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Guitarist’s new album fuses Cuban folk and avant-garde

Versatile musician plays everything from punk to jazz

SHARE Guitarist’s new album fuses Cuban folk and avant-garde

NEW YORK — Guitarist Marc Ribot is a musician's musician, capable of traveling in many directions and unafraid to explore extremes.

Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull and Tom Waits have used his passionate guitar playing on their albums and tours. His own projects range from Haitian classical to punk and avant-jazz.

Though disparate, his music is bound, he said, "by an energy that I got addicted to when I was very young and heard rock bands playing in small rooms, where everybody's sweating and pushing each other.

"That kind of intensity is what I look for."

A few years ago, Ribot found it in Cuban music, particularly the work of blind bandleader and tres player Arsenio Rodriguez, whose career spanned several decades beginning in the 1920s.

"He was the Jimi Hendrix of his time and place, really pushing the envelope on what it was possible to play, and that interested me right away," said Ribot, 46, who decided to reinterpret some of the music.

Rodriguez's band generally included backup singers, large percussion section, full horn section, piano and tres (a small double-stringed variant of the guitar). Ribot had only a handful of musicians to work with, so first he learned the songs as guitar solos.

"If the other musicians screwed them up," he explained, "I'd still be playing something. I could keep it going all by myself."

Fortunately, he found four equally proficient musicians in keyboardist Anthony Coleman, bassist Brad Jones, percussionist E.J. Rodriguez and drummer Robert J. Rodriguez. During a recent performance at the Knitting Factory, Los Cubanos Postizos played with the energy of a punk rock band and the soul of an original Cuban son band.

That spirit is captured on the new album "MUY DIVERTIDO! (Very Entertaining!)" (Atlantic), a mixture of original material and interpretations of old Cuban songs. Like its predecessor, "MUY DIVERTIDO!" successfully fuses the sound of New York City's avant-garde scene, of which Ribot is a leading light, with the austerity of Cuban folk music.

The quirky percussion and muted melodies of "Obsession" are reminiscent of Ribot's earlier work with the enigmatic crooner Waits, while "Baile Baile Baile" draws from his more discordant inclinations. On "Dame Un Cachito Pa'Huele," the band reinvents Rodriguez's 1940s hit, doing for the original what Carlos Santana did for the Tito Puente-penned classic "Oye Como Va."

With the recent popularity of all things Latin, it's not surprising that Los Cubanos Postizos is Ribot's most successful solo project to date. Although he welcomes the attention, "it upsets me that we seem to have wound up being trendy more than it upsets anyone else. Basically, we did the first record because it was fun, and we did the second record because it was still fun."

Though not a household name, Ribot does carry clout in the music business, especially within New York City's downtown music scene.

Whenever he wants to try out a new project, he books a gig somewhere and uses one of the city's performance venues as his rehearsal space. The results vary depending on his collaborator.

Whether it's making discordant atonal squawks with noise adventurer Mike Patton, plucking lush nylon-stringed melodies with Peruvian-singer Susana Baca, or creating hip-shaking Cuban rhythms with his band, Ribot consistently leaves his unique mark.

His musical training began at an early age with family friend Frantz Casseus, the Haitian classical composer and guitarist. Casseus played often at the Ribot family home in suburban New Jersey.

"I've heard him playing since I was 6 years old," he said.

Though he formally studied with Casseus for three years, "It's not like I was some budding 11-year-old classical guitar virtuoso," Ribot said. "All I wanted to do was play in a garage rock band."