By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Andrés Levin was already a Latin alternative music star when he joined Yerba Buena in 2001. Musicians clamored for the Venezuelan native to produce their records after he supervised a series of lush, intricate sex-funk recordings for fellow countrymen Los Amigos Invisibles. But a session with cool, tall, light-skinned Cucu Diamantes; Xiomara Laugart, a stunning Cuban beauty with an Afro the size of the Congo; a bearded white boy named El Chino (the Chinaman); and some other sax players, drummers and bassists—resulting in frenetic urban salsa with a funk foundation, jazz undertones and Afrobeat aspirations, as well as lyrics in Spanish, English and Yoruba—persuaded Levin to go the way of similar producer-artists Kanye West and the Neptunes.
"When the musicians are of that magnitude, you have to do the project," says Levin, talking via cell phone from a Manhattan restaurant, where a waitress is trying to gyp him on his morning coffee. "Besides, it's good for your health to be partly in the studio and partly touring on the bus."
Under Levin's guidance, Yerba Buena has become a band that's both overexposed and Latin music's best-kept secret. Most of Middle America heard their 2003 salsa-rap single, "Guajira (I Love U 2 Much)," on the soundtrack for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (and in Pepsi commercials), but few people know Yerba Buena for anything else. The septet remains mostly unknown, relegated to small-ish concert venues (like the Galaxy Concert Theater, where they play Wednesday—a graduation from their 2003 show at the Coach House) and is noticeably absent from SoCal's radio playlists.
It's partly Levin's fault. He strikes an imposing pose: tall, usually with bushy sideburns and monstrous sunglasses that make him look like a Latino Isaac Hayes. But his able guitar—which glides from harsh metal to metronomic salsa chords to flamenco flourishes—guides listeners through the Yerba Buena sound, a kind of jazz-soaked, sweaty, never-ending fusion style not heard in Latino U.S.A. since the Nuyorican tropical music scene of the 1970s. In other words: a guaranteed radio blackout.
Yerba Buena's two albums, President Alien and the recently released Island Life, switch from romance to heartbreak to hilarious/sensuous double-entendres about burritos on each track. But the albums are a mere tease; concerts are where Yerba Buena becomes a hand job for the soul, with Laugart and Diamantes trading off coy, husky vocals and El Chino leaping and growling around like a freed Russian circus bear.
Levin also introduces the most enjoyable bits of tropical political intrigue since Rubén Blades. He makes a case for bilingual education on the sultry boogaloo "Bilingual Girl" and includes clips of speeches made by President George W. Bush, Fidel Castro and other politicians on "Bla Bla Bla," a slow-burning rhumba Levin describes as condemning "people who talk a lot and say nothing—musicians and politicians alike."
But Levin hesitates to label Yerba Buena as an explicitly political band: "It's impossible not to talk about the political crises we live in," Levin says, but the group focuses more on the "revolution of a world party. We invite all the cultures to share something very open and just dance."
"The radio will come, the fame will come, we'll critique what needs it," continues Levin. "But we're a group that wants concerts instead. The more euphoric the public is, the better it is for us and everyone."
YERBA BUENA PERFORMS WITH LOS PINGUOS AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATER, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600. WED., 8 P.M. $12.50. ALL AGES.