A diabolical concoction of foot-popping ska, invocations to the ancient Yoruba gods, swinging Latin brass and the results of a fiendish extraction process performed on the kings of mambo make Ska Cubano’s eponymous album an instant party classic.
For this album, Natty Bo from London ska band Top Cats went out to Santiago de Cuba to jam with local musicians who were only marginally aware of ska but immediately picked up on that beat. In the process, he helped heal a wound caused by the politics of the Caribbean and let the music flow again in the way it has from time immemorial.
Chango (aka Xango) is the Hugh Hefner of the pantheon of Yoruban gods. His name pops up in countless songs from Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and West Africa, not surprisingly, as he is the bad boy god of music and inspiration behind about a quarter of the songs on this album. Without doubt, the Oscar Calle penned classic ‘Chango’ (whether in album or bonus dancehall flavours) is the pick of the LP and a sure thing when you need to fill the floor at your parties this holiday season. A catchy chant to the big man himself, Yemaya (queen of the gods whose tears created the rivers) and Obatala (bringer of harmony and peace) is set off against a mad ska beat augmented with joyful Latin brass and piano to great effect. What can you say? It is a perfect tune.
Most of the other tunes are enjoyable Latin romps set to the world’s most catchy backbeat: ska. And they are none the worse for that but ‘Chango’ is a tune not easily matched. Closest to it lyrically and in terms of quality would have to be the opening tune ‘Babalu’. The god for whom it is named represents purity. The lineage of both tune and version do not. Originally written for scenes in pre-war Hollywood movies that wished to depict Africa — so we are not talking enlightened representations here — it was nevertheless reclaimed by Miguelito ValdÈs from Cuba. This version adds a hefty dose of ska of course and just to complete the picture Miss Megoo of Japan sprays sax solos into the project. Now that’s what I call syncretism.
Also worth a mention is the cumbia ‘Coquetando’ (flirting). Here the ska thing is at its least obvious and the liner notes suggest this is the direction the band is heading in after doing the ska fusion pretty thoroughly. If the results live up to this sizzler then the next album will be as essential as this one.
Ska Cubano play La Linea festival 28 April, Carling Islington Academy