It makes perfect sense, in a Berkeley kind of way. As the headliner for Sunday's Front Row Festival, the Downtown Arts District's all-day coming-out party, the Downtown Berkeley Association has booked a Congolese-born trumpeter from Los Angeles who happens to lead the hottest salsa band on the West Coast. After all, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca (a wonderful multilingual pun that means "crazy machine" in Spanish and roughly "dancing in a trance" in Kikongo) embody the kind of cross-cultural creativity and Old World-New World rapprochement to which Berkeley so often aspires.
The free outdoor festival on Addison Street between Shattuck and Milvia kicks off at noon with a reading by former US poet laureate Robert Haas. The festivities include an array of food booths, a wine and beer garden, and numerous activities for children. A $5 ticket offers unlimited access to the arts district's various venues, including the Jazzschool, Aurora Theatre, the Berkeley Rep, Downtown Restaurant, and Capoeira Arts Cafe, where various local dance, jazz, and other arts groups will be performing indoors. There's also plenty of local talent on tap outside on Addison, including trumpeter Ellen Seeling's seventeen-piece Montclair Women's Big Band, rootsy singer-songwriter Laurie Lewis, and the funk-hop jazz combo Mingus Amungus. But Lemvo and his audacious ten-piece band are destined to be the dance-inducing life of the party. Weaving together Caribbean grooves with Central African beats, Lemvo has honed an ever-expanding rhythmic palette encompassing Dominican merengue, Puerto Rican bomba, Congolese soukous, and Cuban son. "I am always in search of new ideas, new avenues," he says. "Although I will stay true to my basic sound, I like to evolve. I like to grow."
Lemvo traces his band's sound back to his 1960s childhood in Kinshasa, the cosmopolitan capital of the huge country then called Zaire (and now the Democratic Republic of Congo), when he was lulled to sleep by the surging Cuban and Congolese dance music wafting up from the bar next door. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1972, he began collecting records by Cuban stars Arsenio Rodriguez and Beny Moré, whom he still reveres. Studying political science in college, he gradually became disenchanted with the prospect of an international law career and returned to his first love, singing everything from Afrobeat to Mexican rancheras as a backup vocalist. In 1990 Lemvo created Makina Loca in his own polyglot image, with a repertoire of tunes in Spanish, English, Lacumi, and Lingala. After his 1996 debut, Tata Masamba, cemented his underground reputation as the hottest addition to the Southland's Latin music scene, he signed with Putumayo and made the electrifying albums Mambo Yo Yo and São Salvador. At the Front Row Festival, Lemvo will be focusing on material from his new CD Ay Valeria! (Mopiato). It's the kind of setting where he feels the band plays best. "We feed on the audience," he says. "It helps a lot when the audience is packed and there's electricity in the air. It makes us play better. Those are the type of situations I prefer, festivals and nightclubs where people are not afraid to let loose."
Call 510-549-2230 or visit DowntownBerkeley.org for more information.
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