Leave it to King King in Hollywood to have the only Latin night in Los Angeles that offers Cuban-style descargas -- jams that blend old Afro-Cuban rhythms, modern timba and hearty American funk -- and attracts a lively, late-night crowd more reminiscent of an East Coast party than an L.A. club night.
The year-old Tuesday night jams, led by Sono-Lux, a nine-member band made up of veteran L.A. musicians, have evolved into a must-see percussion showcase that prompts musical legends to stop in and join the fun. On a recent Tuesday, master percussionist and lead singer Lazaro Galarraga and his family treated the house to a magical folkloric set rich in the traditions of Yorubian Santeria. Then, as if one legend wasn't impressive enough, Francisco Aguabella appeared without warning and took over the congas.
"That Yorubian set was so good, I could have gone home right after that," said Monica Sanchez, a thirtysomething actress who lives near King King and often shows up on Tuesdays alone. "The music here is phenomenal and the vibe of the club is so casual. People who come here really appreciate the music and the dancing. They're not what I call the 'ballroom salsa clowns.' "
The live-music venue on Hollywood Boulevard looks like a dark, red New York warehouse with a portable bar on wheels but feels like Miami's Little Havana on Tuesday nights. When the band is not performing, DJ Saoco adds so much sabor -- flavor -- to the night that it's virtually impossible to stop dancing. Saoco is so beloved, in fact, that owner Mario Melendez lets him spin his mix of salsa, timba and merengue an hour past last call. Even reserved Aguabella, who is in his 70s, was on the dance floor well past the band's last set.
"I love playing all of Cuba's music, especially the music of the current generation," said DJ Saoco, who left Cuba in 1980. "Like all Cubans, I have that rhythm in my blood. I don't dance much. But I kill myself playing music. I love playing with this band. It's a great party, the kind of party that helps you forget all your troubles."
The life of the party is band leader Willie McNeil, a Kansas native who studied music in Cuba and has played drums and piano and recorded music in Los Angeles for 23 years. McNeil, also the percussionist for the Forty Deuce Trio, says the King King gig is the "biggest love" for his ensemble, which includes talents such as lead vocalist Luca Brandoli, a bata drum specialist and akpwon (a singer who calls down the deities of Santeria); jazz-based folk musician and multi-instrumentalist Mike Bolger; and world-renowned percussionist Joey DeLeon.
"This music just crept up on me," said McNeil, who has so much salsa in his soul that he even sounds a little Cuban when he addresses the crowd in Spanish. "I started listening to Poncho Sanchez and Tito Puente and a lot of other artists 15 years ago and then I went twice to Cuba and I saw how much freer and funkier timba is.
"As a percussionist, and not being Cuban or Puerto Rican, I don't get many calls for work to play Latin music so I decided to form my own band. I wanted to play salsa with a funky flavor that combined modern Cuban music, timba and American funk elements."
Most of the musicians are veterans who performed at the old King King on La Brea Avenue and inspire other talents to stop in and jam. On the night that Galarraga and Aguabella entertained, several other familiar faces hammed it up on stage and on the dance floor: conga player and vocalist Nenge Hernandez, percussionist Richard Marquez and pianist and bass player Serge Kasimoff, the musical director for Makina Loca. The first King King, known in Los Angeles as a music lover's heaven, closed in 1993. Melendez reopened it 18 months ago in a historic French chateau-style building at Hollywood Boulevard and Whitley Avenue.
"It's such a treat to have Lazaro and Francisco here on the same night," Melendez said. "Francisco used to show up and play at the old King King all of the time. I've always been a big fan of spontaneous expression of music in a live audience setting. The band takes their stimulus from the crowd and the night just builds from that. That's what I want to see in my club every night."
What you also see at King King is diversity. Both the band and the DJ draw a mix of die-hard Cubans, African Americans, other Latinos and white salsa fanatics.
"We definitely don't get the salsero trophy crowd here," McNeil said. "We get people who really live for salsa and timba or people who don't know anything about it but just dig it. You can see that the people here are all about the music."
That is what draws UCLA physicist and part-time salsa dance instructor David Lenemen, who used to frequent L.A.'s most popular salsa clubs but now prefers to dance in "authentic environments" like King King.