Havana wild weekend: The world's greatest Cuban surf rock band experiences a moment of thoughtfulness.
The Cuban Cowboys teach indie rock how to mambo
By Paul Davis
According to their band biography (or mythology, as they like to call it), Cuban Cowboys lead singer Hialeah Jorge was spawned from the beard of Fidel Castro in 1972 while the dictator sat in a bubble bath smoking a cigar and watching TV. For the self-declared "World's Greatest Cuban Surf Rock Band," such a bold statement is par for the course--the Cuban Cowboys are building a name on their singular merging of the serious and the profane, humor and absurdity, and the typically disparate musical genres of chugging and melodic indie rock, cock-blocking surf guitar, and traditional Cuban son and montuno.
Of course, these are provocative aims that are bound to offend some. Jorge fields complaints on a regular basis, from people offended either by some ingredient of their musical stew or by their irreverent yet thoughtful take on their Cuban-American heritage. "I take a lot of heat from some folks for mixing up the music--I get emails from people in Cuba asking me what I'm doing," Jorge says. "I get emails from Cuban-Americans pissed off that I've got Fidel Castro's visage on our website. It's like: Chill out, man, that's what the Cuban Cowboys are all about. That's part of our history; it's what happened--I'm not going to write out parts of history. I've got family members who died because of Fidel, but I'm not going to deny that part of our cultural background."
In reality, Jorge and the Cowboys came from somewhere much more prosaic--Gainesville, Fla. But for the Cuban Cowboys, which now splits its time and members between San Francisco and New York, the impact of the potent indie and punk scene in Gainesville (which gave birth to Against Me and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb) was an auspicious and formative influence on Jorge's cultural and musical evolution. "When I was a doctoral student at the University of Florida, I had been in Gainesville bands," Jorge explains. "There's a really strong music scene there. I was doing research in bilingual education and came up with this character of the Cuban cowboy in regards to someone who was seamless, who used two languages and cultures in his arts. I got so bound up in music and performing, I gave up my dissertation and moved to New York and started playing shows."
But while Jorge loves his Pixies and Tom Waits, he also became more deeply interested in his Cuban musical heritage. "The Buena Vista Social Club album was the first one that reconnected me to my Cuban background--all this music I'd heard at family get-togethers only made sense to me later in life, because it wasn't those cheese-core salsa albums, it was something dark. That album spoke to me and set me free in terms of mixing my Pixies indie-rock influences with my Cuban background."
After moving to New York, Jorge began to realize that the close-knit Gainesville post-hardcore scene had been limiting. "Compared to my small town of Gainesville, playing in New York and San Francisco and all around the world has been illuminating," he says. "People understand my lyrics--they speak Spanish and they get it. Outside of the small town, there's a savviness of music fans. It's so nice to look out at the audience and see the bobbing heads and recognition."
Though Jorge can name other touchstones in the Latin indie-rock stakes, there is no band that sounds quite like the Cuban Cowboys; with their potent mixture of styles and attitudes that conventional wisdom insists have no place together, the band has no peers that jump to mind. It's this confounding and irreverent spirit that defines the Cowboys for Jorge, even if their bio is more myth than fiction. Academics could likely trace the Cuban Cowboys' music to any number of primary sources, but the band prefers to credit Gram Parsons and Fidel Castro. "I like to make you think and have fun, it's infectious," Jorge says. "This band uses the culture as a beacon--we're a straight-up rock band, we don't use Latin instruments--but I wanted to give people an idea of where this came from. So it came from Fidel Castro's beard."
The Cuban Cowboys appear Thursday, March 1, at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 adv/$10 door; for more information, call 831.479.1854.
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