I could not resist returning to Yerba Buena Gardens for this afternoon’s presentation by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF). My knowledge of music coming from south of our country’s border is, to say the least, pathetically limited. I suspect that the best I can manage is some familiarity with “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!;” but that would only be because I came to know the song through the set of variations on it composed by Frederic Rzewski! Nevertheless, when I learned that the group that would be performing this afternoon called themselves Camilo y los Robot Ninjas, my curiosity got the better of me.
Camilo is Oakland-based Camilo Landau, who comes from a family of musicians, poets, activists, and journalists. He leads this group playing electric guitar and, on one occasion this afternoon, singing. The other members of the group are David M. Flores on percussion, Ayla Davila on both bass guitar and an analog synthesizer, and Charlie Gurke alternating (often in the same song) between baritone saxophone and an electronic organ built with old-school transistor technology. If all of that analog presence is not enough, the song that Landau sang has been released on a seven-inch 45 RPM vinyl disc! If these are “robot ninjas,” then they date back to the earliest models of Daleks for episodes of Doctor Who made in the Sixties!
Landau describes his approach to composition as one of taking familiar tunes, chopping them up into small granules (“Exterminate!”), and then piecing those bits together in different ways. This would have put me at a disadvantage for not knowing most of the tunes. (“¡El pueblo unido” came and went like lightning.) In quieter moments I heard tropes that reminded me the Train to Lamy Suite, composed jointly by the members of the California Guitar Trio, Hideyo Moriya, Bert Lams, and Paul Richards. However, I suspect the familiarity had to do with that trio drawing upon the same sources used by Landau.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to have fun listening to the weird ways in which the group played with its source material. In one case they took the Cuban song “El Carretero” (the carter), probably best known to those who follow the Buena Vista Social Club, and “reinvented” it as “El Carretero Urbano,” in which the carter becomes a homeless man dragging around a shopping cart. Any sense that this might be humorous was deftly muted by some of the most sinister use of tritones I have encountered for some time.
The title of the song that Landau sang, by the way, was “I Love You More than Tacos.” It came close to turning a Mexican restaurant menu into song lyrics. Landau’s diction may have been a bit weak, but all of the food references were unmistakable. This was definitely a gig that defied classification, but never in any aggressively artsy way. It was just a way to spend a chunk of the afternoon with “something completely different.”