"On stage, I’m The Cuban Cowboy, a superhero of exile and degeneracy!” exclaims singer and songwriter Jorge Navarro. Spitfire Spanglish blazing, Navarro sends the perfect American icon colliding with a whole family’s worth of émigré tension, exile, tenderness and lust. “I turn on the accent, I come out of it; switching back and forth. ‘Is it real; is it parody?’ It takes people a minute to decide.”
But The Cuban Cowboys are no joke. Riding in on churning post-punk distortion and quicksilver Latin percussion, Navarro and posse turn sordid tales and fantastic foibles into serious rock Cubano on Diablo Mambo. And with devilish glee, Navarro channels misguided love gurus from the streets of Havana, horny window gazers in Brooklyn, and sings of lessons learned from living life in between two cultures and languages.
“There’s a ferocity and vibe to what we do that’s missing in milquetoast, or more mainstream Latin music,” Navarro reflects, explaining his hybrid approach. “As a first generation Cuban-American, I want to rock it. There’s something in rock and punk that’s just as hypnotic as the rhythms in Cuban music.
Navarro knows a lot about both. He grew up in Florida, in a family where nostalgia and bitter exile permeated everything. He recalls being too white-looking to be accepted as Latino, but too Cuban to feel completely Americano. Cuba loomed large in the family imagination, an almost mythical place inhabited by larger-than-life characters. “In many ways, the music is my way of making peace and meaning with my upbringing, as a son of Cuban exiles who, by the age of nine, had a thing for cowboy boots and Kiss.”
Men like Navarro’s grandfather, a driving force behind many of The Cuban Cowboy’s tales. He was a bookie-turned-presidential advisor—“a kind of Rahm Emmanuel,” Navarro notes—in pre-Castro Cuba, where shady dealings and official business sometimes overlapped. Navarro’s father was thrown into prison during the Cuban Revolution and only released when Navarro’s grandfather agreed to teach Che Guevara about the Cuban banking system. He, along with other exiles, went on to work secretly with the U.S. government, earning the nickname “Cuban Cowboys” from their C.I.A. colleagues.
“I feel like there’s this twisted sense of loyalty to my family and upbringing,” Navarro muses. “The stories were so powerful. My dad, granddad, mom–all my relatives and their Cuban neighbors–they all had a certain way of talking about Cuba and exile.”
Their stories and voices are often rough, edgy, darkly funny, and rich with ambivalence. Witness "Señor Balaban," about his granddad's acquaintance, a street-corner Don Juan in Havana who acted as an impromptu relationship guru, dispensing somewhat dubious advice about how to seduce women. On the song, Navarro connects this infamous figure with his granddad and dad’s encouragement of the teenage Jorge to lose his virginity to a woman of the night.
Or take "Cojones," when his grandfather, wielding a knife, demanded that 8 year-old Jorge never again hit his sister or risk losing his balls, Navarro had a powerful response. “I said, ‘If that’s true why did your son hit my mom?’ He let go of my throat. He said that was different and walked out. With machismo, there’s a dark side that belies so-called ‘Latin Lover’ mythology.”
There's a sweeter, sultrier side to The Cuban Cowboy’s world, too. "La Ventana" melts in a gravelly doowop swoon over the hot chick in the loft across the way (based on the true story of several Williamsburg loft-dwelling exhibitionists Navarro encountered).
"Liberace Afternoon" tells of the endearing annoyance of his piano-practicing grandma who played an instrument Navarro’s mother scrimped and saved for after coming to the U.S. A former teacher in Cuba, his grandmother played piano each afternoon for hours at a time. Much to the young Jorge's irritation, who was known to shoot off bottle rockets in the house to try to get her to stop, though now he credits her with inadvertently giving him a musical foundation.
Navarro built on this foundation at a Catholic seminary in Upstate New York, where he was studying for the priesthood and where he picked up the bass. He began to play the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Church-approved hits by a group called the St. Louis Jesuits.
After reconsidering his religious vocation, Jorge wound up in college and in the Gainesville, FL rock scene, where he played in an improv/art rock band that began to make a name for itself. “We were adopted by River Phoenix,” Navarro grins (and he watched Joaquin Phoenix grow up from little brother to scruffy actor). Imbued with post-punk aesthetics, he got back into his heritage and eventually started writing songs as The Cuban Cowboy as part of his graduate studies in bilingual education.
I started writing songs in Spanish and English, to present a positive image of bilingualism, for teachers preparing to work with Latino kids.” Navarro recalls. “I melded the two for a while, and that’s when I hit on The Cuban Cowboy, an American icon, singing in Spanglish, with rock and Cuban elements. And it just took off from there. I moved to New York City, and started playing open-mics wherever I could. ‘I built it and they came’ so to speak, as a band came together.”
After developing a following in the New York City club scene, The Cuban Cowboys relocated to San Francisco in 2005. A post-SXSW record deal went south, so the band moved west. Two years on the Bay Area scene brought Navarro and TCC to the attention of producer Greg Landau (Susana Baca, Maldita Vecindad, Patato Valdez, Sambada).
For Diablo Mambo, Navarro drew on his rock experience while being taken much deeper into Cuban music territory by Landau. "The Pixies, one group that really inspired me, are often loud soft loud. Our soft is Latin, but Greg really brought an edge and groove to it.” Landau —who first went to Cuba while his father filmed a documentary about Castro—calls tracks like “Cojones” “Perez Prado meets the Ramones.” Landau suggested new sounds like calypso ( “Oh Celia”) and doo-wop balladry (“La Ventana”) to add to The Cuban Cowboy’s mix, and Navarro has relished the collaboration. “I wanted to let listeners know, right off the bat, that this here's a different sort of take on Cuban music and rock. I wanted to shatter expectations, or at least modify them from the beginning.”
Yet there’s something still very Cuban about The Cuban Cowboys’ music, something Navarro found when he finally got a chance to visit the island earlier this year. “What Greg did to our sound makes so much more sense now,” Navarro smiles. “It was a thrill to take my music to Cuba, to play it live with Cuban musicians on the street, or to pop it into the CD player at my relatives’ house. Everyone grooved to it, saying things like “Pero eso es musica Cubana!” I took that as a very good sign.”