exotic to Puerto Ricans. You gotta have your shit together, because they know the rhythm."
In Pueblo Alegre (Happy People), Mo'Guajiro sets out to demonstrate its mastery of the rhythm without losing the happy-go-lucky spirit that inspires the band. The opening lines of the album's title track state the Mo'Guajiro philosophy: "Pueblo Alegre celebrates with style/It's the people of a thousand colors and a thousand languages/Everyone knows it's true, that life is short/With the right atmosphere, we all know how to enjoy ourselves." Indeed, the band's clean, relaxed re-creation of the traditional son is all about making the atmosphere right. On most tracks Woloschuck and Batista Sterling sing in two-part harmony. Woloschuck has infused his Oregon voice with the nasal resonance of a seasoned sonero, with the sometimes amusing addition of a crystal-clear Spanish pronunciation rare among Cuban performers. Woloschuck cedes to Batista Sterling for most of the actual soneos, the improvised vocal parts sung over the chorus. Following a long Caribbean tradition of self-taught singers, Batista Sterling lets himself get meaningfully messy as he sets loose soulful riffs on the hardship of life as a guajiro and the virtues of a well-sung rumba.
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Tracks like "Caballo," where the singer laments, "They've taken away my horse" and "life as a Cuban cowboy is hard," speak of a world the musicians know only in their imaginations. Other tracks refer to worlds the group must know all too well. "Percusión" begs the rhythmless to please leave the music to those who can actually play, a plea often heard in the kind of open-to-everybody drumming sessions Mo'Guajiro grew out of. Taking its own advice, however, Mo'Guajiro gets a little help from famous friends. Nelson Gonzalez shows up with a tres solo and Chocolate Armenteros plays several heartbreaking trumpet runs on both "Caballo" and on the stirring bolero "Siempre me Acuerdo de Ti."
The group experiments on other tracks, wedding the son to African-American gospel and rhythm and blues on the English language "Practice Love," and unleashing some vintage boogaloo on "Gato Negro," the sly tale of a Brooklyn roustabout. Inspired by bass player Ihan Betancourt, the song "Cumambo" fuses the son with cumbia in what may be the first mambo electrified by an accordion. All in all Pueblo Alegre is a pleasant first effort that promises, more than anything else, that catching the band live will make for a really good time.
It's a promise that has caught the attention of promoters, who have booked the band to open for Cuban island heavyweights such as Los Van Van and, in January, the Buena Vista Social Club itself. Aware of the trouble keeping such company might mean in Miami, Venezuelan timbalero Tony DeVivo says simply: "People don't relate us with anything political. We just love the music." Halva seconds that sentiment as he explains the origins of the band's name, "The Mo' kinda comes from whatever you want: the funk and soul of Motown, the Puerto Rican stew mofongo. Most of all, though, we just liked the way the words felt in the mouth."
Mo'Guajiro performs at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 4 at Starfish, 1427 West Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $10. For more information call 305-673-1717.