Ska Cubano: A Parallel Musical Universe Ska Cubano's music merges Jamaican ska and Cuban mambo and son. Born from a "what-if" that erases the 1959 Cuban revolution, the music reimagines musical history.
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Ska Cubano: A Parallel Musical Universe

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Ska Cubano: A Parallel Musical Universe

Ska Cubano: A Parallel Musical Universe

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In a world full of music, cross-pollination fosters fresh sounds. Now a singer from London has teemed up with a counterpart from Santiago de Cuba to form Ska Cubano. Their CD together is called Ay Caramba.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: That's Cuban singer Beny Billy backed by the ska rhythms and musical arrangements of U.K. singer and DJ Natty Bo, who joins us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATTY BO (Singer/DJ): Hi.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about how Jamaican ska, which is the precursor to reggae, met up with the Cuban mambo and soam(ph) to form this music.

Mr. BO: Well, ska started around the early '60s. The revolution in Cuba happened a little while before that, in 1959. So we - we found that there was no ska in Cuba, that had been heard in Cuba. So the idea of marrying ska with Cuban music seemed quite appealing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BO: Ska originally started - had an influence from New Orleans rhythm and blues and swing jazz and mento and calypso from the Caribbean. And it borrowed from a lot of film scores and even took on some Cuban music itself. But the other way around, Cuba never really got to hear ska.

HANSEN: And so Ska Cubano is sort of this imagined melding of the cultures. Was this some - Peter Scott's idea? He's the projector director on this one.

Mr. BO: Yeah. I met up with Peter Scott and he'd seen me performing with my band Top Cats and DJ-ing around. And he had the idea to make this Cuban ska band, having been in Cuba a fair bit himself.

HANSEN: What was your first trip to Cuba like with Peter Scott?

Mr. BO: Oh, it was fantastic. I went to Oriente Santiago de Cuba and it was - it was like going back to - like a Kodak photograph of your past or something like that. I felt really at home there, like I'd been there before. I've been back - I've been going backs and forwards there for about five years.

HANSEN: Tell us about Beny Billy. How'd you hook up with him?

Mr. BO: In Santiago de Cuba I'd been working with some bands, making ska music, and I was looking for another singer to sing Cuban sonwantuna(ph), and I heard Beny Billy is a café there in Santiago de Cuba. And he busks around the street in Santiago de Cuba. He likes to dance. He does magic tricks. Many people that have visited Cuba remember him. He is hard to forget.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BO: He was fantastic. And he sounded like my favorite Cuban singer, Benny More. In fact, he says he's the living incarnation of Benny More.

HANSEN: So Benny More, who was the 1950s Cuban singer, had a certain sound that Beny Billy is able, you know, to reproduce. Why is that sound so important for you and Peter Scott when you were putting together Ska Cubano?

Mr. BO: Personally for me, it's because I found that he was one of the best singers of - in Cuba, Benny More. I love swing music too and he's like the Cuban Cab Calloway.

HANSEN: You're the lead singer though on many of the tracks on Ay Caramba.

Mr. BO: Yeah. Yeah.

HANSEN: And you know, you have this hit that I've heard since I was a kid. It was a lounge hit, it's kind of Tin Pan Alley, Istanbul Not Constantinople.

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN: How'd you..

Mr. BO: Except it's not, actually, it's completely different lyrics.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. BO: We took the rhythm of it and I wrote original lyrics because it - I wrote lyrics that applied to something that was more current. In the lyrics I described approaching the gates of Istanbul, representing the gateway between East and West. That was about taking the courage to go through that gate to take on new cultures, basically.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BO: (Singing) Long time gone 'nuff roads we a travel. Let me concentrate these puzzles unravel. Not for dance with death but look to the future for reach the gates of Istanbul.

HANSEN: Did the tune lend itself to being, you know, made into a ska tune?

Mr. BO: Yeah. When I heard the original song and then I hear a cubmia version already from Columbia, so that - the cumbia is very similar to ska in it's rhythm. They have the same like - in ska you got (makes rhythm sound) - so they have a similar rhythm, like ska rhythm.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BO: (Singing) Now the crescent moon and the stars that reach beyond whisper to us secrets I can only find in Istanbul.

HANSEN: Do you know who Raymond Scott is?

Mr. BO: Raymond Scott?

HANSEN: He did some old cartoon soundtracks. Because there's an instrumental on this CD...

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN: ...called Chispa Tren.

Mr. BO: Yeah, I put that together, and I tend to go towards cartooning sounding brass. It's like we have that fun element. And we - I always love to keep that fun element.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Natty Bo is your stage name, but you're..

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN:'re given name is Nathan Lerner.

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN: And you grew up in South London. How were you introduced to ska? How'd you get interested in it?

Mr. BO: Well, the first music I heard was stuff like Leadbelly and Muddy Waters and rock and roll, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and then Ray Charles and stuff like that. And swing I heard a bit of, you know, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie. Reggae I heard very young as well. And then before I was a teenager I discovered ska. I mean a lot of Jamaicans in London, especially I was actually born in Hackney in the East End of London. So that makes me a Cockney. Isn't it. And so as I was surrounded by a lot of different nationalities in Hackney. It's a very - it's an area of Greek, Jewish, Jamaican area, and I found some 45s of ska and then started collecting loads of it. And I loved it because it had the blues, rhythm and blues, inside the ska already.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BO: (Singing) If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns it was you, Jezebel. It was you.

HANSEN: I haven't Jezebel in a long time.

Mr. BO: Yeah, I love it. I first heard it, the version by Frankie Lane.


Mr. BO: And the only song I knew by Frankie Lane was Rawhide. And then I heard Jezebel and I thought, wow, that is a heavy tune.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BO: (Singing) If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise, deceiving me, grieving me, leaving me blue, Jezebel, it was you. If ever the devil's plan was made to torment man, it was you, Jezebel, it was you.

HANSEN: You're finishing up a tour of the West Coast here in the United States. You're playing tonight in San Francisco, but Beny Billy isn't with you.

Mr. BO: No. Beny couldn't get a visa to come here, unfortunately. And it's been really hard. Also now, right now, three members of our band have been waiting - been living in the airport in London waiting for a visa. And it looks like they haven't got a visa yet. It's frightening, really, because, you know, that's - they're with us and it's their livelihood and we're missing them. We worked with some musicians from Portland and they were great. They kicked it and it was wicked, but we can't rely on that every night. So it's a really hard situation at the moment with the visas.

HANSEN: Yeah. You will have to round up some musicians in San Francisco.

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN: Oy. The crowds are bound to be disappointed that Beny Billy isn't there.

HANSEN: Well, they haven't been disappointed. I mean yesterday we played a gig and we smashed it. Everyone we go we smash it. We're a wicked band. With Beny Billy it's better, but we can still smash it.

HANSEN: One last question. You used to perform in the circus.

Mr. BO: Yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. What - what was it exactly that you did?

Mr. BO: I was a clown.

HANSEN: Ah. Juggling or...

Mr. BO: No. No I'm allergic to juggling. Clown.

HANSEN: So do those skills come in handy when you're onstage with this wicked band?

Mr. BO: Yeah of course, yeah, because that's part of me. If you come and see me I dance crazy, I dance wild and get the audience dancing too. I don't allow people to sit down in our gigs, you know.

HANSEN: Natty Bo from Ska Cubano. Their new CD is called Ay Caramba and they finish up a west coast tour tonight playing at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. Natty, thanks a lot for your time.

Mr. BO: Thank you.

HANSEN: There's more music from Ska Cubano on our website

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR's Weekend Edition.

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