Onstage, singer Sabina Sciubba is vivacious, with a salty sense of humor and a seductive mien—impossible not to notice. But she has a way of hiding in plain sight, often covering her face, if not her entire head. Recently at New York’s Pier 54, she emerged theatrically from the wings in a gigantic hat, like a lampshade with her head as the bulb. After a couple of numbers she tossed it aside. “I just don’t choose the most comfortable things!” she laughed. Her hair was piled up and pushed forward; you still couldn’t really see her face. A week later for a gig at the downtown club Nublu, Sabina’s gear was less flamboyant, but a stylish, close-fitting chapeau still covered her eyes.
The cloaking theme also crops up in the band’s album art. On the cover of Talk To La Bomb, Sabina’s only visible from the waist down. The band’s eponymous 2005 debut depicts her three male bandmates blindfolded and laughing while she strikes a pose, apparently nude inside a cocoon of white cloth. It’s an audacious image that captures the band’s infectious combination of work and play, of calibrated songcraft and spontaneous invention. Their polyglot pop is chic, worldly, decadent, fun, and even obliquely political, with songs that mix dub, house, electro, punk and ethereal jazz.
Products of their environment, the bandmembers are habitués of the Nublu scene, where jazz players and hip club denizens breathe the same steamy air and forge common goals, where the grizzled avant-garde jazz conceptualist Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris may hang out at 2 a.m. and listen to a DJ set. Then the music may segue to a live band—seamlessly, so there’s no break in the dancing.
“Sixteen bands have come out of this place,” says Ilhan Ersahin, Nublu’s Turkish/Swedish owner and founder. Ersahin is also a jazz saxophonist and leader of Wax Poetic, a band Norah Jones sang with before she went solo. Other Nublu-launched acts include Kudu, I Led 3 Lives, Our Theory and Love Trio. This fall saw the launch of a dedicated label, Nublu Records.
Loose-limbed drummer Aaron Johnston explains how the band got its name: “This great Brazilian band, Forro in the Dark, was playing every Wednesday night at Nublu, and word got out about all these hot Brazilian girls dancing around. So after a few weeks the place was jam-packed. People from Wednesday’s Brazilian night started coming to our show on Sunday. There were a bunch of Brazilian girls who were really excited about our music. So I thought of the name. It’s kind of like calling the band ‘free beer.’”
There’s no use searching for literal meanings in the group’s lyrics and titles, and Argentine keyboard and electronics wizard Didi Gutman is reluctant to shed any light on the matter: “I like to make the brain work a little bit, rather than tell you our message.” According to bassist Jesse Murphy, most of their ideas occur in the process of hanging out, talking and having fun. “At one point we were in the basement, and I was singing everything I wanted to say to people, just in general. So we started doing that a lot, like some strange underground Broadway scenario.”
Another influence is a Serbian artist named Petar, a friend of the band, whose drawings often find their way to the walls at Nublu. “Petar got involved in everything we were doing,” Murphy recalls. “He’s always drawing this weird shit,” adds Johnston. “He’ll use these little phrases, mostly broken English and misspelled.” Murphy continues: “We’ll be talking a lot of trash and Petar will be drawing, and he’ll hear a phrase that he likes. Or he’ll make a new version of what he thought he heard.” It’s a multilingual game of telephone, in other words. “Things get twisted real quick with this band,” concludes Johnston, “with Sabina speaking Italian and French and Spanish, and then us, we’ll hear things a different way, and it becomes comical.”
One of Petar’s random pet phrases was “talk to the bomb,” which bec