Cultural tourists endure an even worse rep. They’re exploitive, clueless and downright racist — if only to purists who look askance at anyone who dares annex the art of a land other than his own. (Prime targets of wrath from the intolerant range from Paul Simon to Vampire Weekend.)
Given all this, you have to admire the guts of singer-songwriter Josh Rouse. Not only did he plunge headfirst into the controversy, he gave his efforts the asking-for-it title “El Turista.”
The new CD from this well-respected performer finds a guy raised in the ultimate Midwest state of Nebraska singing songs heavily influenced by the balmiest rhythms of Brazil. More, he chose to sing them in Spanish rather than Portuguese.
And, oh yeah, he recorded it all inNashville.
Then again, Rouse isn’t a total outsider to the cultural flavors he’s tasting. Five years ago, Rouse, who’s from Brooklyn, moved to Valencia, Spain, where he lives with his native-born wife and their 1-year-old son.
Rouse speaks Spanish in his adopted home, but you don’t have to be a Catalonian to know his accent isn’t quite on point. He goes out of his way to pronounce the local “th” accent (especially evident in a track named for his chosen home). But when he croons Spanish in the cover of “Duerme” (made famous by Cuban singer/pianist Bola de Nieve) he sounds like someone who learned the language in a crash course.
Then again, Rouse sings as often in English as in Spanish, and the instrumental aspects of the CD prove as impressive as anything sung. The opening instrumental, “Bienvenido,” features wafting strings that flow with a jazzy flair. Strings enliven the whole CD, giving it a breezy feel that’s in no way flighty. Rouse’s boyish voice has the right light touch for these leisurely pieces.
While bossa nova beats inform many songs — with winking allusions to ’60s recordings of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto — there’s plenty from Cuba and the Congo, too. A direct influence on Rouse was an anthology of the latter’s music, “Roots of Rumba Rock 1953-1954.”
That’s quite a turn for a guy better known for soft-rock-leaning CDs like “1972.” But he’s hardly the first to make this risky a move.
Lani Hall first learned Portuguese phonetically when fronting Brasil 66 some 40 years ago. And Stan Getz enjoyed a two-decade career in American jazz before seeking sounds (way) south of the border. But when you hear Rouse transpose an American song from the 1800s like “Cotton Joe” into a surreal Rio/Cuban swirl, you’ll know he’s done his homework well.