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Nominated for a BBC World Music award this year in the boundary-crossing category, Ska Cubano deliver pretty much what they declare in their name: a playful, party-hard collision of ska – the musical force that emerged from Jamaica in the early 1960s – and Cuban sounds, styles and rhythms.
With a well-received record, Ay Caramba!, under their belt and numerous festival appearances, Ska Cubano attract a pleasure-seeking crowd, and this show was no exception. Packed to the now smokeless gills, the Jazz Café shook with enthusiastic dancing both on the stage and on the dancefloor. And with a 10-strong line-up that included a brass section, piano and percussion, a dreadlocked guitarist and plenty of tilted trilbys, the band looked and behaved like the eccentric 1980s ska revivalists Madness.
Their front man, London-born Nathan Lerner, who goes by the moniker Natty Bo, and his sidekick singer, the Cuban Beny Billy, stirred the crowd up with ska rhythm. When the crowd-pleasing number “Tequila” was wheeled out towards the end of the set, the audience lapped up the drinking song regardless of the poor sound mix and vocals that were a little off the note. But the competence of the rhythm section and tight brass, along with the energy of the band, made up for any musical misdemeanours.
“It’s OK for London,” my Cuban friend remarked, a little disparagingly – which was an interesting point. Ska Cubano are not really a Cuban outfit, more a London-based one. The band is the fruit of former investment banker Peter Scott’s musical project to create the sound that might have developed had Cuba not been cloistered from the musical influences of other nearby Caribbean islands by the revolution in the 1950s. With Lerner he put the band together with London-based Cubans and other enthusiasts for latin and ska music.
The resulting sound is catchy, but in spite of its aim of experimenting with styles, it doesn’t really amount to more than the soundtrack for a good knees-up. But does authenticity really matter? You ask the sweaty crowd who cheered raucously for more after the last encore.