It is said that in ancient times there was a curandera who
collected all the earths herbs with the most healing properties and with her magic
turned them into one good herb that she later planted to grow as wild weeds.
If there was such an alchemist who could do that with music today,
itd be songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist bandleader Andres Levin. And
his magic herb is Yerba Buena: a blend of African-rooted Latin music (Cuban rumba,
Colombian cumbia, Pan-Caribbean solca, and Nuyorican boogaloo) with hip-hop, Motown soul,
Nigerian Afrobeat and a dash of Middle Eastern themes played by an international crew of
star musicians that represent the new sounds of the New York city streets.
Administered aurally, Yerba Buenas intensely percussive and
infectious beats will lift you and make you dance. No self-respecting musical Botánica
should go without a pouch of homegrown Yerba Buena stocked on its shelves.
Putting his magic touch on a variety of music since he arrived in
1989 from his native Venezuela to become a resident alien, Levin has written
and/or produced for artists ranging from Chaka Khan and Tina Turner to David Byrne and
Arto Lindsay. His most recent credits include DAngelo, Macy Gray, Dead Prez, and
MeShell Ndegeocello in his role as principal producer of the recent Red Hot +
Riot Fela Kuti tribute (Top 10 in NY Times, Time, Rolling Stone & more).
For the past few years, Levin has been in high demand throughout
the fast-growing world of Latin alternative music, producing albums for Aterciopelados,
Los Amigos Invisibles, El Gran Silencio, Ely Guerra, Carlinhos Brown, and Jorge Moreno, as
well as producing key tracks with Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte.
For Yerba Buena, Levin was introduced to key players by Cuban music
songwriter Ileana Padrón. Seizing a moment where the purveyors of the sounds from Lagos,
Havana and New York City were at his arms reach, he brought them to his funhouse,
The Fun Machine Studios in Manhattan, to create a distinct and innovative urban Latino
sound only hinted at before by like-minded groups such as El Gran Silencio, Ozomatli and
Manu Chaos Radio Bemba Sound System.
Like some of the great big bands of Cuba (think Benny Moré or
Machito), Levin set up Yerba Buena as an on-going workshop open to collaborations in
studio and on stage with guest stars. The result is a dazzling and ravaging live show and
a studio recording that has a character all its own.
Havanas diva-in-waiting Xiomara Laugart (Did someone say a
new Celia Cruz?), percussions maestro/Yoruban chanter Pedrito Martinez and distinctive
singer El Chino take turns leading their audiences into frenzied dancing. Singer CuCu
Diamantes along with the brilliant St. Thomas-born jazz saxophonist Ron Blake and young
trumpeter Rashawn Ross complete the core group, infusing their stylistic blasts to the
volatile mix of true Nueva York.I like to take the live vibe back to the studio, and
continue adding to the foundations weve already laid down, says Dré, as his
American friends call him. Levin co-wrote all the songs, applying his signature
layered-style of production. All my friends know Im a technology beat
geek, he says. Producing on a computer, I put together alien rhythm sections
of players that reside in different continents, or I get artists who wouldnt
normally record together in one place. Thats the Fun Machine way.
For Yerbas debut album,
President Alien (Razor & Tie/Fun Machine), Levin invited friends hes been
collaborating with for years from various musical scenes: singer/bassist MeShell
Ndegeocello, Brazilian singer/songwriter/percussionist Carlinhos Brown, downtown guitarist
Marc Ribot, keyboardist Money Mark, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Dead Prez rapper Sticman,
bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and drummers Horacio El Negro Hernández and
Terreon Tank Gully, among many others.
A lot of the songs are pieced together like a puzzle with
different artists that came through. Its not like a traditional song; they were
written as blocks of melodies and grooves. Each section is interchangeable, says
Dré, who is also debuting his label Fun Machine Records with the album. But one
things for sure I try to create an environment where everyones personality
comes out. Everyones put into a stylistic vortex, going into one end and coming out
the other with the Yerba sound.
With so many possibilities, both music fans and critics quickly
embraced the group after taking just one sonic dose at one of its contagious live shows.
Added to the William Morris Agency's prestigious roster in early 2002, the group went on
to play at multiple summer festivals such as Central Park Summerstage, The Hollywood Bowl,
The Newport Jazz Festival and Montreals Nuits DAfrique. Even The Dave Matthews
Band got hooked immediately, inviting them to open at several arena dates.
After attending one of their earliest showcases in New York, Ben
Ratliff of The New York Times hailed Yerba Buena as one of New Yorks best new
dance bands, mixing up the Latin boogaloo of the 60s, Cuban religious music, some
American soul and Fela-like Afrobeat. Its a history of the transmission of Yoruban
culture in a nutshell, and its a good party.
President Alien plays with the lyrical quality of the official
status of permanent residents in the United States, whats scrolled across every
legal immigrants Green Card, Resident Alien. It also captures
Levins vision perfectly, having fun with the notion of a global tribe gathering in
the music capital of the world.
Its really just all about one nation under a
drum, he says.
Yerba Buenas core band members are:
Andres Levin Guitar, Electronics, MD
Xiomara Laugart - Vocals
Pedrito Martinez Percussion, Vocals
CuCu Diamantes - Vocals
El Chino Rhymes, Vocals
Ron Blake Saxophone, Flute, Vocals
Rashawn Ross Trumpet, Rhymes, Vocals
Sebastian Steinberg - Bass
Yerba Buena Links: