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Living Mambo


Mamborama: The Story So Far

by Bill Wolfer

My obsession with Cuban music started at a concert at the Bellyup Tavern in San Diego. Or did it? That night, the music I heard affected me in a most profound way. In other words, it blew my mind!

But since then, I've come to believe that there's an explanation for why it affected me so deeply. I discovered that I'd been to Cuba before I was even born. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father were on vacation in Miami. This was before the revolution and the ensuing embargo, and there were regular ferries that you could drive your car onto and be in Havana a short time later. Wouldn't that be nice now? So my parents decided to spend a few days in Havana. They went to the famed Tropicana. I think I must have heard the music, listening through my belly-button window. Why else would it grab me and not let go when I encountered it so many years later? The musical director of the Tropicana at this time was the great pianist Bebo Valdés. And the group that I heard that night at the Bellyup Tavern? It was Irakére, led by none other than Bebo's son, Chucho Valdés! How's that for strange but true?

Driving back that night, I decided that I wanted to learn how to play this music. This started me on a quest that has taken me to Cuba four times, and a whole lot of wood shedding and study. It's also made me a lot of new friends all over the world, and especially in La Habana.

We started out rehearsing in the Palm Springs area with musicians that I knew. Drummer Alan Diaz was the only Cuban in the group. Alan played with Sergio Mendez for ten years, and plays Brazilian music brilliantly, but we were all learning how to play Cuban. We started gigging in Palm Springs, and I started writing tunes for the group. When we finally had enough songs of our own, we played a concert in Palm Desert just playing our own material. The audience response was great, and I decided that night that it was time to record a CD.

Before we started recording, I went to Havana to study and listen to the top groups down there. I fell in love with Cuba and the Cuban people and made friends with most of the musicians that woulnd up playing on Entre La Habana Y El Yuma on that first trip. Marcos Crego, pianist for Klimax showed me some important concepts as did Manolito Simonet.

Afer I got back, I enlisted the help of Nengue Hernandez for the CD. Nengue is an amazing encyclopedia ofCuban percussion who plays everything. I originally asked him to play timbales, but he didn't approve of my choice of conguero, so he said he would play congas and bring in Jimmy Branly to play timbales. The first time I met Jimmy was the first day of recording Night of the Living Mambo. I told him and Nengue both to feel free to make suggestions and "Cubanize" the tunes. They were great, and they played their asses off.

The album was well received, and became an underground hit in Italy. From there, it spread to Zurich and Spain and the Netherlands. We were invited to play two big festivals in 2002, but the offers were contingent on our already being in Europe touring, so that didn't happen. Still, I was encouraged by this unexpected success to pursue another album.

By the time I returned to Havana the second time in May of last year, I was toying with the idea of recording down there. I asked El Indio and some of the guys from Manolito Y SU Trabuco if they would consider recording with me if I could work it out. The answer was "Sí, como no?" So the following December I recorded six of the tunes for the new album, and then completed the rest in Los Angeles with the amazing Cuban musicians that live there. The result is Entre La Habana Y El Yuma, an album I'm extremely pleased with. I think it's the best thing I've ever recorded.

What's next? Too soon to say. There's talk of a European tour, but only talk at this point. I don't know exactly when I'll be going back to Cuba, only that I will. The obsession with Cuban music remains as strong as ever, and I continue to study and work with this amazing music.

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