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Pop Music Review

Radio Bemba's Latin Grooves Get Knitting Factory Moving

January 16, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With its arty orientation, the Knitting Factory Hollywood is about the last place in town you'd expect to have free salsa dancing lessons. That was the scene Sunday, though, with a handful of couples being taught steps to inaugurate what's planned as a semi-regular residency by Radio Bemba, a young local band offering a pan-Latin array of Colombian cumbias, Afro-Caribbean rumbas and Mexican rancheras with considerable musical chops.

Vivacious singing sisters Juliette and Carla Commagere front the group with obvious feel for the music's roots. But the most promising heritage comes through leader Joachim Cooder. A drummer of great talent, he has for several years been a regular participant in the Buena Vista Social Club sessions of Cuban veterans overseen by his father, guitarist Ry Cooder, who has long taken music from all over the globe and filtered it through a distinctive vision.

That kind of vision is somewhat lacking in Radio Bemba at this early stage, as the set was largely an exercise of styles. But the Cooder heritage did show itself several times Sunday, notably in a Latinized version of Roscoe Gordon's old blues shaker "Just a Little Bit." And there was such playful tinkering as tossing Nigerian high-life rhythms into the opening rumba "Carolina" and grafting funk to the Cuban-originated "Sabor de Pachanga."

Most encouraging were two songs that added social content to the mix and moved it beyond mere stylistic homage. "Los Desenterados," one of two original songs done Sunday, addresses the displacement of the Chavez Ravine community for the building of Dodger Stadium in the late '50s, while an encore of "India Matea," a Colombian cumbia, protests the slaughter of natives. But even when the material wasn't so distinctive, the neophyte dancers had plenty of opportunity to try out their new moves.

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