Mark Ribot is best known for contributing singular guitar racket to several Eighties-era Tom Waits albums put out by a major label, Island Records. In the years since then, though, the record industry has grown so conservative that it's now something of a surprise when a goliath firm signs anyone other than sixteen-year-old former Mouseketeers. As a result, a great many artists with creativity on their minds either have been dropped by majors or have fled to independent imprints: Waits, for instance, allowed the punky upstarts at Epitaph Records to issue his most recent disc, Mule Variations. So why on God's green earth did the suits at Atlantic Records decide to ink the forty-something Ribot?
"I have no idea," Ribot admits, chuckling. "I'm just as bewildered as anyone else."
As well he should be. Yet Atlantic's interest in Ribot isn't entirely incongruous. Nine of the ten songs on Ribot's new CD, Mark Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos (which translates to "Mark Ribot and the Prosthetic Cubans"), were written by Arseñio Rodrguez, one of the chief popularizers of the Cuban musical form known as son during the Forties and Fifties. As such, label decision-makers likely saw the project as an opportunity to capitalize on the renewed stateside interest in classic Cuban sounds of the sort played by the Buena Vista Social Club and/or the boom in Latin pop, a sensation so scorching that ABC recently devoted an hour of prime time to Latin Beat, a magazine-type special about it.
If so, Ribot upset expectations: Postizos doesn't so much reproduce Rodrguez's music as it reimagines it from a decidedly avant-garde perspective. Instead of opening the album on a let's-party note, the lead track, "Aurora en Pekn," moves at the pace of noir, with Ribot's echoey, atmospheric picking ringing out like a forgotten theme from Twin Peaks. Elsewhere, "Aqu Como Allá" finds the guitarist delivering its catchy hook with curious deliberation over percussion that clunks more than it swings; "Postizo" (the sole Ribot composition on hand) features a very un-Cuban swell of feedback, heavy riffing and spectral atonalities courtesy of guest keyboardist John Medeski; "Los Teenagers Bailan Chang" offers up a fascinatingly warped variation on danceability; and "Choserito Plena," which spotlights brother Gregory Ribot's baritone sax honking, comes across as both wonderfully exuberant and undeniably twisted. Just like Ribot himself.
Even more unexpected are "No Me Llores Más" and "La Vida Es un Sueño," on which Ribot sings like what he is -- a guy from New Jersey. His decision not to feign a cultural background he doesn't have was a conscious one. "I wanted to make it really clear that I'm not pretending to be Cuban. So what better way than for me to sing in Spanish?" He's familiar with the language after twelve years spent living in a New York apartment building occupied "mainly by Puerto Ricans," he says. But his deficiencies with pronunciation became obvious during a recent tour of Spain. According to him, however, "there were no bottles thrown. At least none that connected."
Risking bodily harm for artistic reasons is nothing new for Ribot, who has never been shy about wandering off the beaten path. As a teenager in Newark, he rocked out with hardcore garage bands even as he was taking lessons from Frantz Casseus, a classical guitarist raised in Haiti. By the time he'd reached his twenties, he was splitting his time between jazz sessions with the likes of organist Jack McDuff and live support for aging soulsters such as Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. Then, in 1984, he joined the Lounge Lizards, an eccentric neo-jazz outfit fronted by John Lurie, familiar to cult-film lovers as the star of the Jim Jarmusch flicks Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Ribot's tenure with the band gave a wide variety of musicians an opportunity to hear his extremely original ax work, which mates accessibility with adventure, and serious chops with deadpan humor. Most of them liked what they heard: In addition to Waits, Ribot has appeared alongside Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Phish's Trey Anastasio, Arto Lindsay, the Jazz Passengers, Allen Ginsberg, Tricky and even Patti "Mrs. Bruce Springsteen" Scialfa. Far from feeling like he was lowering himself by becoming a sideman for hire, Ribot says he learned to love having the pressure firmly resting on shoulders other than his own: "It's much more relaxing just to be in somebody else's band. Besides, sometimes things are so crazy in my life that going on stage is a refuge. It's the only place I feel safe."
Of course, musical safety, as opposed to the personal kind, is something Ribot tries to avoid. His resumé also includes membership in Bar Kochba, a typically outré creation from idiosyncratic jazzer John Zorn, who in 1997 put out a faux-soundtrack by Ribot called Shoe String Symphonies on his Tzadik label as part of a series of discs collected under the "Filmworks" umbrella. Moreover, Ribot's own groups have always emphasized weirdness over commercial potential. Witness Shrek (the name is Yiddish for "horror"), which is represented by Yo! I Killed Your God, a 1992 recording just put out by Tzadik. About the album, Ribot says, "It's kind of Albert Ayler-influenced punk rock" -- a blend unlikely to start Casey Kasem's toes tapping.
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.
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."
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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.