On the Mark

Guitarist Mark Ribot stumbles upon the hottest trend in popular music.

Although Ribot is still fond of the music he made with Shrek, the effort it took to keep the group together eventually wore him down -- something he realized after assembling Don't Blame Me, a well-received solo platter released by DIW Records in 1996. As he puts it, "I'd gone through my heroic phase where I felt I needed to do a band, but after making the album and touring by myself, I realized how great it was not to deal with other people."

There was another band in Ribot's future, however, and in retrospect, he can see that the idea behind it had been germinating for a while. "My record-collecting friends had been hipping me to a lot of Cuban reissues since the early Nineties," he says. "My interest stems from around that time." After a few years intermittently soaking in the style, he was aching to dig into a form that he'd always loved, but hadn't previously bothered to explore. "The musical character of the solo I did on 'Jockey Full of Bourbon' [from the 1985 Waits recording Rain Dogs] was influenced by several sources, including Cuban. So when I decided to get more into Cuban sounds, I stepped back and said, 'Okay, this is part of what I've been doing. But where did it come from?'"

To that end, Ribot rounded up some kindred spirits, including Miami Sound Machine drummer Robert J. Rodriguez, gifted organ player Anthony Coleman, sometime Ornette Coleman bassist Brad Jones and percussionist E.J. Rodriguez, and dipped into the music of the island with the aromatic cigars, little realizing that others were doing likewise. "I didn't have a clue about the current mass phenomenon," he says. Fortunately for Ribot, the fashion detectives at Atlantic did, offering him a contract after the Prosthetic Cubans' third show.

Ribot man: Mark Ribot.
Ribot man: Mark Ribot.

What started out as a lark -- "something fun to play in bars," in Ribot's words -- suddenly became a money-making opportunity. Still, Ribot wasn't interested in merely aping Cuban music, no matter how profitable doing so might be. "We all listened to a lot of Arseñio CDs," he says. "But after that, it was a process of figuring out which of its pieces were important to me, and then trying to develop them. That way, it's not just, 'What's in the pieces?' It's what's in you. I'm not going to pretend that my reading of an Arseñio Rodrguez tune is the same as anyone else's -- in particular, as someone who grew up in Cuba. Different things mean something to me, and sometimes I misread parts, I misunderstand parts. But that's the way it is -- and that's why it comes out the way that it does.

"We changed some of the songs more than others, but we changed all of them quite a bit," he continues. "And for Cuban people, or anyone who's really familiar with Cuban music, a lot of these songs are standards. It's like doing Duke Ellington songs. So I think the experience of listening to our music for people like that is a little bit like if you left a Beatles record in the rainforest and it was found by a group of pygmies, and after a while it broke. And then ten years later, you went to the same place and they were doing their versions of Beatles songs. I think it might have about the same distance from the original as ours does."

Not everyone has been thrilled by this approach, Ribot admits. "We haven't played in Cuba, but we have played at some festivals where there's been a bunch of Cuban musicians and Cuban people in the audience, and some of the people thought what we were doing was ridiculous. But others stayed around and often laughed quite a bit -- especially at my singing." With an air of self-mocking bravado, he notes, "But I'm a punk rocker, so I don't apologize for nothing."

Despite the guitarist's suspect pipes, Mark Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos has earned consistently strong notices and even gotten airplay on some of the few remaining American radio stations with a sense of daring. Atlantic has been so pleased with the response, in fact, that it's already asked Ribot to return to the studio to make a sequel. "We're going back in late September or early October," he says. "And even though I'm notorious for never sticking with my plans, what I think we're going to do is to take things apart a little more -- to do some sound processing and remixing kinds of things on some originals that we've been writing together, and maybe some even earlier kinds of son than we did on this one." He adds, "I could do all originals, but I think a lot of what we do has to do with interpretation; that's part of what's good about it. Sometimes you can be more original by not doing originals -- although, needless to say, it doesn't pay as well."

As these words imply, Ribot isn't getting rich from his flirtation with the big time: He conducted his side of this interview from a pay phone at the busy Manhattan intersection of 6th Avenue and 29th Street, near a Walkman repair shop he had to visit. "Even a rock star of immense stature like myself must still do things like this sometimes," he said seconds before his phone card ran out, causing the operator to cut him off.

Bet that kind of thing never happens to ex-Mouseketeers.

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