It's there. It's always there. Sometimes in the lyrics. Sometimes in the guitar licks. Often in the voice of Jorge Navarro. "Cuba." The unmistakable connection to an island that has been a U.S. fixation since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. For Navarro, a first-generation Cuban-American who grew up in Miami (and now lives in San Francisco), Cuba is in his blood. But he has always been one of those hyphenated Americans who straddles different worlds, who can go in and out of disparate cultures -- and that's what his music reflects. It's Cuba meets Punk meets Surf Music meets a lineup of other influences, and it's surprisingly well-mixed -- like an off-the-wall cocktail you find irresistible after the very first sip.
Consider the song "Cojones," which starts off with a Jimi Hendrix-inspired riff, turns into a Cuban rumba, then into a Sex Pistols-like rave, then into a spoken word rap about Navarro's childhood, where -- in English and Spanish -- he yells about the time his grandfather threatened to emasculate him for hitting his sister. At the song's end, Navarro has outed his father for hitting his mother, and each musical foray has returned to be heard again. The low points of Navarro's upbringing, and the songwriter's dark humor, add to the frenetic elements of "Cojones," which is on The Cuban Cowboys' new release, Diablo Mambo.
Navarro and the other Cowboys are celebrating their album on Friday in San Francisco, in a concert at the Bottom of the Hill that will showcase the group's ability to play meaningful songs that are also fun and wildly danceable. The Cuban Cowboys can slow it down a little, as the song called "Liberace Afternoon," which envelopes more traditional Cuban music to pay homage to Navarro's piano-playing grandmother, Irene Von, who lived with Navarro's family in Florida before passing away in 1986. Navarro's father, Augustine, moved to Florida in 1960 after being released from jail in Cuba, where he had been detained because of his pro-democracy beliefs, Jorge Navarro says. Augustine Navarro -- who had been a Havana City Councilman -- was set free from prison only because of the intervention of his father, Jose Navarro, a prominent Cuban who knew one of the revolution's primary architects, Che Guevara.
"My father had a 30-year jail sentence, but in exchange for my grandfather staying and teaching Che Guevara about the banking system, they let him go," Jorge Navarro says.
The story doesn't end there, though. Augustine Navarro then worked for the CIA for about six years, through the 1970s, trying to destabilize Fidel Castro's government, Jorge Navarro says. The CIA named his father and other Cuban-American agents "Cuban Cowboys," which is where Navarro got the name for his group. Navarro, 44, started his musical act while studying for a Ph.D. in bilingual education at the University of Florida. He's a former high-school English teacher who was looking for ways to reach students with music that featured "Spanglish."
In person and on stage, Jorge Navarro exhibits a persona that's comic and irreverent. (He counts Oscar Wilde as an influence.) In concert, wearing a cowboy hat, Navarro really does his best to be the character of a Cuban Cowboy. "Most of the songs have to do with very difficult situations within my family or within my life," he says. "I like to use humor to add levity to things that are serious, like divorce, spousal abuse, exile, losing everything in mid-life, having to start over in another country, where the language and customs are baffling. I also rely on parody."
Anything to get the audience -- and himself -- going. While some people might not recognize the strong Cuban element in the Cowboys' songs, Jorge Navarro was relieved to know that Cubans in Cuba do. He went to the island earlier this year, and when he played songs from Diablo Mambo, relatives told him, "This is really Cuban music."
The words were music to Navarro's ears, a blessing from a country that's never far from his mind.
The Cuban Cowboys play the Bottom of the Hill on Friday at 8:30pm. For tickets and information visit bottomofthehill.com.