Lima, Perú-born, L.A.-based Renaissance woman Cecilia Noël continues to push boundaries and delight fans with her original and ground-breaking take on Cuban-derived Latin dance music. On her latest release, Havana Rocks, she brings authentic, made-in-Havana instrumentation and arrangements to her own refreshing reading of classic 70s/80s rock, New Wave and pop tunes. However, unlike some Latin pop salsa romántica with English lyrics, Ms. Noël’s interpretation of how to cover gringo rock tunes differs from your Ricky Martins and J-Los in that Havana Rocks does just that: it rocks out! And way down in its soul, the record’s still resolutely Cuban too. Noël describes her style as “hard-core salsa” and feels she is more of a “punk salsa singer” so it’s quite fitting that she revisits the punk and New Wave era for this outing.
With Havana Rocks Noël and her fun-loving band make truly hybrid music that feels honest, real, and playful at the same time. At first glance, skeptics might balk at AC/DC done as salsa – is this some sort of hipster exercise in irony, a corny nostalgic gimmick to cash in on Buena Vista’s coattails, or just an embarrassing continuation of the Yankee Imperialist project to dilute “pure” Cuban music? One listen will silence critics as they start to move to the familiar melodies buoyed along by the infectious tropical grooves. The amazing thing is Ms. Noël fully integrates the contrasting elements of Latin and rock in a bi-cultural, organic union that is both pleasingly danceable and satisfyingly confident, where similarities and affinities are highlighted to cunning effect (it helps that the tunes are bi-lingual and that snippets of equally classic Cuban songs are melded seamlessly onto the Anglo tunes). A case in point is her imaginative re-working of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” that fits her hard-core son cubano treatment like a leather glove. Yet the question of cultural imperialism with Havana Rocks, if there is any, is more around an interesting reversal of sorts – the viewpoint is resolutely looking outward from the island at the larger “90 miles” world beyond the “Mango Curtain,” where the rock element is merely a jumping off point for something deeper (literally in the instance of her brilliant version of Van Halen’s “Jump”). When Brit synth-pop icon Gary Numan’s originally ennui-infused “Here In My Car” is done within the context of Cuban history, it takes on a whole other meaning, enriching the album with sociological layers that belie the notion that salsa is only for the feet. Perhaps it is Noël’s own outsider immigrant perspective that facilitates this richness. Whatever the case, her special blend goes together like Havana Club rum and Coca-Cola.
In a time of ever-warming relations between Cuba and the US, this release is indeed timely and hopefully is a harbinger of our putting a more positive, collaborative spin on our shared past history and future destinies. As a vinyl fan and DJ who only plays wax, my own desires were answered when Noël’s label heeded the public’s petitions and came out with this vinyl edition in October, 2015. In a way it’s only fitting since the tunes covered on the album originally came out in that very same timeless format. (Hey label folks, any chance Cecilia’s 2009 release, ¡A Gozár! will be reissued on vinyl?!?). My advice is snap Havana Rocks up while you can and shake all night long, or as we say in Cuba, ¡Sacúdanse toda la noche!
For more info and to listen to album samples, check out Compass Records here.