Marc Ribot on collaborating with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and recording with Tom Waits
Los Lobos singer and guitarist David Hidalgo clearly knows his away around Latin music, and so does guitarist Marc Ribot, who's played with a ton of folks over the years, from Tom Waits and Elvis Costello to John Zorn and the Lounge Lizards. When the two bring their Border Music duo to the L2 Arts and Culture Center tomorrow night, Ribot says, they'll be delving into some Los Lobos music, as well as material from his two albums with Los Cubanos Postizos. We spoke with Ribot about collaborating with Hidalgo, how he originally became interested in Latin and Cuban music, and how both of them played on the new Tom Waits record, Bad as Me.
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Westword: From what I understand, the initial inspiration for the project came when you were curating the Century of Song Festival in Germany two years ago, right?
Marc Ribot: Yeah, that's right.
Why did you initially want to collaborate with David Hidalgo?
I was curating the Century of Song project, and it was supposed to be American songs, so I wanted to define America in a broad way, since I was very interested in the songs of Cuba, Mexico and Spanish-language songs, as well. So I thought, you know, there were a number of singers I was interested in -- Paquita la del Barrio, for example - but she couldn't make it. I'd met David several times before that. We'd talked about getting together and doing some playing. I was and still am such a huge fan of his guitar playing and songwriting. I thought, "This is a big opportunity." So we did it.
When we did the thing in Germany, we rehearsed all our tunes as a band, and that was fun. We were there for about five or six days. We did two performances and a whole lot of rehearsals. That was really fun. But the best part was [that] every night they would take us out to this really good restaurant, and everybody would sit around all night drinking, and we would bring our guitars. By the end of the night, there was usually some music happening. We said, "Man, we should do this for people other than ourselves and the -- how can I say it? -- not entirely willing people in that restaurant, and the captive audience of the other diners." Although usually, by that point, there weren't many people left.
I think you've said before that, during the festival, you were trying to figure out what the best song of the last hundred years was.
Yeah, that was the assignment.
What was that song?
It wasn't about one song. What I did learn -- and this is how we came up with the Border Music title -- is that not all good music is song. What I realize is that there are certain good pieces of music that are very specific to a musician that can be a great performance or even a religious experience when done live, but the songs don't necessarily stand on their own two feet.
I realized that the test of what a great song is is whether it can stand translation. In other words, you can have a song like Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," which he covered and Aaron Neville sang. A lot of people have covered that tune coming from a lot of different places. When I say "translated," I don't only mean between languages, but translated between times and between places and between situations.
They say that poetry is what is lost in translation, but I think that songness is what withstands translation. I don't exactly know how that works out. But I realize that the corrido is a perfect metaphor, because the corrido is all about border crossing. It's not only an example of songness, but it's kind of a cookbook for songness.
Songness is about -- covering songs is like smuggling something across the border. You smuggle it across the border between you and the person who originally wrote it. And I don't mean just a border of nations, but it can it be a border of genders, a border of race, of class, of time, you know?
It's the border that was being talked about in Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," where the guy's ambition is to write Don Quixote word for word. But the idea was that he wouldn't be copying at all; he'd be writing a new book, because every word would mean something different in the twentieth century than in Cervantes's time. So that's what I'm talking about.
What is it about David's guitar playing that you dig?
Well, he's just a great guitar player. I notice when I listen back to some tapes of the gigs, everything that he plays sounds like a track on a record. He has this very masterful way of...he just lays it down. Also, he has access to a whole lot of songs and song traditions that interest me. I'm kind of interested in the corrido and certain other forms that he knows a lot about.
Did you originally get into that kind of stuff when you moved to the Lower East Side?
I've been accused of eclecticism and all this.... When I moved to the Lower East Side, and when I was living in New York, in general, at that time, the Mexican population in the Lower East Side wasn't that huge. There was a Puerto Rican presence in the Lower East Side. Now, Dominicans own a lot of the bodegas on the Lower East Side, so you hear a lot of bachata and Dominican music, which is cool, but at the time, you could hear a lot of good salsa, and boogaloo was also very popular.
Later on, I did some gigs with Joe Bataan. I really dig Willie Colón and that stuff because boogaloo is kind of a mix of R&B and salsa. That was something that I heard a lot of and dug. You would hear it whether you went out to hear it or not. It was just playing on people's radios and in the back yard.
You've talked about some Cuban influence seeping into your playing on Tom Waits's Rain Dogs.
There's a big influence in terms of guitar styles that came through -- I would say less through Cuba than through Mexico. I think that there were some parallel developments. A lot of these influences you can hear in rock and roll; they fed into the creation of rock and roll. Very famously, "Louie Louie" is some kind of cha cha. I've heard different opinions on whether it's actually Haitian or Cuban in origin.
That groove didn't come from nowhere. It came from a specific place. In a lot of early rock and roll, you hear a bolero bass line. That just seems like it's part of rock and roll. But again, that came from somewhere, too. It ain't a polka. Although strangely enough polka has a lot to say with North Mexican music like banda and all that stuff. Polka has a big influence on that. A lot of this fed into the roots of rock and roll.
What prompted you to explore the music of Arsenio Rodriguez with Cubanos Postizos?
It's funny because I was living in New York; I had a certain amount exposure to the music, but I didn't know anything about it, really. It was just this stuff I heard. It was all around, but I was basically ignorant of it. Starting the in early '90s, when the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of recorded material suddenly became available of Cuban recordings, including some classic ones.
So I started listening to Arsenio Rodriguez and some other people because the recordings were newly available. I was amazed. I thought, "Wow, this guy is like Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington rolled into one." And I think that would not be overstating his importance in Latin music. I mean, he's credited for really inventing son. He's one of the first to really understand and compose using Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Are you guys going to be playing some Postizos material?
Yeah. We kind of split it up. We'll be doing some of David's stuff, some Los Lobos stuff, some Postizos stuff and a bunch of songs that we just like. I do my versions of a couple of different things. My version of a Paquita la del Barrio tune "Rata de Dos Patas" -- rat with two legs. The way we do stuff, I like to draw the connections: If you heard a Paquita la del Barrio track, you wouldn't right away think of her as being punk-rock, but, man, the sentiments of those tunes are more punk-rock than the Dead Kennedys. It's, like, really over the top.
Do you guys have any plans to record?
You know, we've talked about it. If you know any record moguls, send them our way.
Both you and David played on Tom Waits's last record, Bad as Me. How was that experience?
Working with Waits is always a great experience. Fans know him as a singer-songwriter, but when you work with him, you know him also as a producer, and he's a very imaginative, open-minded producer. Well, he's open-minded, but it's toward new ideas. At the same time, he's very demanding and knows what he wants, in terms of energy.
He doesn't tell you what to play, but if it's going to push it in a soulful direction, he'll say, "Yeah, that's the thing." If it's not, he'll say, "Try something else." I like to work in that kind of situation. It's not somebody laying out, "Play this note, then this note, or play fast." It's like, "How can you play into this vibe?" That's how I like it. I wasn't actually in the same room [as David] on that recording, unfortunately. I'm sure that would have been an entertaining social event. But due to the wonders of modern technology, we all wound up on the same record.