How can you not like a song called "Liberace Afternoon," played with a Latin beat and sung in pitch-perfect Spanglish? It's from the new CD Diablo Mambo by the band The Cuban Cowboys, a group that mixes Cuban rhythms with rock and punk, and family stories of pre-Castro Havana with post-exile tensions. Guitarist Jorge Navarro is lead singer and songwriter for the band, and he says the song is based on his grandmother.
"She was a piano teacher and seamstress in Cuba, and when we came to the States, my mother was able to afford to buy her a used piano," he tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. "At the time, I found it the most annoying thing ever in my young life. I would do everything to get her to stop. I shot a bottle rocket at her, at my own grandmother. I was that kind of a child."
Though he may have been a handful in his early years, it was while Navarro was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest that he was drawn to a life of music. "I was in upstate New York, and I began to play bass at our school Masses," he says. "From there, it just kind of took off."
His Cuban heritage entered his music shortly after.
"I was working on a Ph.D. in bilingual education," Navarro says. "In fact, a year ago, I was still a candidate at the University of Florida. I was trying to find a way to prepare Anglo teachers for work with Latino students. Basically, I was in the process of getting back in touch with my culture and my first language, so I was very much into the music, having been a rock musician for a longer time than [I was] a Cubaphile. I ended up blending the two."
Looking back at his cultural heritage, Navarro says his family's history is heavily intertwined with the political history of Cuba.
"[My grandfather] worked for two presidential administrations, for the Machado and both Batista administrations. He was a bookie at first, arranging bets for government officials, and he was actually there when Che Guevara, during the early days of the revolution, was asked to run the Cuban banks," Navarro says. "So my grandfather ... informs a lot of my songs and all of my family tales. One of the hallmarks of exile is memory. And it's weird that up until this year, when I went to Cuba for the first time, all of my memories of Cuba were my family's. In some ways, my Cuba was 1958 Cuba."
When Navarro visited Cuba, he shared his music with family members. He told them it was rock and says he was surprised by their response.
"When I took the music to Cuba, meeting family members for the first time throughout the country, they were like, 'This is Cuban music. You told us it was rock,' " he says. "There's certain expectations when you hear 'Cowboys' and certain expectations when you hear 'Cuban,' and so I wanted to bring those two together."