Yerba Buena is a band that takes its rhythms from around the world – and the result is a heady brew, says Phil Meadley
If you want the soundtrack to the summer, then look no further than the explosive sound of the New York-based “world roots dance music” collective, Yerba Buena. The band’s producer and guitarist, Andres Levin, proffers that description, but it is a slightly ambiguous one.
They are ostensibly an Afro-Cuban band with a versatile party style that integrates all kinds of global rhythms, as well as hip-hop, rock, R&B and reggae. Not that Levin, the distinctively styled spokesman, enjoys finding ways of “defining” the band. “I let writers and publishers do that,” he says, when we catch up to discuss the band’s US success and their recent European release, Follow Me.
On the album’s cover is a bikini-clad woman with long, dark hair and headphones on, leading a donkey whose two panniers double as an archaic DJ turntable kit. The lady in question is the Cuban singer Ilena Padron, better known as CuCu Diamnates, also Levin’s wife, and co-founder of the band. “That’s me she’s leading; I’m actually the donkey from Shrek,” Levin says laughing in his silky, Barry Whiteesque tones.
The band’s name has a variety of meanings. It means “good weed/herb”, but is also the name for San Francisco given by Spanish settlers in the 18th century, due to the abundance of herb in the area. The herb in question is Satureja douglasii, used as a medicinal tea (also known as Oregon tea), and found in parts of the western and north-western United States as well as Canada, Alaska, and Mexico. It also refers to a type of mint tea found in Latin America – in particular, in Cuba where it’s used in foods to give it a distinctive flavour.
There’s also Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, which sits between San Francisco and Oakland, California. The island holds an annual music festival, which unsurprisingly the band has played at.
“The name really refers to the fact that we’re all from different parts of the world; a tea of flavours if you like,” Levin explains. “For example, on the track ‘El Burrito’ there’s a cumbia beat from Mexico, pedal steel guitar, Russian accordion, mariachi horns, Brazilian percussion, and guitarist Peret – the godfather of flamenco rumba. If you put together all the people who played on that record, you’d have 20 musicians.”
Levin handles the production side of the band himself, and in that regard he has an illustrious CV. Born in Venezuela to Argentinean parents, he moved permanently to the States in 1987, having spent some of his formative years in North Carolina with his mother. He moved to New York when he was 17, and soon started working in studios as well as studying at the Berkeley School of Music, and Juilliard.
The revered producer Nile Rodgers became his mentor: “When I came to New York I started assisting him, and a year later I had my name on nine albums,” Levin says. “I could’ve spent four years making coffee, but not with him. At the time I was also working in a hip-hop studio where the likes of Run-DMC were recording. It was hip-hop central. And with Nile it was a B-52 or Diana Ross session. I had the best of both worlds. To be surrounded by such great artists and session musicians was awesome.”
The first record he produced was Mica Paris’s Contribution, and soon he became one of New York’s most sought-after R&B producers, with the likes of Chaka Khan and Tina Turner clamouring for a slice of his magic. At the same time, he was immersing himself in what he terms “the underground electronic, noise stuff ”.
This included producing five albums with the great avant-garde musician Arto Lindsay and David Byrne. “I started shifting out of R&B back to Brazil and Latin Bands,” he says. He produced the Monterrey-based cumbia-rock fusionists El Gran Silencio and Colombian alternative rock band Aterciopelados. Parallel to that he was also getting involved in making records for the Red Hot Organisation, flying to Africa and Europe as part of the job.
The culmination of this was producing Red Hot &Riot in 2002, which reproduced the music of Fela Kuti with a variety of artists such as Jorge Ben Jor, Talib Kweli, D’Angelo, Femi Kuti, Macy Gray, Cheikh Lô, Manu Dibango, Tony Allen and Baaba Maal. “It was a big challenge for me to produce his music without really taking away the essence of it,” Levin says. “I tried to picture what type of record Fela would make if he was around today.”
His experiences led to the formation of Yerba Buena. “It was born from my need to mix all these urban and roots influences together. I met CuCu and she introduced me to the whole Cuban community, and I introduced her to the jazz and world communities. And soon we started going on tour along with Pedro Martinez, who’s the other main singer and percussionist of the band.”
Follow Me lifts tracks from the band’s debut 2003 album President Alien and its 2005 follow-up Island Life – a tribute to New York’s multicultural influences, and featuring samples of the late, lamented Celia Cruz and George W Bush, as well as spoken-word contributions from the likes of the Colombian-born Hollywood actor John Leguizamo, the “king of Latin R& B” Joe Bataan, and the imitated voice of Fidel Castro.
Levin says that it was difficult to choose 14 tracks (the 15th, “Gentleman”, is a live version of a Fela Kuti track) because of the other 12 or so that got left out. “The other stuff would also make a great record, but it would be more like the African side of Yerba Buena. It’s much more experimental with the African rhythms.
“Each record was inspired by trips,” he continues. “For the first record, I’d just gone to Nigeria to do the Red Hot &Riot record, and was submerged in Fela. So it became a triangle of Nigerian, Cuban, and New York influences. The second has a lot of gypsy influence – hence the inclusion of Gogol Bordello – and also cumbia. In one way, the band is a diary of my travels and also CuCu’s experiences, but it’s also our shared experience of New York’s immigrant life, and all the other colours and sounds that you hear in the city.”
Levin recently moved into film scoring, and this autumn will see five feature films with his name attached. The biggest one of these appears to be El Cantante, the Hector Lavoe story featuring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Lavoe was one of the most celebrated Spanish singing stars in the Seventies, whose tumultuous life left him a penniless heroin addict, who eventually succumbed to Aids. It’s a tragic story, but Levin’s score is sure to catapult him to even greater heights.
‘Follow Me’ is out now on Wrasse Records