Quiet, please. Mo’Guajiro are playing that Cuban son again. I’m flying. I’m savoring congri and sipping on a mojito. A beautiful mulatto passes by; he’s smoking a Romeo y Julieta. The sweet scent drifts on . . .
Mo’Guajiro inhale it, letting it out onstage. Joe’s Pub is the set; the hipsters doing their own thing tell me so. It’s Wednesday, midnight to be exact. The timbales, tumbadoras, tres, and trumpet are in place. The eight-member conjunto is just getting started, and the few rumberos in the crowd can’t wait.
They start out slow. The spiritual plea “¿Por Qué Tu Sufres?” asks, why suffer? “You have everything when you ask God.” Folks start to move. Religion aside, they’re feeling it. Most sway from side to side, feeling the buzz, not knowing the step. “El Botellero,” about a man picking up bottles in Santiago, Cuba, turns up the sweet rhythm. Brash, sexy, and fun, the lyrical harmony knows the piano. The melody explodes. “Asota!” shouts sonero Jainardo Batista, commanding the audience’s attention. He’s got us right where he wants us.
The we-are-the-world Cubanophile band has been roaming the city for years. Their sound flavored the underground once, a soundtrack for commuters never interrupted by the approaching ride. Membership in Mo’Guajiro has no frontiers—Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are all represented. It’s community, and it works. Even group cofounder Aaron Halva—a vest-sporting, giddy white guy from Iowa—can’t believe that he’s crashed this really cool party. But how could that be? Everyone’s invited. It’s just a good time. No hang-ups, no hidden agendas, and no sitting around.
“Sal a Bailar” gets the floor shaking again, but not before unleashing some funk. Batista and the guys need to get it out of their system; it’s close to 1 a.m. The groove changes: It’s deeper and slower, more urban. The Afro-Cubanization travels from the plazas of Havana to the streets of New York. Then the montuno is set free, breaking the vibe, speeding things up, swinging into a descarga. The crowd is a little more serious now. They spin, they like what they hear. Mo’Guajiro weave in and out of songs, leaving a little nostalgia behind. Batista lets loose the soulful riffs in the bolero “Siempre Me Acuerdo de Ti,” a love-letter ballad penned by resident timbalero Tony De Vivo. It’s filled with yearning; the trumpet’s heartbreaking wails unknowingly pour melancholy into my drink. The old-school standards keep coming. It’s a tribute to their idols: composer Arsenio Rodriguez, percussionist Chano Pozo, and trumpeter Felix Chapotin. Flattery in its purest form.
When the conjunto breaks, the crowd dwindles. No matter. The second set beckons. “Those who left, sorry, they missed it,” says Batista. Only the pros remain. Amateur hour is over. It’s 2 a.m. Timbalero Ihan Betancourt joins in. He’s family. “Con sopa de bambuco y guaguanco, y manzanillo, vamos gozarnoslo” resounds in a hearty soup of rhythms. This party is far from over. My ride is here. No worries, Mo’Guajiro won’t stop. The hardcore rumberos remain. They want mo’.