Ska Cubano: Revolution in the head

Ska Cubano's fusion of Cuban and Jamaican music is a triumph of musical imagination. Phil Meadley hears their story
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The Independent Culture

Now, about to release their self-financed second album, ¡Ay Caramba!, the band have just provided a rude-boy awakening to the Jazz/World Stage at Glastonbury, and are about to head off deep into the festival backwaters to polish off two more sets at different stages. Their message is simple: get the music across to as many people as possible.

Three years ago, Scott set his sights on the previously untapped resource of Castro's Cuba. He was the first person to set up an investment company in the country, but soon realised he had made a "foolish" error of judgement. His Cuban re-awakening came at a pivotal moment in his life. He was getting bored with finance and falling in love with Cuba and it's music, so once back in the UK decided to set up a music company called Linea 1 – an offshoot of which is his label Casinosounds – home to Ska Cubano.

"I'd always been very keen on ska," he says when discussing the origins of the band. "My wife's family comes from Jamaica, so I'd spent time over there in the late Seventies and caught the tail end of the ska scene, as well as witnessing the roots reggae era." He also started exploring Cuban music and began wondering why there wasn't more interaction between the two countries. "I spoke to some old musicians in Cuba, and they said that before the revolution there was a tremendous amount of to-ing and fro-ing. Calypso was very popular in Cuba, but after 1959 all this interaction stopped, and ska never reached the country. So I began wondering what would've happened if ska had actually got there."

To help his dream reach fruition, Scott sought the help of some like-minded London musicians. Through Gaz Mayall (lead singer of The Trojans), he met Natty Bo, who was leader of the London ska band Top Cats. "I asked Natty if he was interested in Cuban music and his reply was to take me to his huge collection of mambo vinyl. It suddenly clicked that what we were looking for was there; that the kind of Cuban music we needed to fuse with ska was all this stuff that Natty had."

The two men jumped on a plane bound for Santiago de Cuba – the Caribbean capital of Cuba. Their first job was to teach Cuban musicians to play ska: "There were already a couple of bands practising some ska tunes that Peter had recorded for them," says Natty Bo, now Ska Cubano's band leader. "But when he took me to see them it was strange because although the horns were really on it, they really didn't get the rhythm. So I started teaching them with electric guitar, before changing to tres because it has more of a reverb sound, which is perfect for ska rhythms. We also started using marimbula, and mento."

Although the project started off with three potential bands, it was finally nailed down to one, and the search for a singer began. "I was looking for someone who sang more like Beny Moré," Natty Bo recalls. "He was my hero from the mambo days, and really the Cab Calloway of Cuba in his day. Then, lo and behold, in Santiago de Cuba, busking with his tres guitar, was Beny Billy,the living incarnation of Moré."

The songs were rehearsed and arranged in a yard in Santiago de Cuba, before Natty Bo went into the studio to record the rhythm section. Songs were recorded in groups before the final choices for the first album were made. "All in all it was about three weeks of recording, and over two years of rehearsing," he says. "The recording process for ¡Ay Caramba! was similar in the sense that the same studio was used. The big difference was that we were still learning about the strengths of the musicians and the recording process. We had better equipment and better musicians the second time around, and after doing the first album, the energy to want to explore more music was incredible."

¡Ay Caramba! is more musically adventurous than its predecessor. Forties and Fifties Colombian cumbia rubs shoulders with 1950s comedy songs, Haitian merengue, afro-rumba and ska calypso. The band now consists of four members of Top Cats, plus Cuban musicians such as the bass-player Rey Crespo and the tres-player Jesús Cutiño. The only Cuban resident is Beny Billy.

"Originally our intention was to have a band of 100 per cent Cuban musicians living in Cuba," Scott says. "But after we'd recorded the first album we began to grapple with the horrors of Cuban bureaucracy and the huge expense of getting a large number of musicians out of the country. We found that we didn't actually want a completely Cuban sound, so Natty brought in Dr Sleepy – a vintage drummer, and the trumpeter Eddie 'Tan Tan' Thornton, who played with Hendrix, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones."

The eclectic nature of Ska Cubano may have confused world-music promoters and ska fanatics at first, but after some incendiary live shows, and critical acclaim for their albums, Ska Cubano are on a roll. Natty Bo's obsessively analogue recording approach gives both albums an authentic and energetic live flavour, and their penchant for snazzy suits and canes gives a touch of swinging Fifties dandyism to their pre-retro leanings. "The difficulty has been getting people to give us good gigs, but once we've got the gigs, the reaction is phenomenal," says Scott.

'¡Ay Caramba!' is out on Monday on Casinosounds. Ska Cubano play Big Day Out Festival at South Hill Park, Bracknell, tomorrow