Rebel Tumbao | Rebel Tumbao
album review by John Powell
By the time the downbeat of “The Story” strikes on Rebel Tumbao’s self-titled debut, the precision and dedication are obvious. The band, a concoction making up various keys, drums, hand percussion, bass, and vocals in Spanish and English, is tight. They play son, a Cuban music that if heard you’d recognize easily, despite maybe not immediately familiar with the term. It’s upbeat, slick, and usually includes infectious staccato piano.
Though the album is more than a set of well-produced modern takes on the genre. Half the songs are originals, each a politically-charged assault on consumerism and greed. The other half of the songs is Bob Marley covers. Bandleader Matt Jenson states his clear love of Marley’s message and mode of conveying it. His own songs reflect the same softness and poignancy Marley made look easy. Rebel Tumbao takes classic Marley tunes and revamps them into son/reggae hybrids that are quite fun.
And they pull off the daring covers of such famous songs by being incredible musicians. “Natural Mystic” is the first. Because the band is organically grown themselves, (lots of acoustic instruments and few synths), they have the same lightness as the original recordings of the song. The blend of genres is sweetness, both rhythmically powerful forms of music, utilizing counter rhythms and offbeats. They take on a verse in Spanish, too.
Their take on “Turn Your Lights Down Low” is sensual, calm, and retains Marley’s yearning vocal performance. The differences are clear, although not repulsive. It’s not like you go, “Why would they do a weird Cuban version?” You think, “This is really working out well!” This may stem from the fact that the album took a half-decade to make, or that bandleaders Matt Jenson and José Claussell are perfectionists- regardless, they do the song justice.
For “Exodus” they toss in a first quarter of “A Love Supreme”, John Coltrane’s famous piece. Again, how does it work weaving them together? Great! They take “Them Belly Full” and string it together with their own compositions “El Refugio” and “La Protesta”, forging a seven-minute opus.
The only criticism of this record is why such a great band covered so many songs for their debut. They are not a Marley cover band, though five of the album’s songs are covers, and some of Marley’s more famous songs, not even dipping into the more robust deep cuts. Beyond that, Rebel Tumbao write excellent songs themselves.
“The Story” is wonderful. While the instrumentation is lively and danceable, the verses strike, “You don’t know anything/ about interest rates and inflation/ You got the story all wrong.” About three minutes into the six-minute opener they break out into solos, sing-a-longs, and, “You don’t know anything about/ delight/ and happiness.” Ouch.
“Spare a Nickel” is also a gem, using reggae lyrical conventions in a son vibe, and “Masters of Greed” is a darker groove with, “Come, you masters of profit/ In an unrestricted market.” Toussaint Yeshua on lead vocals is vicious in his delivery.
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe they should have saved the covers for an all covers album, or taken it down to one or two. There’s nothing wrong with covering someone great like Marley, but Rebel Tumbao should be showing off their own powers. In an age of bountiful vapid music made for the sake of an MP3, Rebel Tumbao are conscious soldiers in the war against ignorance. They do it without pointing too many fingers, and all the while with great musical orchestration.
Bottom line: Cuban son-enriched tunes fused temporarily with reggae with a blend of conscious originals and well-plumed takes on Bob Marley. Very, very good stuff.