"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."