Cat Empire takes a cue from Cuba |

Cat Empire takes a cue from Cuba

Stewart Oksenhorn
Australian sextet Cat Empire makes its Aspen debut Saturday at Belly Up. (Courtesy Shore Fire Media)

Felix Riebl finds himself explaining the Latin influence evident in his band, Cat Empire, and the band’s new, eponymous EP. After all, it is a bit curious that a group of musicians in their mid-20s from Melbourne, Australia, would find their primary inspiration in Havana, Cuba, approximately 12,000 miles away.But Melbourne, said the 25-year-old Riebl, is both a cosmopolitan city and home to a tightknit community of musicians.”I suppose there’s a lot of Latin culture in Melbourne,” said Riebl. “The town we grew up in and the music we were able to listen to are part of this postmodern age.”And the musicians are kind of a mix between all the ethnicities in town. If you’re a jazz player, you know all the Latin guys, and all the rock guys. It’s the same kind of players in all the bands.”

Of everything that was available, Riebl settled on Latin music, and specifically, the sound of Cuba. The idea of musical globe-trotting might have come from his father, a Vienna-born classical player. Riebl and Ollie McGill, who have played in bands together since their early teens, listened to the great Cuban pianists, especially Rubén Gonzélez. McGill picked up piano, while Riebl settled on the timbales, a Cuban percussion instrument.The two formed Cat Empire in 1999, building the sound on Latin horns, ska, rock and hip-hop. The band, which expanded from a trio to a sextet, released the debut album, “Cat Empire,” which went double platinum, without even being released in the States. For the follow-up, last year’s “Two Shoes,” the band decided to go to the source: Havana’s Egrem Studios, the epicenter of “Buena Vista Social Club,” the CD and film that gave Cuban music a moment in the spotlight a few years ago. Cat Empire even enlisted producer Jerry Boys, whose résumé included working on the Beatles’ “Revolver” album – but more significantly to Riebl and company, had collaborated on the “Buena Vista Social Club” CD.In Cuba, Cat Empire not only found the inspiration to record “Two Shoes,” an energized cross of rock ‘n’ roll and Latin ideas which has gone quadruple platinum in Australia. (It is set for release in the U.S. in February.) They also discovered a culture that had a unique reverence for music and the people who make it.”Musicians are respected, akin to lawyers,” said Riebl, who brings Cat Empire to its Aspen debut tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 14, at Belly Up, with 22-year-old jazz trumpeter Christian Scott opening. “It’s not only joyous, but the musicians work hard.” The political isolation of Cuba under Castro has had at least one benefit that Riebl can see: “It’s so removed from the Western world, the music is so pure.”

While Cat Empire – which includes trumpeter Harry James Angus, drummer Will Hull-Brown, turntablist Jamshid Khadiwala and bassist Ryan Monro – takes much of its sound from Cuba, it hasn’t forgotten where it comes from. Cat Empire is also very much in the tradition of Australian rock outfits.”Definitely,” said Riebl. “Australians are very proud of their rock music, especially AC/DC. All these bands we grew up listening to, there’s an attitude, a texture of the music. All these bands had a strong idea, a bold idea of what they wanted to do. There’s a certain attitude in what we do that’s very Australian.”Australians really respect their athletes, and it’s the same kind of toughness that sportsmen have. They both play hard.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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