Nobody Listens to…Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca

I’M BACK!

After an unexpectedly long time between posts, I sit here in the heat of the summer grooving to some salsa tunes by the fantastic transnational group Makina Loca.  As a musical genre, salsa has its roots in Afro-Cuban rhythms and melodies.  Ricardo Lemvo and his backing band have taken a respect for that history a step further: a band of Latin American and European performers fronted by a native of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I first heard Ricardo Lemvo’s music in a college course surveying Latin American popular music.  My professor played a sample of Lemvo’s track “Le Rendezvous” as a “gotcha”; no one in the class could correctly guess that we were listening to a Congolese singer perform authentic-sounding Afro-Cuban music. And this is exactly the appeal of Lemvo’s group: the singer perfectly occupies the space between Cuban son singers and African soukous performers.  By literally fronting an Afro-Cuban group with an African, Makina Loca reincorporates rumba and salsa with African dance styles that preceded and were influenced by them.  This is Afro-Cuban music gone full circle.

Ricardo Lemvo was born in Kinshasa, D.R.C., but moved to Los Angeles at fifteen and holds a degree in political science from Cal State Los Angeles.  While his official biography states that Lemvo knew he wanted to be a musician from the age of eight, the singer had actually planned to study law before forming Makina Loca in 1990.  Collaborating with a group of musicians from all across the U.S., Latin America, Africa, and Europe, Lemvo put together a tight-sounding professional group aimed at melding Cuban salsa with the Congolese rumba he grew up with.  From 1996 to 2007 the group put out five studio albums with songs spanning the musical gamut and sung in six different languages.

No member of Makina Loca claims to be a superstar, but each is proficient at the group’s style of soukous-inflected salsa.  Tasty horn parts scream with Caribbean heat when necessary, but also lay back into smoother Congolese crooning.  Guitar lines and piano runs also float back and forth across the Atlantic, sometimes playing up the sensibilities made popular in either Cuba and the Americas or Sub-Saharan Africa as the tune dictates.  It is the bass and percussion that make this possible, as Makina Loca’s genius lies in finding that common ground where drums and bass guitar are simply modern echoes of the African diaspora in its entirety.  All of this forms the backdrop from which Lemvo’s voice springs, a hoarse and light-hearted tenor sound that is as culturally ambiguous as the music.  With Lemvo’s shifting from English to Spanish to Portuguese to Kikongo and back, the L.A.-based group would be as at home in Kinshasa or Paris as in Havana or New York.

Ricardo Lemvo’s songs are always a tribute to Afro-Latin music, but fall in any of a number of styles.  The title track from 1998’s Mambo Yo Yo is perfectly Cuban, while “No Me Engañes Más” and “Manuela” from the same album are smooth soukous bounces.  Further diversifying the group’s material are tracks such as “Samba Luku Samba” and “Prima Donna“, which push forward elements of multiple styles in the same song. While blending a world of African-influenced or descended genres, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca hit on a groove that is intense and driving, but also loose and easily accessible.  This is simply dance music, and between the call-and-response vocals and the playful bass guitar lines it is incredibly difficult not to move while listening.  It is clear that this isn’t music to be just listened to; rather the listener needs to physically be a participant.

Over twenty years after initially forming, and more than fifteen after the release of their debut album, Makina Loca are still alive and well.  The group hasn’t released a record since their 2009 greatest hits album Retrospectiva,  but are still regularly touring (catch them next weekend if you’re in Angola).  Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca don’t have much of a social media presence (not counting Lemvo’s 3,000+ friends on his personal facebook page), but the group can be found at makinaloca.com, their official website.  Nobody is listening to Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca at the moment, but the band’s durability as a happily grooving outfit that bridges the Atlantic in their mix of Afro-Cuban and African musical genres definitely deserves some listenership and a lot of dancing.

Nobody Listens to…The Possum Posse

I hope that it’s not too cynical that when I like a country act it’s usually an ironic or sardonic group who plays southern-fried honky-tonk music with its collective tongue planted firmly in its cheek.  If that’s still defensible, this week’s installment of “Nobody Listens to This” brings you The Possum Posse, a string band from Austin that bills themselves as “The Greatest Band in the World. Possibly, Ever.”  They live up to their claims.

The first time I heard The Possum Posse’s music I didn’t think they were a real band.  Last fall a friend showed me a viral youtube video titled “Guy On a Buffalo“, a short ballad that seemed to narrate clips from some old movie about…a guy riding a buffalo.  The clip was hilarious, melding outlandish string band twang with quick humor about the insanity playing out onscreen (in the first of four “Guy on a Buffalo” episodes, the Guy runs away from a bear and sneaks up on a Native American who is trying to shoot him).  As I worked my way through the four episodes of “Guy on a Buffalo” I began wondering who might be behind these silly little videos, and sure enough the creators gave themselves a brief advertising spot at the end of one of the episodes.  Evidently a country group by the name of The Possum Posse had taken it upon themselves to tell the story of the Guy on a Buffalo in ballad form.

According to their blog, the Posse was first rounded up in small-town Clyde, Texas in 2002.  By 2008 the group had moved to Austin, and by 2010 had solidified their lineup to its present-day form.  Billing themselves as “sardonic honky-tonk/bluegrass”, and specialize in mashing up “urban cult classic and girlie-pop favorites”.  This is a fun band.  A full-length album is still in the works, but the group released their first professionally recorded EP, What’s Goin’ On With Grandpa?, in early 2011.  The four-track EP features exactly what the listener expects of The Possum Posse: honky-tonk goodness that ought to be taken seriously that’s been paired with subject matter and lyrics that shouldn’t.

With a classic string band sound and frankly hilarious lyrics delivered in a southern-fried twang, the Posse definitely has a gimmick as a goofy ironic country group that is equal parts ridiculous and hard-rocking.  The EP What’s Goin’ On With Grandpa? runs from a lively up-tempo title track about a grandparent who may have recently found a new love interest, two tunes about unconventionally unrequited love (“Pocket Dial” and “Baptist Girls“), and an ode to an erstwhile 90s dance music CD in “LaBouche CD”.  The songs range from slow ballads to quick-stepping Texas Blues, and each features multi-part harmonies from various group members and tasty electric guitar licks from the band’s 15-year-old (yes, seriously) lead guitarist in Jes Clifford (Jes’ father Marty is the group’s mandolin player).

The centerpiece of The Possum Posse’s work to date, however, is their “Guy On A Buffalo” series, which actually begins in the late 1970s with the release of Buffalo Rider.  The 1978 film (which features its own ridiculous ballad for the titular character) follows the story of Buffalo Jones, a frontiersman who somewhat inexplicably rides a buffalo.  Or, at least the film tries to follow Buffalo Jones’ tale.  The movie is bizarre on multiple fronts with a plot driven almost entirely by voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, countless scenes of how-did-they-ethically-shoot-that animal fighting, and a 20-minute side story about a raccoon trapped on an ice floe.  Because the film’s studio elected not to renew its copywright, the movie is now public domain and is available in its entirety on youtube.

Fast forward thirty years to 2011, when The Possum Posse took it upon themselves to tell the world about Buffalo Jones and his great adventures in the American West.  In four two-minute-long videos the group was able to sum up just about the entire plot of the 90-minute film, and stage it to a musical narration that is just as descriptive as the narration and sparse dialogue in Buffalo Rider.  All this is to say that The Possum Posse successfully deconstructed a full-length film and cut scenes and clips  to original songs to tell the story in less than ten minutes.  The “Guy On A Buffalo” songs are instant (youtube) classics, telling the story of the Guy over a catchy string band arrangement that makes a particular demographic of young Americans nostalgic for the Disney-fied westerns of our youth.  And it’s sharply funny.  From the songwriting approach that almost sounds as if the Posse is trying to narrate the film as they watch it to the group’s wails of “On A Buffalo!”, the songs are well-written and ingeniously clever.  While The Possum Posse deserves a great deal more attention for their non-youtube-bound work, “Guy On A Buffalo” may be a brilliant ploy to draw listeners in with funny youtube songs set to shots of a hairy man riding around on a buffalo chasing down guys wearing cool hats.

From “Guy On A Buffalo” to What’s Goin’ On With Grandpa? and beyond, The Possum Posse are true purveyors of a brand of country music that really taps into hipster sensibilities and real music aficionados alike.  The truth is that while the group’s music is intentionally silly and comedic in nature, the situations and emotions that spring up from the Posse’s original work are authentic; the self-effacing admittance that someone loved LaBouche in the 1990s and only gets phone calls from accidental dials is surprisingly relatable and earnest.  Though the same can’t necessarily be said for the “Guy On A Buffalo” series or live covers of Miley Cyrus songs, the band has a real heart and a real message.  They just convey it with a clever wink and a smile.

The Possum Posse can be tracked down on their official website and via twitter, and can frequently be found in hot, smoky bars across Texas.  While the band is still unsigned and working their way up to a full-length album release, The Possum Posse is, for all intents and purposes, Old Crow Medicine Show for people who want to laugh at country music while they listen.  Nobody is listening to The Possum Posse right now, but the brilliance of their “Guy On A Buffalo” videos and their exciting treatment of honky-tonk and string band music definitely deserves more attention.