The Cuban Cowboys' new album, Diablo Mambo, doesn't hesitate to let you know what it is all about. Drop the digital needle on the first track and you learn all you need to know within the first 50 seconds: A Jimi Hendrix lick establishes the rock bona fides before the track morphs into a mambo section overlaid with a post-punk, art rock guitar pattern. The Hendrix lick then returns and signals the transition to driving punk guitars, but with a difference — the usual straight up-and-down thrash is blended with the sway of a Cuban son rhythm pattern. Two musical streams — rock and Latin music — are introduced, then blended, before the story of the song begins.
The opening track, "Cojones," relates an early lesson in which bandleader and songwriter Jorge Navarro navigates the contradictions of the code of machismo taught by his knife-wielding grandfather. Navarro's songs portray his family's memories of a mythical Cuba born out of the nostalgia of exile and his experiences as a first-generation Cuban American, immersed in American pop culture and drawn to cowboy boots and rock 'n' roll. These two themes establish the narrative poles for the songs on Diablo Mambo, and Navarro skillfully navigates this bi-cultural territory, spinning tales of romance, sex, politics, and family. The music plays an essential role in the effectiveness of the stories, weaving together various tributaries from the two main musical streams — classic rock, punk rock, doo-wop, post–punk, rockabilly, and son, mambo, calypso, and salsa.
Navarro's "Cuban Cowboy" persona, a "bi-lingual hero of delinquency," as he describes it, predates the formation of the band. While pursuing a doctorate in bilingual education, Navarro became frustrated with the predominant "English only" approach and worked on developing "an additive model of bilingualism." He "began writing songs in Spanish and English, to present a positive image of bilingualism, for use by teachers preparing to work with Latino kids." The Cuban Cowboy character soon emerged, singing in Spanglish and mixing rock and Cuban music. When Navarro became frustrated with the lack of response to his ideas in academia, the Cuban Cowboy accompanied him to New York City. Playing open-mic nights led to the formation of a band, a debut album (Cuban Candles) and a "fiasco of a record deal" that led Navarro to relocate from New York to San Francisco (chronicled in "The Check's in the Mail," on Diablo Mambo).
Serendipitously, back as a lone gunslinger, Navarro played a benefit for Friends of the San Francisco Public Library attended by local record producer Greg Landau (Susana Baca, Patato Valdez, SambaDa). Landau thought one song, "El Danzón De Noventa Millas" (on Diablo Mambo) might work in a documentary his father, filmmaker Saul Landau, was making, and asked Navarro to record guitar and vocal tracks for him. Next time they met, Landau had added tracks, rearranged the song's structure, tightened up the lyrics, and added some new hooks. He also had some suggestions for changes Navarro might make. It was the beginning of an old-style mentorship that is all but gone from the music industry. The pair began to work on new Cuban Cowboys material. Landau was a taskmaster, pushing Navarro to make every single song better; Navarro says his "approach to songwriting was irrevocably altered." The songs became tighter and the Cuban lyrical and musical elements more authentically Cuban. Landau also pushed to diversify the Cuban Cowboys' musical palette, particularly their Latin material, and give the sound more groove. Navarro responded by insisting that they preserve the punk elements and power chords. Their success in executing their musical vision is demonstrated in the opening track of Diablo Mambo, "Cojones." The Jimi Hendrix quote was added by Landau to introduce the mambo section and establish the tone of the song and the album — it's placed first not because it's the best song, but because it best exemplifies what the Cuban Cowboys are trying to do.
Lo-fi, irreverent, and upbeat, the sound of the Cuban Cowboys seems made for live performance. The album release party for Diablo Mambo on Dec. 3 is an opportunity to test that premise. When I spoke to Jorge Navarro, he was still reeling from the onslaught of attention — and CD orders — that followed a profile on NPR's Weekend Edition. By showtime, he should have recovered and restocked.