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It is said that in ancient times there was a curandera who collected all the earth's herbs with the most healing properties and with her magic turned them into one good herb that she later planted to grow as wild weeds. If there was such an alchemist who could do that with music today, it would be songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist bandleader Andres Levin. And his magic herb is YERBA BUENA: a blend of African-rooted Latin music (Cuban rumba, Colombian cumbia, Pan-Caribbean solca, and Nuyorican boogaloo) with hip-hop, Motown soul, Nigerian Afrobeat, and a dash of Middle Eastern themes played by an international crew of star musicians that represent the new sounds of the New York City streets.
Administered aurally, this Yerba Buena's intensely percussive and infectious beats will lift you and make you dance. No self-respecting musical Botánica should go without a pouch of homegrown Yerba Buena stocked on its shelves.
Putting his magic touch on a variety of music since he arrived in 1989 from his native Venezuela to become a "resident alien," Levin has written and/or produced for artists ranging from Chaka Khan and Tina Turner to David Byrne and Arto Lindsay. His most recent credits include D'Angelo, Macy Gray, Dead Prez, and Meshell Ndegéocello in his role as principal producer of the recent Red Hot + Riot Fela Kuti tribute (Top Ten in The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, and more).
For the past few years, Levin has been in high demand throughout the fast-growing world of Latin alternative music, producing albums for Aterciopelados, Los Amigos Invisibles, El Gran Silencio, Ely Guerra, Carlinhos Brown, and Jorge Moreno, as well as producing key tracks with Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte.
For Yerba Buena, Levin was introduced to key players by Cuban music songwriter Ileana Padrón. Seizing a moment where the purveyors of the sounds from Lagos, Havana, and New York City were at his arm's reach, he brought them to his funhouse, the Fun Machine Studios in Manhattan, to create a distinct and innovative urban Latino sound only hinted at before by like-minded groups such as El Gran Silencio, Ozomatli, and Manu Chao's Radio Bemba Sound System.
Like some of the great big bands of Cuba (think Benny Moré or Machito), Levin set up Yerba Buena as an on-going workshop open to collaborations in studio and on stage with guest stars. The result is a dazzling and ravaging live show and a studio recording that has a character all its own.
Havana's diva-in-waiting Xiomara Laugart (Did someone say a new Celia Cruz?), percussion maestro/Yoruban chanter Pedrito Martinez, and distinctive singer El Chino take turns leading their audiences into frenzied dancing. Singer CuCu Diamantes, along with the brilliant St. Thomas-born jazz saxophonist Ron Blake and young trumpeter Rashawn Ross, complete the core group, infusing their stylistic blasts to the volatile mix of true Nueva York.
"I like to take the live vibe back to the studio, and continue adding to the foundations we've already laid down," says Dré, as his American friends call him. Levin co-wrote all the songs, applying his signature layered style of production. "All my friends know I'm a technology beat geek," he says. "Producing on a computer, I put together alien rhythm sections of players that reside in different continents, or I get artists who wouldn't normally record together in one place. That's the Fun Machine way."
For Yerba's debut album, President Alien (Fun Machine/Razor & Tie/BMG), Levin invited friends he's been collaborating with for years from various musical scenes: singer/bassist Ndégeocello, Brazilian singer/songwriter/percussionist Carlinhos Brown, downtown guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Money Mark, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Dead Prez rapper Sticman, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and drummers Horacio "El Negro" Hernández and Terreon "Tank" Gully, among many others.
"A lot of the songs are pieced together like a puzzle with different artists that came through. It's not like a traditional song; they were written as blocks of melodies and grooves. Each section is interchangeable," says Dré, who is also debuting his label Fun Machine Records with the album. "But one thing's for sure I try to create an environment where everyone's personality comes out. Everyone's put into a stylistic vortex, going into one end and coming out the other with the Yerba sound."
With so many possibilities, both music fans and critics quickly embraced the group after taking just one sonic dose at one of its contagious live shows. Added to the William Morris Agency's prestigious roster in early 2002, the group went on to play at multiple summer festivals such as Central Park Summer-stage, the Hollywood Bowl, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Montreal's Nuits d'Afrique. Even the Dave Matthews Band got hooked immediately, inviting them to open at several arena dates.
President Alien plays with the lyrical quality of the official status of permanent residents in the United States, the words scrolled across every legal immigrant's green card, "Resident Alien." It also captures Levin's vision perfectly, having fun with the notion of a global tribe gathering in the music capital of the world.
"It's really just all about one nation under a drum," he says.