Ska Cubano

Ay Caramba!

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Ska Cubano excel at a style of music that never really existed until they invented it. What they've done is to take Jamaica's pre-reggae ska beat, mix it up with the intrinsically danceable Cuban son and mambo styles, sprinkle in some Colombian cumbia, and filter it all through that whimsical (although they are not jokesters by any means), mildly ironic sensibility that only Brits could muster. As bands such as Madness and Bad Manners did during the first British ska revival, so does Ska Cubano do now, only upping the ante with a couple more Caribbean flavors and executing it within an inch of perfection. The band revolves around the British producer Peter Scott and singer Natty Bo (of the U.K. ska band the Top Cats), who traveled to Cuba and recruited a singer calling himself Beny Billy (in honor of his idol, Cuban legend Beny Moré), but whose real name is Juan Manuel Villy. From there they fleshed the band out with both Cuban and British musicians and cut a self-titled debut album, which is now followed up with this equally charming and ceaselessly jaunty sequel. If anything, the debut was a bit tentative, as if Ska Cubano were still trying to test the waters and see how their particular fusion would fly. It was well-received, and on Ay Caramba! they take it to the next step. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," the 1953 Jimmy Kennedy-Nat Simon tune later covered by They Might Be Giants, is given an appropriately tongue-in-cheek reading, while tracks such as "Cumbia en Do Menor," "Mariano," and "Oye Compay Juan" match the blaring Cuban horns with ska's traditional rhythm seamlessly. Only the instrumental "Chispa Tren" and the double entendre '50s-style mento tune "Big Bamboo" are too frivolous to really work here. As for any perceived novelty value, while all of the tracks fit squarely within the band's chosen region, they occasionally step out just far enough to suggest that they are no more married to this formula than to anything else. Could get even more interesting next time.

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