Life Is a Cabaret

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The members of Boulder's Cabaret Diosa rarely refer to themselves as a band. Rather, they see the aggregation as a place, like a Latin Brigadoon or Shangri-La that exists as if by magic for a night and then is gone again: a luxuriant, recurrent dream.

"I'm totally in love with the vision," avows vocalist David Sherman, whose voice is inclined to lapse into the ardent whisper of the ruffled-shirt-wearing Latin Lover type he becomes on stage. This sentiment is heartily shared by his bandmates--all ten of them. Together, Sherman, vocalist Willow DuHamel, guitarist Darrin Feder, violist Miguel Ramos, drummer Jon Rademaekers, percussionist Mendel Rabinovitch, bassist Paul Mrozek, trumpeter Grant Reider, saxophonist/flutist Ari Dvorin, keyboardist/horn player Kevan Brown and dancer Alyson Covert create a soundtrack as sweet, sloppy and sultry as a ripe mango.

"We're mixing music that thirty or forty years ago would have never been put together," Feder concedes. "You wouldn't have seen Brazilian and Cuban mixed together. They're very genre-specific kinds of things. When it's forty years after the fact and none of us were alive then and all we know of this stuff is really from watching TV and the movies, it gets filtered through our lens of being twenty-year-olds. And yet somehow, it works."

True enough, Cabaret Diosa's eclecticism is engaging. The players plumb the oeuvres of established Latin-music icons--Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sergio Mendez, Joe Cuba, Astrud Gilberto--but their sets also include Desi Arnaz numbers; selections from the 1933 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle Flying Down to Rio and the Disney animated version of The Jungle Book; left-field entries like a rendition of "Aquarius" modeled on one cut by Tito Puente and Celia Cruz during the late Seventies; and what Feder describes as "cheapo, cheesy lounge stuff." Also floating through the mix are originals that range from explorations of traditional forms to thrilling fusions--such as a cha-cha that devolves into a delirious spaghetti Western. "Some of them are amalgamations, but some are more straight-ahead," Ramos asserts. "Like, I'm working on one that's a tango."

"We have a pretty specific salsa tune that Paul is writing, and he's also writing an Afro-Cuban one," DuHamel adds. "And David's writing a calypso tune."

Rock also rears its head in surfy renditions of Latin pop from the Sixties, but for the most part, the group steers clear of the genre's traps. With so much to choose from, why resort to the obvious? "The percussion and drums work really hard to find specific Latin grooves to put with the original music so that it's not rock and roll," DuHamel says.

"There's also the Middle Eastern element in the group," Brown remarks. "Some klezmer influence, some Arabic..."

These particular cross-continental musical leaps can be attributed to a number of factors. Three of the players are Jewish, Covert is trained in Middle Eastern dance, and, as Feder notes, "Spain was occupied by the Moors for thousands of years." But more important than any of these things is the gypsy spirit instilled in the collaborators by Cabaret Diosa's instigator, muse and ghost member, Chris Till.

"Chris was in this band with Miguel," Feder says. "They were doing a few old Latin standards."

"During the summer of '95, we would meet in Chris's backyard every week," Ramos recalls about the earlier collective. "And that was all it was--we just got together and played, and a couple of friends would come over sometimes. He would always set up his backyard so you'd have tiki torches going, and he'd have this table with fresh fruit and lemonade and some chips for us, and we'd all get together and play this music and work on it and have the food together. So there was this whole community element to it. He had this vision of it being the 'New Electric Eden' where, eventually, throngs of people could be sharing the pineapple and the coconut in the light of the tiki torches while this new mambo experience was going on."

Although the idyllic experiment dissolved before the year was out, Till didn't give up on his concept. "When I met him that November, he still wanted to do a Latin lounge concept, and he had this whole idea of a mambo underground revival--and I knew that it would be a huge success here," Feder says. "So we decided to put a band together, and we got Miguel in it and started finding people. And one by one we assembled an eleven-piece band."

Cabaret Diosa was ready to play out in early 1996, and before long, the group was packing venues such as the Fox Theatre. Till, though, was restless. "Chris decided to quit his job, sell everything he had and move to California," Feder says.

"He was working at this nine-to-five job on the phone for Mitsubishi," DuHamel elaborates. "It was not what he was all about--so finally he went to sell toe rings and bubble wands in California."

Despite Till's departure, his impact on Cabaret Diosa remains a potent one. "There's a certain amount of change and progression that happens naturally, but we do hold on to his vision," DuHamel admits. "I don't know that it would be exactly what he'd envision if he was here. But as far as having a really special ambience and a special feeling, we definitely want to have that."

"That's something we have been successful at achieving every performance: presenting a whole environment that people can come and be in," Ramos says. "More than just it being a place where you go and hear some music or maybe you go and dance, you go and you're in this world where we're all dressed up and we have plants on stage and candles and we invite people to dress up and dance together."

"It's freedom," DuHamel announces, "Freedom of sensuality and..."
"Romanticism," Feder finishes, to a collective nod of accord. "Chris's idea was old-fashioned romanticism, which doesn't exist anywhere anymore. And the music that we're doing is all couple-dancing-oriented. Back in the old days, you didn't just start flailing around. You had to ask someone to dance."

Of course, not everyone at Cabaret Diosa's appearances is familiar with the dances associated with the act's repertoire. For those who are, the players try not to stray too far from the music's roots, believing that a certain retro ratio is necessary to prompt attendees to sashay onto the floor. "A lot of it has to do with having set steps that people know and follow," Rademaekers says.

"But a lot of people don't know those steps," Sherman counters. "So that's why it doesn't matter. Most of the people who are going to dance at a show together with a stranger are going to try to wing it. And that's the whole thing about it. It's like, come on, just fucking wing it--because tomorrow we could all die!"

This attitude is magnetic, and it helps explain why Cabaret Diosa draws such a broad, colorful cross-section of revelers. "I've had gay men, especially, come up to us who have been to our shows and say, 'I feel really comfortable here. We feel like we can express ourselves, like there's a place for us here,'" DuHamel says. "It's a place for expression and extremity where people can let go and get kind of crazy."

"And be flamboyant," Sherman declares. "We want to get men to wear those scarves around their necks again."

Like so much about Cabaret Diosa, the outfit's fashion component can be traced back to Till. "He was completely fashion-driven in a sense," Sherman asserts. "He used to play this one Donna Summer record--'Love to Love You Baby,' in Spanish --over and over again for hours and wear this leopard-skin vest."

Costumes remain an important element of Cabaret Diosa live, but it's hardly the only example of the musicians' flair for drama. They also perform mini-narratives between songs, including one in which Eve nibbles a magic mushroom and decides to be her own boss, and another that requires Diosa's male contingent to dress as women in order to collectively portray a harem in thrall to sheik DuHamel. But their favorite tale remains their maiden theatrical foray, a Till-conceived playlet in which a priest encounters a band of gypsies gathered on a beach and quickly falls in love with a belly dancer.

"That was our first one, and it had the most symbolism working--it was a lot of what Chris was about," Feder maintains. "He would carve all these different shrines to different goddesses. The priest represents the male and Catholicism and hierarchy and male dominance, and the gypsy represents everything that's female and pagan and everything that, in his mind, was positive. She's definitely the stronger character, and he's totally at her mercy and dumbfounded. The gypsy offers to read the priest's palm, so he kind of kneels at her feet in a reversal of confession."

A clerical collar that Till ordered from a Catholic supply company figured prominently in Sherman's initiation into the group's cosmos: "I was over at Chris's house and we're talking about stuff, and I'm still kind of auditioning for the band, and he says, 'Do you think you could wear this?' And he pulls out, on a hanger, a priest's shirt and collar. I'm like, 'Yeah, sure, whatever.'"

"That's what he said to me," DuHamel says, laughing. "'Will you wear fruit on your head?' And I said, 'Well, what kind of fruit?'"

What began as bewildered capitulation soon led to contagious enthusiasm--the cornerstone of the ensemble's appeal. In the words of Cabaret Diosa's incomparable frontman, "All hail the mighty mambo."

Cabaret Diosa. 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $5, 294-9281.

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