Mambo Maniacs 

Orquesta La Internacional rips it up in mambo time -- and the dancers go crazy.

In salsa music, there's always been a subtle skirmish between musicians and dancers. The paying customers want the music's steady, danceable rhythm; the players would rather stretch out and solo. That tension has been there ever since yanqui big band swing met Cuban dancehall music in Havana and the mambo was born, says bandleader Tito Garcia. But lately in the Bay Area, a cease-fire has been declared and everyone's happy.

When timbalero Garcia's Orquesta La Internacional takes the stage Friday night at Berkeley's Down Low Lounge (2284 Shattuck Ave., $15 door, 7:30 p.m.) for a benefit dance party for the Web site www.salsaroots.com, he and his fourteen-piece conjunto will play "hardcore" Latin music from the Tito Puente-Machito era -- and the dancers will love it. "We were born twenty years too late," muses the Peninsula-based Garcia about his band. "We missed mambo. But we still push the instrumental mambos because it gives the guys a chance to swing." And for Rita Hargrave, a dance fanatic (and VA hospital psychiatrist) who founded the Web site after she became addicted to Latin rhythms, the Cuban roots are worth digging: "There's a lot about salsa that most dance fans don't know."

Garcia (an optometrist by day) believes that the dancers have finally come around to his favorite style of salsa. "They now realize that mambo big band jazz is where it's at," he says. "It's a dancer's heaven." That's a far cry from what Garcia calls "bubble-gum salsa," which club owners of the '90s insisted on. "They'd say, 'You're too jazzy,' but we did mambo anyway. We had the luxury of playing what we wanted because we all had day jobs," laughs Garcia. "And we adopted a simple set of rules: No booze. No dope. And a suit and tie, no matter what kind of a dump we were in." The Latin club scene may have dwindled with the economy (Garcia cites Roccapulco and Cafe Cocomo in SF, plus Down Low, as survivors), but if La Internacional's version of Puente's "Slam Bam" is any indication, the salsa that's on the table in 2002 is red-hot.

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