October 2, 2000, Monday

The Arts/Cultural Desk
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POP REVIEW; Havana Meets New Orleans On a Syncopated Journey


Cubanismo declared Havana and New Orleans ''sister cities'' when it performed on Tuesday night at S.O.B.'s. Old Havana and New Orleans share crumbling, pastel-washed colonial architecture, steamy temperatures and infusions of African culture, from a love of syncopation to clandestine worship of the voodoo and Santeria pantheons of African deities.

Cubanismo's new album, ''Mardi Gras Mambo'' (Hannibal/RykoPalm), sets the band loose on New Orleans standards like ''Mother-in-Law'' and ''Iko-Iko.'' For its late set on Tuesday, Cubanismo was joined by two New Orleans singers, John Boutte and Terry de Gruy. The songs sounded like a reunion of long-lost cousins, bringing separate perspectives -- Cuban snap and New Orleans roll -- to a common heritage.

Cubanismo, led by the trumpeter Jesus Alemany, has already done plenty of tinkering with Cuban dance music. Mr. Alemany embraces both the complexities of jazz and three-chord, dance-floor imperatives. Cubanismo's arrangements entwine straightforward Cuban rumba, son and cha-cha -- sung by two clarion vocalists, Rolando Martinez and Rafael Duany -- with jagged be-bop countermelodies and brassy exhortations from the horn section.

With two trumpets, two saxophones and a trombone, Cubanismo sounded as assertive as a full-size big band in its first set. It played songs from its second album, ''Reencarnacion'' (Hannibal/RykoPalm) and new ones, including a thoroughly revamped salsa version of Bob Marley's ''Could You Be Loved'' that touched down only briefly on a reggae beat. Its soloists traced arcs from vintage Cuban romance to defiant modernist dissonance, and Mr. Alemany himself reached for airborne high notes.

The New Orleans tunes swiveled between two different mambos: the New Orleans version, with its easygoing backbeat lope, and the Cuban one, driven by precise salvos of percussion and cartwheeling piano arpeggios. Mr. Boutte and Ms. de Gruy sang in English, with gospelly growls and blues slides; Mr. Duany offered similar sentiments in Spanish, with the articulation and fervor of a Latin sonero.

The Cubans played the New Orleans beats like a congenial second language, substituting precision for the New Orleans homegrown relaxation, then steered the songs toward sputtering rumba and mambo. The tunes were dialogues rather than amalgams, yet they made for euphoric dance music, especially in a medley of Mardi Gras Indian tunes, including ''Shallow Water'' and ''Iko Iko,'' in which the path between Havana and New Orleans led through a thicket of African polyrhythm.

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