Electropic Trouble

Things are getting rowdy around the sound board at the old ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) recording studio in Havana. While the percussionist listens to instruction from the engineer, five or six other musicians, singers, dancers, and friends crowd onto the worn couches in the control room, passing around a soda bottle filled with rum. Not the smooth tourist rum either, but the rip-up-your-gut-25-pesos-a-fifth-from-some-guy-on-the-street rum. It's three in the afternoon. Tom Darnal takes the lethal paper cup he is handed as a matter of course; he's paying more attention to what's happening on the other side of the glass. The percussionist tries again. P18 is rerecording one of the songs from the band's first album, Urban Cuban. This time Darnal wants to make sure everything is just right.

P18 is named in part for the eighteenth district of Paris, the location of another studio an ocean away, where Darnal and a group of his compatriots recorded and mixed much of Urban Cuban under slightly less colorful circumstances. But the group itself -- half French, half Cuban; half electronic, half tropical -- began in 1992 when Darnal found himself in a part of Havana known as La Rampa looking for a beer. The guitarist had just finished a concert with Mano Negra, the ethno-punk outfit led by iconoclast/genius Manu Chao that has since passed into myth. When Mano Negra hit Havana, the merry band was on a tour of Latin America by cargo ship and Darnal was worn out by the intensity of it all. After the show, he took off into the night.

On the street Darnal came across a kid, like so many kids in the Cuban dollar economy, happy to help a tourist. The two hotfooted it all over Old Havana in search of a cold one, up and down the cobblestone streets past the gorgeous ruins of buildings, until they made it finally to a broken-down house in Central Havana where the kid's aunt lived, on a broken-down street named Perseverancia (Perseverance). For a time, that was the other P in P18. With high ceilings and heavy wooden furniture crammed into narrow rooms, the house was cavernous, but the constant coming and going of neighbors and friends made the dark rooms and cramped courtyard vibrant. All over the walls there were pictures of a hepcat blowing a horn.

"Does a musician live here?" Darnal got out in Spanish.

"That's my brother Bárbaro," said Esther Teuntor, the lady of the house.

Esther Teuntor is a singer from a large family of musicians. At the time she met Darnal, she and several other family members were performing with an Afro-Cuban folklore group called Irere. Her brother, Bárbaro Teuntor Garcia, belonged to the acclaimed son orchestra Sierra Maestra; in fact, when Darnal showed up at the Teuntor house in Havana, Bárbaro was on tour in Europe. From Esther and her brood, Darnal learned the religious rhythms of the Yoruba people. From Bárbaro, on subsequent trips to Cuba and whenever Darnal managed to round up the rabble-rouser from some Parisian hotel, he picked up Cuban swing. So Darnal stumbled onto his own school of Cuban music. Not one of the island's famous conservatories, but the living room, the solar, the Yoruba ceremony, the street.

"I don't consider myself an artist of high rank," Bárbaro explained one afternoon after a recording session with P18. "I consider myself an artist of the people, of my barrio, of those outsiders looked down upon."

So Darnal, Bárbaro, and the rest of the Teuntor clan collaborated with Parisian DJ Skree and the occasional ex-Mano Negra member, putting together what Darnal calls an "electropical" sound. Urban Cuban grooves with DJ Skree's big beats and Bárbaro's sublime horn solos. After the sometimes oppressive cohesion of Mano Negra, the loose association of P18 was a welcome change. "Now I have a band whose members don't even live on the same continent," Darnal laughs. That same lack of cohesion could be heard on the debut. At times Darnal is caught in the headlights of his new fascination with Afro-Cuban folklore; on "Yemaya" he simply drops a chant to the orisha of the ocean exactly as it would be sung in a religious ceremony. Dance tracks like "Mi Cuba" and "Oye, Mulata" are more genuinely electropical, but overall Urban Cuban is a first step in a bigger experiment.

The second step came in a year-and-a-half long, 80-concert tour through Europe and Asia, taking P18 as far as China. "That's how the coherence of the group was born, from coming together to play live and then composing," Darnal points out in a recent phone interview. "The influence of each one could fuse better with the group."

Indeed the new release Electropica fulfills all the promise of Urban Cuban, seamlessly infusing Afro-Cuban swing with French electronic cool. Along the way, though, the Teuntor family dropped out. "People come and people go," Darnal says tentatively. "I started working with Bárbaro on Electropica, but he wanted to put together a more traditional group. Esther left the group two years ago." Over the phone from Cuba, Esther explains that the ten-year exclusive contract her family signed with P18's manager (who is also Darnal's wife) made it hard to get by during the band's down times. "We couldn't play with any other group or even have our photo taken," she complains. (Indeed a New Times feature on the band was scrapped two years ago when the management objected to the publication of photos that did not include "the French members.") After winning their release, the Teuntors decided to stick with their own. "We put together a family group called the Grand Teuntor Clan," says Esther. "Next month we are releasing an album that's an homage to my father."

Darnal has recruited a formidable roster of replacements for the Teuntors among Cubans living outside the island, including Fania-era trumpeter Guillermo Fellove and former Charanga Habanera percussionist Raul Hernandez Alvarez. "We have a much funkier sound live," Darnal promises. "We have ten musicians. This is not an experiment in electronic music."

The strides that P18 has made since losing the Teuntors have not made Darnal forget his debt to his old friends. "It's simple," he says, "that encounter was the foundation of P18. Without them, I would never have had the will or the desire to make this kind of group. And the fact that it happened by chance, that made me even more enthusiastic."