'Yerba Buena' prepares for BEMA Concert

by Frances Cha | 7/28/05 5:00am

Yerba Buena has been described as a border-crossing melange of salsa, meringue, hip-hop, funk, Brazilian bahia, samba, Colombian cumbia, Spanish flamenco, Balkan gypsy music and Manhattan street sounds. Whatever that means, exactly, Dartmouth students will discover for themselves when the band plays the BEMA on July 30, as part of Encuentro Latino -- A Dartmouth Summer Arts Festival.

Seven musicians -- Andres Levin, Xiomara Laugart, Pedrito Martinez, CuCu Diamantes, El Chino, Ron Blake and Rashawn Ross -- make up Yerba Buena. In addition to vocals, the group includes saxophone, trumpet and synthesized electronics.

Levin, the band's leader, worked with artists such as David Byrne, Tina Turner and Caetano Veloso before creating the Latino-funk collective. As a producer, Levin also collaborated with D'Angelo, Macy Gray, Dead Prez and Me'Shell Ndegeocello and played a principal role in the creation of the recent "Red Hot and Riot" tribute to Fela Kuti. Yerba coalesced under Levin's direction and released its first album in 2003.

The title of the group's Grammy-nominated first album, "President Alien," was conceived as a play on words of the phrase written on every legal immigrant's Green Card: "Resident Alien." It fit together with Levin's conception of the band as a global tribe congregating in the music capital of the world.

"It's really all about one nation under a drum," Levin said in an interview with College Music Journal.

As for Yerba Buena's latest album, "Island Life," Levin described it to CMJ Network as "a soundtrack for urbanistic island living."

"It's get-down, get-funky, get-sweaty music. I like making people dance," he told the Wall Street Journal, which did a small feature on the group two weeks ago.

Levin co-wrote all the songs on the album, an astonishing feat given the wide range the band achieves on "Island Life."

Equally impressive is the dizzying array of guest artists who contributed to "Island Life." The list includes the Cuban hip-hop group Orishas, flamenco singer Diego el Cigala, the Brazilian drum group Ile Aiye, Latin soul pioneer Joe Bataan, actor John Leguizamo and an assortment of rappers from America, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

"Island Life" sparks emotions and crosses cultural borders as the soul of the sounds seems to pour just as freely from the Latin districts of five boroughs as it does from the island chains of the Caribbean.

Recently, the band has strived to get out and be heard. Yerba Buena found its way into pop culture last year as the band's song, "Guajira (I Love U 2 Much)," was prominently showcased in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," where it was the centerpiece for the sizzling scenes in the Cuban club La Rosa Negra.

Its show at Irving Plaza earned critical acclaim from New York-based periodicals, and the band also recently performed as musical guests on "Late Night with Conan O'Brian."

Yerba Buena shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Its touring schedule has the band booked straight through October.

Levin has stressed that Yerba really caters to every live show individually and considers its audiences to be the most exciting aspect of the performances.

"There are a lot of set changes and flexibility [in a live show]. The flow of the show is completely inspired by the audience. It's a really interesting process for me to develop the arrangements and tempos and the flow of the set with our partners for the night -- the audience," Levin told CMJ.

It remains to be seen whether the Dartmouth crowd at the BEMA on Saturday will live up to the band's expectations.

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