Yerba Buena: Andres Levin, The Herbalist

With six countries - Cuba, Venezuela, St. Thomas, Columbia, Brazil and the U.S. - represented in this 10-member collective, Yerba Buena, loosely translated into “good weed”, is the ultimate in cultural gumbo and musical fusion. Only one man could be the adhesive that pulls all of this together, Andres Levin, the bandleader of Yerba Buena.

Levin produced Yerba Buena’s entire debut album, President Alien, an album that features Stic.Man from dead prez, Meshell Ndegeocello, Roy Hargrove, and Latin legends Dave Valentin and Andy Gonzales. Levin is also responsible for Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti. Dexterously able to tap into the most energetically visceral aspects of music, Levin composes blended rhythms that lean toward the future while respect the music’s roots. Fresh off their Grammy nomination for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album, Levin spoke with Alternatives about the herbal concoctions of Yerba Buena. Alternatives: Congratulation on the Grammy Nomination, even though things didn’t turn out in your favor.

That’s all good. Getting nominated is a great honor and quite a surprise given that we just put the record out a few months ago and we’re the only independent label out of all the nominees in the category.

AHHA: How did you develop your sound?

It’s been a process; mainly it’s been the fortune I’ve had to work with so many different and great artists in different styles of music. I’ve traveled around the world. I did exclusively R&B for about five years and I worked with Chaka, Tina, Ce Ce Peniston all the divas, then I got into the more electronic underground and worked with David Barren and Arto Lindsey. I went to Brazil for a while and produced a lot of records there. I produced a lot of the Latin Rock bands, which I thought was really interesting. Parallel to that I was working with the Red Hot Organization quite a bit, so those project always took me to Portugal, Nigeria, and back to Brazil. I was kind of bouncing all over the place doing different kinds of records and from all of that experience I created what would be my sound.

AHHA: You were the principle producer for the Fela Kuti tribute album from the Red Hot Organization (Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti) - Why was that an important project to present to the world?

Well I think a lot of people know Fela, but a lot of people don’t. There are many different levels to that record and why it’s important. One, to propagate his art form and who he was, and also Afro-Beat as a style of music I think is very underrated and hasn’t been explored as much as it should. It’s very connected to Cuban music and Hip Hop and Reggae.

AHHA: That kind of takes us right into Yerba Buena, cause all the cultural collision that occurs on the Fela Kuti tribute, you can hear the same thing on President Alien.

Yeah, I was making both records at the same time. That’s really the idea behind Yerba Buena, to mix all these styles, but no so that it sounds like a kitchen sink, it’s a real style; it’s a new form.

AHHA: If you had to describe Yerba Buena to someone, what would you say?

Man, that’s always hard [pauses]. It’s a kind of Afro-Cuban, funk collective from New York. It’s not just funk though, it’s a whole bunch of stuff, it’s very New York. I don’t think I could have made this record anywhere else but here, unless I was gonna fly in a bunch of muthafuckas [laughs].

AHHA: Yerba Buena means Good Weed?

Yeah, good weed, it’s also the tea that they drink in South America called Yerba Mate. They pass it around like a joint, but it’s a tea. Also the name describes our sound as a potion. All the styles are different herbs that we mix together to make this special tea.

AHHA: Why does all of this music fuse together so perfectly? What keeps all the different sounds together?

Africa man, it all comes from the same mother. That’s a lot of what I do, I spend a lot of time finding distant cousins and putting them together on one track. A lot of the same rhythms from Nigeria ended up in Cuba and changed a little bit and then went to Brazil. You’ll find there’s a lot in common, you just have to look for it.

AHHA: What’s a Yerba Buena live show like?

Oh, that’s amazing. That’s a whole other side to the band that people feel can be stronger than the record. With ten people on stage, we have a very strong presence and everybody’s kind of like a solo artist in their own right, instrumentally, vocally, or visually. For us if the audience is not on their feet, we don’t play the same, so we need that interaction.

AHHA: You said the next albums going to be different, what can we expect?

It’s gonna be more live and more with the band and less with so many guests. I’m exploring some different recipes, so it should be fun.

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