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.