Amphibian homesick blues

The Puerto Rican songwriter Rodolfo 'Nava' Barrera has a thing about frogs. And cows. And, indeed, orange drinks. Confused? Don't worry: you'll enjoy his music even better that way
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Puerto Rico - a beautiful island full of frogs, cows, trees, rhythm and lovely, tough people fighting poverty.

Puerto Rico - a beautiful island full of frogs, cows, trees, rhythm and lovely, tough people fighting poverty.

But this story actually starts where newspaper stories usually do, over supper in north London. A hostess is being savaged by one of her guests, for putting the Buena Vista Social Club on the stereo.

Don't you realise, the guest is saying, that you are pathetic? That by blundering around the Third World, witlessly hoping for a bit of a dance and a cuddle, the middle-aged middle classes are confirming their own social death? That this is not only a betrayal of your own life, but also of all those brave young Britishers forging new blades on the anvil of our own culture? Don't you think, she gasps, holding on to the cruet with both her hands, that you should listen to music that is about things you actually know about?

"Gosh, well, since you put it like that," replies the hostess. "I'm sure you must be right. But the trouble is, I like listening to music where I haven't a clue what's going on."

The scene now shifts to New York: a chic Chinese-style club midtown, in which the Puerto Rican songwriter Rodolfo "Nava" Barrera is doing a showcase. I haven't a clue what's going on. The band are terrific, though, having three percussionists. Nava himself is a snakey man in his early forties, wearing a cherry-red silk jacket. Collectively, they hump away at the groove like dogs against chairlegs, tails up, big smiles splitting their faces.

The elaborate rhythm they're generating is neither salsa-neat, nor merengue-clumpy, but somehow diffuse, divided unevenly among several metres, like a single train running magically on several tracks at once. The song, "La Vaquita", is about a small cow and how, philosophically speaking, it is better to dance like a small cow than to let the problems of everyday life get on top of you. I really haven't a clue what this is supposed to mean. Nevertheless, I find that I am going at it with a solid chipboard partition like a border collie.

I am rather anxious, though, about Nava playing "El Paraiso". I really don't want him to. "El Paraiso" - a sad song this time - is about the residue of love. It's also the only song on the album I don't like.

This is because at the end it devolves into a rowdy chorus of "A Kia-Ora! A Kia-Ora!" This always puts me off. Instead of staying in the hole with Nava's regretful love vibe, I find my head filling up with cartoon monkeys drinking orangeade from rip-top plastic cartons.

This, of course, is the down side to not having a clue about what's going on. Yes, on the up side, foreign music puts you in the mood for love with furniture but also, at another level, it makes you vulnerable to transcultural psycho-mugging. And there's nothing you can do about that. Still, therein lies the beauty of it all - at least you're being spontaneous when you're being mugged. In a cultural vacuum, you have no opportunity to decide in advance what you think and therefore cannot fall victim to your own prejudices.

Nava himself is a very nice man. He hugs me when I enter his hotel room and introduces me to his mum, who is a calm, poised lady. Goodness knows how she gave rise to such a creature as Rodolfo, though. He's nice but he can't sit still. He waves his arms around, he jumps up and down in his seat, he lets out terrific howls and hoots to illustrate his many points. He does frog voices.

"Co-QUI! Co-QUI!"

This is the sound made by the particular Puerto Rican frog Nava wants to save. That is to say, the frog for which Nava is creating a conservation area in Puerto Rico with the proceeds of his success. He's already bought up 52 acres of the coqui's natural habitat.

The coqui is a signature sound of the island, in much the same way that the bleeping of green men at pedestrian crossings is here. It's part of Nava's palette. His record is a painterly thing, you see, full of softly lush textures, light, dark, flux, cross-current and counterpoint, all of it bound together with a clever varnish of found sounds - coquis, rippling water, radio noise, lowing cattle, slamming doors, tape rewind, that sort of thing. It's an arty yet unpretentious folk-latin-hip-hop-pop album of distinctly confused geo-social provenance, with fat trombones.

There's an explanation for this. Nava is the son of a Hollywood film-maker who went to Puerto Rico to make a movie with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, then decided to stay having clocked Nava's mum. Consequently, the young Rodolfo has spent half his life commuting between New York and smalltown Puerto Rico. He's also spent half his life being rich, the other half poor.

"I discover at a very young age," he says, "that life is very simple and very complicated. I live near cows. And then I live in THIS!" By which he means the traffic and hustle of midtown Manhattan, which he emulates with flying arms and spittle. Perhaps it's not perverse of him, then, to have wanted to reconfigure this sonic motley into music that makes you feel good, if a bit melancholy. "It's a question of heart," he says. "I'm not a schematic guy... I want my life to flow. It's the flow I look for. Woooooooo!"

So he takes the native rhythms of Puerto Rico, plena and bomba, slows them down, splices them together with each other and other rhythms, such as cumbias and guarachas, then slooshes them around a bit in the big pick'n' mix of world-pop values. No, he's not a schematic guy. You can tell from looking at his paintings, which are like his records - not schematic.

"You see," he says, suddenly solemn. "It's better to live life without problems, like the baby cow." Or, as he puts it in the chorus of "El Paraiso": "Aqui y ahora! Aqui y ahora!" Here and now.

'Nava' is out now on the Rykolatino label