You may have never imagined a mambo version of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” or Ben E. King singing “Stand By Me” as a cha-cha-cha. But producers Frank and Christian Berman did.
The tracks are included on the new album Americuba, which the Berman brothers recorded with a band of Buena Vista veterans and other Cuban musicians who they’ve collectively dubbed the Havana Maestros. Master laud player Barbarito Torres, pianists Emilio Vega and Harold Lopez Nussa, and timbalero Amadito Valdes are included among the esteemed personnel. The album features 42 musicians in all.
Both tracks are available on Spotify now, but Billboard premieres the video for “Stand By Me” today (May 5):
In addition to the King and Janelle Monáe hits, Americuba Cubanizes Chic’s “Good Times,” Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak Out,” and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay,” among other songs. Thanks to the caliber and sonoric classiness of the musicians, and the quality of the production, Americuba transcends the potential cheesiness of its concept, although its appeal may be inseparable from its novelty.
“The musicians are playing alongside the original vocal tracks,” Berman tells Billboard. “So it really was like Ben E. King and the other artists were recording with them in the studio.”
The album was made at Havana’s Estudios Abdala, where the producers delighted in the collection of vintage microphones and the large room for live recording. “The Cuban musicians were very excited about interpreting the American song catalogue in a Cuban way,” says Berman, adding that each had a particular favorite among the chosen songs. “They only wanted to do it if we could make it better or give it a new identity.”
This was not the first Cuban experience for the Bermans. The duo previously produced Rhythms del Mundo: Cuba, a 2008 album that featured songs by Coldplay, Maroon 5 and U2 spiced up with Cuban beats. While that album had more of a loungy vibe, the old-school sound of Americuba will resonate with Buena Vista fans, as will the video for “Stand By Me.”
“We really went for the classic sound of the 40s, 50s and 60s,” Berman says. “It’s so unique and so timeless.” He adds that the new wave of young American tourists in Havana influenced the decision to feature more recent songs along with the American classic hits.
Several songs sung by Cuban artists in Spanish are also included on the album. The closing track, “Mi Manera” (“My Way”), is performed by Anais Abreu, who should be better known outside of Cuba. She sings the song as a gutsy filin ballad that begs to be accompanied by the sound of ice tinkling in a cocktail glass. It’s a gorgeous rendition that turns the tables on the album’s basic concept of appropriating original English-language vocals for the Cuban-sounding tracks. But this and other Spanish songs on the album feel incongruous here, and may make Cuban music fans wish the Bermans had chosen to record a separate Spanish-language album of this quality. Maybe they will.
Americuba is set for release on May 26. Tonight (May 5), the Havana Maestros will make their first U.S. appearance at NeueHouse Madison Square in New York, to be followed by a concert at NeueHouse Hollywood on Sunday, May 7. A bigger Havana Maestros tour is in the works that will feature special guests singing the vocals of the album’s American hits, Berman says.