A splash on the street

Times Staff Writer

If you can stop dancing long enough to listen to the festive, provocative rhythms of Los Pinguos, you might hear a little salsa or a bit of cumbia, a flamenco riff here, a reggae beat there. You might even catch a samba note in the mix topped by a little rock. You just won't be able to pinpoint a musical category.

"These guys are the South American version of the Beatles," says die-hard Third Street Promenade fan Saul Vesecky, known as "Mr. Vengo" for the poster he carries naming his favorite Los Pinguos single, "Vengo." "They're like the Gipsy Kings!" says another spectator who would rather not give his name on this sunny Saturday afternoon. "Hmm, not exactly. The Latin Gipsy Kings? Can we say that?"

Sure, you could. But it would never cover the breadth of the band's work because this eclectic Argentine group of primarily acoustic musicians and singers is not a typical Latin band or a traditional flamenco ensemble; neither folksy nor fusion. They are all of that.

"We like to describe them as a hot Argentine folk groove band," says Carlos Nino, a manager at Temple Bar in Santa Monica, where the band has a monthly gig. "It's not 100% traditional, but it's more traditional than a fusion band. Their scene is a vibrant, sophisticated crowd but not chichi, Conga Room lame. It's more vibey." And highly popular.

Only in Los Angeles for two years, Los Pinguos (a derivative of "penguins," the band invented the word, unaware that it can be a vulgar word in other Latin American countries) are on the local music scene's fast track, playing gigs at the Latin Lounge, the Key Club, the Knitting Factory Hollywood, Temple Bar, King King, Studio 7 and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

Last year, Los Pinguos was the champion of Ed McMahon's "Next Big Star" talent competition, and the band's two independently recorded albums have sold a total of 12,000 copies.

"For an independent group that arrived here with nothing but our dreams, it has worked out pretty well for us," says bass guitarist Enzo Buono, 33. "The five of us had to settle down in L.A. and look for places to play our music, but we've been able to always live off our own songs. Of course, there's a lot more we want to do now."

The five Buenos Aires natives formed the group in Argentina four years ago, after years of studying music and playing in different bands. Chasing their dream to become international musical stars, this summer Los Pinguos -- twin brothers Enzo and Adrian Buono, Jose Agote, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Manzur -- will release its third independently produced and distributed album, "Serenata."

"We are primarily an acoustic set," says eye-catching percussionist Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 32, who sits on top of his wooden Peruvian box to drum on it. "Our essence is the nylon guitars and the wooden box, and in the beginning we played a lot of rumba and flamenco mixed with some Latin music and Argentine rock. But we've been experimenting and growing outside of that with reggae, cumbia, Cuban rhythms and even boleros," or ballads.

The Latin Lounge in West Hollywood was the group's first club gig here and introduction to the entertainment industry, which resulted in performances at a season finale party for the ABC sitcom "Dharma & Greg" and the Ritmo Latino awards at the Shrine Auditorium.

But no job has been more fruitful -- and nowhere are Los Pinguos more beloved -- than on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

"Playing at promenade has led to everything else," says bandleader Adrian Buono, 33. "We've met so many people there, from producers to musicians to people who want to hire us or work with us. It's probably been the most important thing we've done in terms of advancement."

On the promenade on weekends, they are a familiar sight. From the dozens of regular fans who come out to support them to the casual passersby, Los Pinguos definitely has a following that crosses most boundaries -- race, age, gender and even celebrity. Cindy Crawford and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland have posed for pictures. One homeless woman regularly gives them orange juice, soup or dessert. And devoted fan Jeff Roth, with his lawn chair and intimate knowledge of their music, frequently is mistaken for their manager.

"I bring them water and I just sit here and enjoy," says Roth, 53, of Hollywood, who has been following them for 18 months. "Their music is so upbeat, and I learn the words and learn some Spanish."

For the band members, relative newcomers to the area, the promenade serves as both a window to opportunity and a bridge to a new culture. "We've been able to have regular contact with the people of L.A. and feel the vibe of what it really means to live here," says Enzo Buono.

"It's the most realistic stage on which we play," adds Leguizamon, who also plays the harmonica and the tambourine. "The people who listen to us there are people who are there coincidentally. It's more spontaneous and therefore more real than a carefully produced show."

The band took the last six weeks off to travel to Argentina and compose "Serenata," a romantic, melancholy collection written mostly by Agote, 32, who plays the Spanish guitar and is the group's lead singer.

The past year took a tragic turn for the band when Agote's girlfriend, Veronica Glaubach, died after giving birth to their daughter Indiana.

"That was a definite marker in the history of our band," says Enzo Buono. "That baby girl is our baby girl. It changed all of our lives."

Indeed, it is a tender sight: these five men, their instruments and the baby they adore. She accompanies them to practice and to their gigs, and smiles widely when she hears her father's melodic voice.

The men take turns playing with her, and understand when Agote excuses himself from a rehearsal to feed her and put her to sleep.

"You'll be able to detect everything we've been through in these new songs," Enzo Buono said. "They are melancholic but they're also hopeful."

Looking toward the future, Los Pinguos is expanding. For larger stage performances -- such as their monthly gig at Temple Bar and their new Wednesday night at Zabumba -- they have added drummer Nicolas Raiman, trumpet player Luis Erik Gonzalez, trombonist Francisco Torres and Nahuel Conte, another percussionist.

The group of longtime friends, who behave like brothers, wants everything the city of dreams offers.

"A recording contract with a major label so we can cross over into this market," says Enzo Buono.

"We want to travel all over the world with our music," says acoustic guitarist Manzur, 33. "And break down boundaries," adds Adrian Buono.

"And win a Grammy!" says Leguizamon.

"And," says Agote, "never stop dreaming."


Los Pinguos

When: today, 9 p.m.

Where: Temple Bar, 1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica

Cost: $7

Info: (310) 393-6611 or www.lospinguos.com

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