Album Reviews

Ska Cubano – Ay Caramba

(Casinosounds) UK release date: 4 July 2005

The second album by Natty Bo’s Ska Cubano is a mixed affair – in the best possible sense. Though Ska is the given form, Ay Caramba! plays free with countless styles that are as natural as a Caribbean wind to this set of trad Cuban musicians Bo recruited for this project.

No need to don your worthy armour just yet though. This is no exercise in anthropology, no dry bowdlerisation of form. Ay Caramba possesses the grainy authenticism of goodtimey Ska, just before the euphoria of Jamaican independence subsided, full of tall tales, late-nite shebeens, rum, and rhumba.

As leader of ‘the UK’s greatest ska band’ the Top Cats, the self-styled ‘analogue fetishist’ Natty Bo has contrived an atmosphere of purest vintage. There are no pro-tools parlour tricks like the crunch of scratchy vinyl, and surely nothing more than a four-track has been troubled by these 17 stirrers of collective memory.

As the name on the door suggests, this is a Ska trek. Though man has boldly been here before, Natty Bo’s mission is to seek out those Caribbean styles that added to the Ska stew such as calypso, mambo, son (to name but three) and reintroduce them to each other as old friends, swapping stories and a drink or ten. Most of all though, Ska mates with its ‘sister rhythm, the jumpin’ Afro-Amerindian-European beat of Columbia’s Caribbean coast’ (it sez ‘ere). Parochialism ain’t in the Ska Cubano vocabulary.

With rhythms as precise as the creases in a zoot-suit, this collection of lost languages and conspiratorial winks is assembled mainly from dancehall (in the old sense) party standards from Cuba to Jamaica. From the temperate climes of this grey land, listening to these heady brews is akin to being a co-conspirator. Many of the performances have the frisky canter of divulged confidences, of codes being passed before the rozzers catch up and throw the band into the clink.

Soy Campesino is a smoky bazaar of a song, a pressure drop all of its own, and swings at an angle Kid Creole only dreamed of. Big Bamboo is played strictly for laughs, as juicily euphemistic as a pair of fresh melons, and as earthy as a Carioca from the favelas of Brazil.

Frankie Laine‘s Jezebel is rescued from frontier, high-corrall melodrama but sounds just as hilariously gynophobic recast in Ska’s uptight jerk. Chispa Tren, a cover of a 1920’s cartoon theme is a piece of Cuban whimsy, while bonus track La Boquilla is impish call-and-response (and ever-so-slightly camp).

As virtual ancestry, Ay Caramba is tough to beat. Tungarara is a children’s rainforest song, Bobine ‘a traditional Haitian merengue’. However, a familiarity with Afro-Latin social history is not a prerequisite. As carnivalesque as Basement Jaxx‘s Kish Kash, Ay Caramba only requires you to posses a well-tuned pair of lugholes to appreciate its riches.

Ay Caramba is a record that has the power to shape the contours of knowing smiles, the kind shared between participants of the same dancefloor when the rhythm hits just so. Natty Bo has tapped set of fables and anecdotes that speak of snatches of pleasure while the perennial search for that elusive next buck has temporarily abated. Food for your feet, rhythm for your mind, and a laugh from the heart.

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More on Ska Cubano
Ska Cubano @ O2 Academy, Oxford
Ska Cubano – Ay Caramba