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A hemisphere pulses in Locos por Juana

February 06, 2009|Reed Johnson

The clock is ticking down toward Sunday's Grammy Awards, which means that it's time for some last-minute showcases from bands hoping to take home gilded gramophone statuettes. Stripped-down ensembles and 50-minute sets (if you're lucky) are the norm for this type of gig, which especially help lesser-known nominees reward longtime fans, entice curious trend-spotters and drum up viewers for the star-studded telecast ahead.

Fortunately, cramming a tour schedule doesn't have to entail compromising quality, as the gifted Miami band Locos por Juana demonstrated with a tight, tantalizing performance Wednesday at the Conga Room. After years of sending the South Beach and Little Havana crowd into a polyrhythmic tizzy, this funky, pan-Latin amalgam finally is getting coast-to-coast props for its excellent third record, "La Verdad," which is up for a Grammy in the category of best Latin rock/alternative album.

Locos por Juana deserves the accolades, along with its steadily widening support base. If you haven't yet, get ready to hear a lot of their current signature tune, "Tu Sabes Muy Bien (La Nalga)." It's the kind of jammin' single destined to be a spring break anthem.

Blending relaxed reggae grooves with biting social commentary, hip-hop raps with brassy solos, Locos por Juana pulls listeners into a reverse Gulf Stream churning through the Straits of Florida south to Jamaica, Venezuela and Colombia, and over to Puerto Rico. Unlike bands that simply blurt out half-digested influences, Locos por Juana shows with every song that it has thoroughly assimilated its multiple musical fathers, with a Caribbean lilt and a rock-steady beat.

Although the band's skanking exuberance pulses through its studio recordings, the live effect is exponentially greater. From the instant that frontman Itagui Correa bounded on stage, shaking his dreads like bullwhips, Locos brought to the Conga Room the kind of joyful abandon associated with L.A. hometown favorites Ozomatli, without sacrificing instrumental precision. Lead guitarist Mark Kondrat and trumpeter Emiliano Torres evince discipline and finesse, and the band's rhythm section is superb.

Like L.A., Miami is a fair-weather metropolis with many dark corners. Locos caught the sunshine-noir mood with its edgy second number, a dancehall-infused cover of the Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe classic "Calle Luna, Calle Sol," with Correa and his bandmates bringing emotional nuance as well as passion to the song's scale-sliding harmonies.

Two songs later, they launched into "De Donde Es? (Imigrante)," an exhilaratingly phrased lament for the plight of the undocumented. Mexican American rapper Malverde hopped up and supplied a few cameos verses, as Locos added yet another musical shading to its 2 Tone palate. Like Kingston's reggae prophets and the guitar-and-horn-driven ska bands of late-'70s and early '80s Britain, Locos por Juana understands that, unless you're Bob Dylan, the political also should be danceable.

Although Locos' set was succinct, the Conga Room crowd got its money's worth, courtesy of two unusually strong warm-up acts, the techno-infatuated Palenke Soultribe of Cali, Colombia, and the pop-electronica outfit Chana.

Palenke Soultribe's gift for building songs around prodigious beats impresses, but in concert the voices tend to get washed out of the mix. To catch these guys' true flavor, you'll need to score a copy of one of their discs, such as the new "Oro."

The emerging Dominican American singer Chana and her writer-producer partner Marthin Chan serve up a hothouse hybrid they've dubbed "trop-electro-hip-pop."

They've put out an EP, "Manos Arriba," and I'll be among those awaiting a complete album.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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