'Round about midnight, at the Yerba Buena concert, a strange, sweaty force grabs the room. Sweat flies, shrinking 'fros and frizzing curls, turning singer Xiomara Laugart's white gown translucent.
Try to divine the source of this force. Just try. Perhaps it's to be found in the rasta trance dance of another vocalist, El Chino, invoking the spirit of Bob Marley, swaying and leaning, and then stomping and spinning, chunky dreads swirling. Perhaps it's to be found in the religious Yoruba chants of Pedro "Pedrito" Martinez. He's pounding on los tambores, sunglasses glinting in the light, voice pitched high. Calling on the ancestors. Fever.
Resistance is futile. Dance you must, and dance you will.
Just as it's impossible to resist the ratcheting up of the rhythm, it's also futile to pin a label on this New York-based collective. But let's try, shall we? Afro-Cuban-salsa-hiphop-cumbia-merengue-son-Afrobeat-flamenco-Gypsy-reggaeton-rock layered over a driving funk bass line that takes its cues from Parliament Funkadelic.
The members of Yerba Buena flit with ease through three languages, rapping and singing in English, Spanish and the aforementioned Nigerian language Yoruba, serving up a little tasteful raunch with the partying and the politics. (About the partying: Translated loosely, the band's name means "Good Weed." About the politics: Sampling President Bush malapropisms in English and Spanish in the song "Bla, Bla, Bla.") The result is a strangely harmonious melding. They call themselves urban tropical, and that sounds about right.
With the Grammy-nominated (for best Latin alternative album) Yerba Buena -- the brainchild of acclaimed 35-year-old producer Andres Levin, who has worked with artists ranging from Diana Ross to David Byrne to Aterciopelados -- all are invited to the party, as long as they're hip to the Spanglish aesthetic. In lesser hands, such an egalitarian approach could make for musical chaos. But Yerba Buena manages never to sound derivative.
Perhaps this is because the hyperactive hybridization reflects Yerba Buena's own racial and ethnic mix: Its core group -- the number frequently expands and contracts -- comprises a Venezuelan Jew (that's producer Levin, who also plays in the band), four Cubans of various racial persuasions (including the aforementioned El Chino, of Chinese-Cuban extraction), an African American drummer, a European American bass player and Bahamian and African American horn players.
In this era of corporate radio, bland prefab hits and made-for-MTV marketing, it is Latin music that is often leading the way in innovation. Witness the explosive crossover appeal of reggaeton, with its rap en espanol, pan-Latino universality. Or Puerto Rican merengue queen Olga Tanon dueting with Egyptian rapper Hakim. Or Shakira's ease with English, Spanish and French, melding Middle Eastern themes with cumbia and grinding rock.
Is this the direction music is headed?
"I think we're a little bit ahead of our time," Levin says before taking to the stage. "The needle's just starting to point in our direction."
At the Black Cat on a recent Saturday night, the needle is pointing mainly to the dance floor.
Here, it's hotter'n Havana, with gringas shaking it up next to bilingual Latinas, while older African American women twirl their skirts in their hands, chanting the Yoruba lyrics word for word, middle-aged white yuppies raise their fists in the air and Asian fashionistas stand around looking cool. Onstage, Levin noodles coolly on the guitar, shades sliding way down his nose, murmuring sly asides into the mike. He's an equal-opportunity lech, tossing out double-entendres, extolling the virtues of "gringas" in one song and, in the next, waxing lyrical about the joys of "Bilingual Girls" because "two tongues are better than one."
This statement speaks to the essence of the current "Island Life," a concept album in which a fusion of cultures come together on the island -- the island being Manhattan. It's a big wet kiss to all things Spanglish, where languages and cultures mix and match, sometimes in the same sentence. It reflects the immigrants' sense of displacement even as it embraces an exuberantly nationless outlook. One song declares: "I am a citizen of the world."
"Of all my friends, I never really had that, 'Oh, I need to go back to my roots,' " Levin says. "Everyone I grew up with in Venezuela had a longing to go back to their motherland. But I'm always moving forward."
In other words, it's all about the hyphen.
And about New York.
"New York pushes you to be open," says Yerba Buena co-founder and singer Ileana "CuCu Diamantes" Padron. "Everyone in the band has a really strong personality. We're a collective: The more people, the better. It's more interesting. More flavors, more colors. We're like the United Nations of music. We're the good globalization."
Making guest appearances on "Island Life" are Indian-American actor Ajay Naidu, playing tour guide, and actor John Leguizamo, who plays the suitor on "Sugar Daddy," urging "Mami, Mami . . . come on, let me take you around the world, I've got a platinum Metro card." Also along are the Afro-French duo Les Nubians, flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala," Cuban rappers the Orishas, American rappers Dead Prez, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma (a fixture in Pedro Almodovar movies) and the Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello and bugalu pioneer Joe Bataan, the originator of New York Latin Soul.
The Afro-Cuban influence of the band's debut album, "President Alien," is still there, but now it's fired up with Balkan Gypsy music, Nigerian Afrobeat and the rhythms of Spanish flamenco, a musical orgy that began for Levin when he spent time in Madrid, producing the Orishas' latest album.
Critics are heaping on the praise. The Wall Street Journal describes "Island Life" as a "sizzling jam session" while the BBC calls it "perfect summertime listening." Yerba Buena has always enjoyed the love of music geeks, even while they were knocking on doors, begging for a record deal. It took a good year and a half of touring before they found a home at Razor & Tie, an indie label not known for its Latino acts. They were a little too Latin for mainstream pop labels and a little too out there for the Latin labels.
While Yerba Buena's concerts routinely pack the house, they're not blowing up the charts. According to Nielsen Soundscan, "President Alien," released in 2003, sold only 29,000 records. Compare that with Ibrahim Ferrer, the singer with the Buena Vista Social Club, whose solo album sold 84,000. (Of course it helps to have the cachet of the Buena Vista Social Club.)
"I think even if we had a No. 1 record on the album, we wouldn't get airplay," says Levin. "Honestly, I would love for it to happen, but my expectations are more on the tour -- and word of mouth."
The band formed back in 2001, when Levin and Padron, who are married, started talking about what if. He had studied at Juilliard and the Berklee School of Music but really began taking off under the tutelage of uber-producer Nile Rodgers, of the '70s group Chic. Soon Levin was producing the likes of Tina Turner and jamming in studio sessions with the B-52s. (The Venezuelan-born Levin didn't work with Spanish-language acts until David Byrne turned him on to South American acts Los Amigos Invisibles and ended up working with Aterciopelados and Gran Silencio.)
Padron was a Cuban-born art-history buff who'd studied art restoration in Rome and was working at the Blue Note record label, putting together Cuban music compilations.
Levin was the ultimate studio guy, a guitar player more at home fiddling with the sliders on a soundboard than pushing himself front and center. Padron had only dabbled in professional singing before, but figured, why not?
But first, they had to find a band.
Back home in Cuba, Laugart had a thriving solo career of her own, singing romantic bolero music. She hadn't quite hit the big time but was enjoying a cult following when she was arrested onstage for being a dissident and tossed briefly into prison, an experience that Laugart will only say was "very scary." She needed to get out of Cuba. Padron, her friend, brought her to the States and supported her out of her own pocket. She had such a voice, such talent -- did it matter that she'd never sung Cuban dance music?
Other band members were plucked from here and there. And they each brought something a little different to the mix: El Chino, a fascination with reggae and Rastafarianism; Martinez, percussion and the Yoruba chants he'd learned as a kid back home in Havana. And Steinberg?
"They call me El Tren" -- the train, he says. "Because I get on those rails and keep on playing."
They're tucked into the nooks and crannies of their tour bus, parked behind the Black Cat, noshing on vegan grub and cracking wise about their beginnings.
In five years, says Laugart, "We'll be making more music and making even more people dance."
"And giving more opportunities to more artists," El Chino says, fingering his dreads. "The bigger, the better."
"It's a dance party, man," Levin says. "It's a happening."