Formed just seven months ago, the L.A.-based folk quartet Cayambe, which makes its Orange County debut today in San Juan Capistrano, has already taken big strides in establishing a unique identity. Besides making itself heard through selected live performances, Cayambe has self-released an album ("Influences") of folk-based originals and standards and is in the studio recording a follow-up ("Favorites").
The group's ethereal, often haunting instrumentals call attention to the playing of Jhon Mosquera, who specializes in traditional Andean wind instruments, including the quena and quenacho (bamboo flutes) and zampon~a (panpipes.) What makes the group unusual is its fusing of traditional Andean music with contemporary flamenco and Caribbean flavorings.
"When we perform live, everyone seems drawn to the Andean flute," bass player Glen Mont said by phone from his Encino home. "It has this kind of organic yet exotic, mysterious quality and sound. But we're unusual because we use these rootsy instruments in spicy Latin styles where they're normally not found, like salsa, cumbia, rumba, bossa nova and flamenco.
"I think Latin and Andean music make for a good mix because both are rich in tradition and reflect the culture and character of its people, who are somewhat spiritual, sensual and earthy. They care more about a way of life and less about popular trends."
The band members' diverse backgrounds and experiences allow Cayambe, which was named after a volcano in the Andes of Pichincha, Ecuador, to pursue a wide-ranging repertoire of material. Represented on "Influences" are Andean traditionals ("El Pituco"), modern-sounding, Latin-tinged originals ("Zambo Dario," "Choro Para Duillio") and a pop cover (Daniel Robles' "El Condor Pasa," a 1970 hit for Simon & Garfunkel).
As a child, California-native Mont listened to his parents' and grandparents' collections of flamenco records. He played Spanish and nylon-stringed guitars before switching to the bass in junior high. He has worked in the studio as both musician and producer and has played with the L.A.-based groups Samba West and Kashwa.
Drummer Tony Shogren, Mont's rhythm partner in Cayambe, studied South American pop and musica folklorica in Peru and has played in the Latin groups Katia Morales and Brasil Nuts. Ecuadorean-born flutist Mosquera came to the United States in 1993 and for several years performed alongside Mont in Kashwa. He's also done studio work and contributed to numerous television and film scores. Rounding out the group is guitarist Federico "Freddie" Ramos, an Uruguay native who has studied at the Real Conservatorio de Madrid, Boston's Berklee School of Music and the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. He also teaches and lectures on jazz and flamenco guitar.
In joining forces, these musicians look to expand the parameters of Andean folk music as well as broaden its audience. According to Mont, Cayambe's "Favorites," due out next month, is the ideal vehicle for that.
"We're taking some songs that are American pop and film standards--like the themes from 'Zorba the Greek' and 'West Side Story,' and the Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby'-- and coloring them in our own way," he said. "We salsa-them-up by merging the Andean flute, flamenco guitar, percolating rhythms . . . creating a full-blown orchestra of another kind.
"At the same time, these are popular songs with very recognizable melodies that are just being done in Andean and Latin styles. This music is not [inaccessible] like some forms of extemporaneous jazz. It's very relatable. . . . I think that's why you'll see such an ethnically diverse mixture of young and old, men and women at our performances. Our music is for everyone."
Mont says he loves stretching musical boundaries, but his greatest pleasure comes from the spontaneity onstage. The group rehearses the basic form of each tune, but there's the freedom to improvise live--often on the fly.
"I really enjoy the communication I have with the rest of these guys," he said. "It's unspoken, but it's like we're talking to each other just the same. Sometimes it all happens in a second, like if someone is soloing and wishes to continue, there's a musical cue to indicate he'll continue playing for another 16 bars, or whatever. We're very close-knit."
* Cayambe plays today at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$6. (714) 248-7469.