As I watched the Cuban Brothers’ surreal performance on the second date of Southampton’s Common People, I took in their eccentric costumes, breakdancing, cheesy tunes, and sexual innuendos with a slowly dawning sense of fear. What do I ask these figures? I asked myself, as they stripped and swore with wild abandon. Are they even Cuban? Or brothers?
As it turns out, they are neither. Michael Keat grew up moving between New Zealand and Edinburgh, briefly escaping to Mallorca where he found the inspiration for his alter-ego, Miguel Mantovani, the band’s frontman. After watching a Cuban middle-aged man run the hotel’s children’s discos with comic inadequacy, he created a persona which he trialled in some of Edinburgh’s basement bars to immediate success. Since then, Miguel has formed a dark past for himself, rich with sexual indiscretions, as a seedy figure of entertainment and pornography, notorious in Cuba’s clubs.
When I entered the festival’s press area, Miguel was sat just outside of his trailer, answering questions from a couple of other student interviewers as he sat in his towel. We joked that he might not even have the towel before the time came for me to interview him – but he has been known to stage dive stark naked, so this was perhaps not as irrational a fear as it might be expected to be.
However, perhaps in the face of cameras, Miguel came to greet us in a fantastically sequined jump suit of blue and green, grinning behind his sunglasses. This was my first filmed interview, so I was unsure how to start, but it seemed this wouldn’t be necessary. Miguel asked my name and welcomed me to the “illustrious environment” of Common People, beginning this interview, which had quickly slipped out of my control, by asking me what I had had for breakfast (a peach). “Ask me anything,” he said, in his thick, clumsy Cuban accent. “We’re all friends here on this beautiful summer’s day.”
I started by repeating his own first question to me, asking him what his breakfast had been – “a little champagne, a couple of oysters, and then we had some smoked salmon, and some sweetly chopped radish.” He then confided that he has “had an injury since October, so this is why I’m carrying a little bit of extra weight, but I think people are appreciating the kind of weight I’m carrying.”
He went on to imply that the kind of weight most especially appreciated was that on his “churrito department.” It seems, then, that not even the innocent subject of breakfast is safe from Miguel’s penchant for sexual innuendo.
Not everyone was happy about this – apparently, there had been complaints of his innuendos from the audience at Oxford’s Common People the day before, who had added that he swore too much. In his Southampton performance he acknowledged these complaints, and promised to stop, before explaining in detail in what situations it is acceptable for a child to call their parent a “bastard.”
I asked him, then, how he felt their performance, here in Southampton and at Oxford the day before, had gone, curious as to whether he would mention these protests. “It’s like Summer has just begun it seems,” he said, smoothly avoiding the subject. “It’s good times. South Coast is always great to come and perform in, we have a little bit of form down here.
“We’ve been performing at Bestival for the past fifteen years,” he added, and they are also set to perform at Bestival’s 15th anniversary festival in August, as well as at their smaller, family-friendly festival Camp Bestival at the end of July. “It’s nice to be nice, it’s even nicer to be known to be nice, the feeling is nice,” he concluded. If anyone can figure out what he meant by this please let me know.
Acknowledging that we couldn’t throw food at him if he gave the wrong answer, as he had already performed, I asked whether Southampton or Oxford had been his favourite Common People audience. “I don’t know, it’s similar, it’s effectively the same event in a different city,” was his neutral, peace-keeping reply. “We are just happy to be spreading the love and getting it on in the correct manner.”
We were then interrupted as one of our cameramen sneezed. Miguel called for some allergy medication to be brought to him, though he expressed doubt as to whether he was suffering from hayfever or the effect of ‘nose whiskeys.’ Ever the entertainer, he turned to the camera behind my shoulder and proclaimed, “hashtag allow it, nose whiskeys, peace.” Slightly insensitive given the recent drug deaths at a Portsmouth festival, perhaps, but Miguel continued oblivious.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Cuban Brothers (“Oh goodness, you brought that up!”) and it is clear that Miguel entertains no thought of stopping.
“Two decades in the sun, yes it’s extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve been around the world sort of twenty times over, and it’s just great to be performing and enjoying and doing the thing.”
This passion is genuine, and clear, as he starts talking about the band’s new single, ‘I Hate Hate.’ “It’s about time for a little bit of a paradigm shift,” he says, though he clarifies: “We’re not a political outfit, we’re entertainers. We get involved, we try and engage with the audience.
With a sincerity that is surprising to find under the fake accent and sparkly costumes, he continues: “it’s not about us.” He lowers his voice, presumably impersonating the big stars – “it’s not ‘we’re on the stage and you are…’” he trails off, though it’s clear he’s describing the performer/audience divide so clearly seen in so many stadium gigs. He then breaks into song, Funkadelic’s ‘One Nation Under a Groove’, before circling back to the original question. The man is full of energy, and although I fought for my control of the questions, there isn’t much else here that I have power over.
“Twenty years, it’s been extraordinary,” he smiles. “So, here’s to the next twenty.”
The Cuban Brothers have already celebrated their anniversary, in a grander way than could be replicated at the small table we sat at, surrounded by trailers and cameras and microphones. I asked him about their tour, taken earlier this year, of New Zealand and Scotland, noting the strange combination of countries.
“I grew up in New Zealand,” he explains. “I spent back and forward about ten years [there]. We have a big following in Australia and New Zealand so we went across, see some of my family la familia styles, and then Scotland.
“When I first came to this country I was working as the head volleyball coach for Edinburgh University; so I lasted about three weeks. No charges were brought –”
He turns to the camera again, transforming once more into the performer, laughing grandly and declaring: “Allow it, yes friends, hashtag sexy favours”, all phrases commonly seen dotted around their website.
He settles back down and continues; “So I worked up in Edinburgh for some time, and I was teaching salsa up there as well. We wanted to get up there and do a little tour of some of the place where we didn’t have much form.
“We made a film about the twenty years and went to some of the highlands and islands. It was something I’d always wanted to do, this romantic notion of going to these places that haven’t seen us before, and making a film about it, and meeting some of the local people and stuff like this. It was dope, it was nice.”
I asked him about the Cuban Brothers’ only album, released in 2013, Yo Bonita, (“the first of the artist album for this country, yes”) and how he found the process of recording. It seemed strange to me that a man so centred on performance and audience engagement should enjoy recording music in a booth.
“When it comes to writing you write what you know, and so for this album, then, we had a lot of guests on it; Omar, Mica Paris. We had Kurtis Blow, we brought him out of retirement into it, we had a whole cornucopia of guests.” This seems to be how he got past this hurdle, being able to improvise with someone outside of the band, retaining the element of performance even in such a small space.
“We have another album for this year,” he reveals. “I’m not doing one record a year; some artists are that prolific but I’m not that prolific. I want to do a record that can still stand up in twenty years’ time. So, the musica we’re doing, I want it to be correct, and hopefully have that classic shit that you can play twenty, thirty, fifty years down the line.”
With twenty years behind him and no sign of stopping, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see how seriously he takes the production of his music while he seems to have so much fun on stage. “That new record is called La Familia and that’s coming out in August.”
As a final question, I asked him to tell me about the most memorable performance Miguel has taken part in with the Cuban Brothers. Although they don’t seem like the type, they are highly demanded from many big names, including Robbie Williams, Elton John, and Richard Branson; “I don’t know, we’ve done a lot of crazy shows. We’ve worked a lot with Elton John, we’ve done a lot of Richard Branson stuff, we did a lot of stuff with Hugh Heffner before, rest his soul, at the Playboy Mansion and stuff like this.”
But Miguel seems to take it all in his stride; “Every show to me is special, it’s hard to pick something out. I think probably the craziest one we did, [was]the Gumball Rally. It was the time of the Beijing Olympics and we travelled to North Korea from Las Vegas.” I think this was the point at which my heart began to give up on me. This man sitting across from me at this little table, covered in sequins and fake tan, had been invited to North Korea. I began to doubt him, but surely nobody would make this up.
“We took the Stones’ private aircraft from Las Vegas to Northern China and then into North Korea. We had special dispensation; we were in Pyongyang for forty hours only, and we did a show for Kim Jong Il, so Kim Jong Un’s father, and with all his people. So apart from Paul McCartney we are the only band to have played North Korea.” Now the doubt was strong – not only had they been invited to North Korea, but had been invited to perform in front of North Korea’s dictator. I later looked into this claim, and found a YouTube video of them at this already named ‘Gumball Rally’, but no further mention of them in North Korea.
He continued: “So from there we did forty hours in Pyongyang, went to the mass games (their version of the Olympic Games, but it’s an art festival games) and then we did this show, and then flew back down to the Beijing Olympics and performed there.”
And then I felt my soul leave my body.
“I think it was Australia and America and the basketball finals. So, this was a crazy five days,” (understatement), “this is probably one of my favourite trips.” (Probably? One of?) “I had an involuntary eye twitch about nine months afterwards, for about a year I was in a bad way.” He clarifies; “Only from partying and from the fun and action.
“But over twenty years there’s been so many parties and so much good stuff that it’s just a blessing to be getting down.”
And for the last time Miguel transforms into the entertainer, looking into the camera and, as a farewell, crying: “This is Miguelito from Los Hermanos Cubanos! We’re down here, Common People, represent Southampton! Los Hermanos saying peace peace peace peace peace, look after each other, rave safe, love is a message, I wear it on my chest,” (at which he pulled out a necklace adorned with the heavy word ‘love’ from under his low-cut top) “I hate hate!”
Check out our review of ‘Disco Day’ at Common People, and keep your eyes peeled for the radio and TV versions of this interview on Surge Radio and SUSUtv.