When world-music styles are joined, the fit can feel forced, and even the best-intentioned projects can end up as self-conscious experimentation. But Ricardo Lemvo and his band Makina Loca manage a blend of Cuban and Central African traditions that is seamless and organic--and infectious.
Lemvo has a leg up on the competition. First, there's a natural affinity between the styles: African rhythms underlie the rural Cuban sones montuno that Lemvo favors, and it's Cuban music that inspired the African rumba movement and the faster-paced soukous that followed.
Second, Lemvo is no dilettante. Raised in Kinshasa, Zaire, until he moved to Los Angeles at age 16, he grew up immersed in home-grown soukous and in the Cuban music that permeated the city.
"It was always my dream to form a band to combine the two forms that I love: Cuban and Zairean," Lemvo says. The singer and songwriter realized his dream in 1990, when he formed Makina Loca in L.A. with his musical partner, Cuban-born arranger and multi-instrumentalist Nino Jesus.
The band, which plays Saturday in Laguna Beach, is rounded out by musicians from Holland, Cameroon and the United States. The resulting sound is something Lemvo can call his own: "We are not a 'salsa band,' and we are also not an 'African band,' if there is such a thing."
Some songs are pure soukous, some are full-scale Cuban workouts. And, says Lemvo, "some songs are combinations. Some lean this way to the Cuban style, some to the Zairean side."
"This is Latin music with an African twist, or maybe it's African music with a Latin flavor," says Tom Schnabel, host of "Cafe L.A." on KCRW-FM, which plays Lemvo's music.
Lemvo is drawing on a rich tradition that has brought together African rhythms and Spanish melodicism--which in turn has roots both in Europe and in North Africa. "The whole Afro-Cuban and salsa thing is so interesting anyway," Schnabel says. "Then it went back to Africa, and that makes it all the more interesting."
Lemvo's self-produced album "Tata Masamba" provides testimony to his ability to create something fresh from that musical history, with a multicultural vocabulary that can be dizzying.
Consider "Minha Querida," with verses in Portuguese sung by Lemvo and in Spanish sung by Jesus, with a guest turn by Paris-based soukous superstar Sam Mangwana--sung in KiCongo, a language of Zaire.
A medley on the album sandwiches two classic Cuban tunes around a '50s-era Congolese rumba by the seminal Joseph Kabasele--"Le Grand Kalle." And the title of a song by Jesus gives the three points of the group's musical compass, "Africa, Havana, Paris" (Paris being the hub for expatriate Zairean musicians).
In addition to Mangwana, the album--which has received radio play on numerous world-music shows across the U.S. and elsewhere--features guest musicians that include members of top Paris-based soukous band Les Quatres Etoiles, along with members of Tabu Ley Rochereau's Anaheim-based ensemble.
Makina Loca has become a fixture in L.A., playing regularly at such clubs as LunaPark and the new Ash Grove, in addition to other festival and club dates throughout Southern California. Their steadily growing following comprises fans of both Latin and African music, along with club-goers who simply love to dance.
"Some people come to see us every time we play," Lemvo says. "We've had people follow us all the way to Santa Barbara and San Diego."
The group played the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library last year as part of the world-music series there. Sundarajan Mutialo, who books that series, decided to bring Makina Loca to Laguna Beach for the new series he is helping to establish for the Laguna Beach Unified School District.
This will be the second show in the series, and the first at the newly renovated Artists' Theatre on the Laguna Beach High School campus. The indoor venue has 425 seats, promising to be a comfortable new South County venue for world-music events.
But seats? Lemvo doesn't expect the audience to sit for long. Ricardo Lemvo is a Zairean-born Cuban music fanatic living in L.A.: "By the end of the night, we'll have people dancing in the aisles."
* Makina Loca plays Saturday in the Artists' Theatre, Laguna Beach High School, 625 Park Ave. 7 and 9 p.m. $6-$12. (714) 497-6142.