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Ricardo Lemvo: Infused with the Cuban beat

Hooked as a child in Africa, Lemvo is living his salsa dream. He brings his intoxicating salsa fusion to the Santa Monica Pier this week.

July 13, 2009|Lorenza Munoz

At age 10, Ricardo Lemvo was hooked on the blazing horn arrangements, conga drums and up-tempo sound of Johnny Pacheco and the Orchestra Aragon. It was 1967 in Kinshasa, Congo, and the intoxicating pleasures of Cuban son and rumba were sweeping through Africa.

"I still get goose bumps listening to that music," said Lemvo, who's due to perform a free concert at Santa Monica Pier on Thursday as part of the Twilight Dance Series. "It was perfect. I knew that I wanted to become a musician because of that music one day."

It took him more than three decades, but Lemvo eventually did form his own band, Makina Loca. Six albums later and with a reputation that is firmly established in the U.S. salsa circuit, Lemvo and Makina Loca have released a compilation of their greatest hits.

For "Retrospectiva," due out July 21, Lemvo re-arranged some of his most popular songs, including "Mambo Yo Yo" and "Ay Valeria." The collection also includes a cumbia version of the classic Cuban Silvestre Mendez song "Yiri Yiri Bon." Lemvo's versions are laced with the influence of his African birthplace, the Cuban sound that made him love music and even the spirit of his Angolan grandfather, whom he calls his guardian angel.

"That little boy who discovered Cuban music still inhabits Ricardo Lemvo's heart," said Tom Schnabel, host of KCRW's "Cafe L.A." music program. "It was like discovering the Beatles or Michael Jackson -- that Cuban sound was this sacred treasure that Ricardo still celebrates in his music."

Lemvo was born into a family of highly educated Congolese just as the country was making its way to independence from Belgium. Although his family was originally from Angola, including a paternal grandfather who translated the Bible from English into the Kikongo language, the Lemvos moved to Congo near the turn of the last century. He was expected to become a lawyer or a doctor. Instead, he gravitated to music.

As a child, he was a chanteur ye-ye -- or a pop singer -- for a local band. He sang James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and Otis Redding's "Direct Me" by learning the lyrics phonetically, since his first language was French. His mother was not pleased.

"I did not dare tell my mother," he recalled recently over red wine and tapas at a restaurant in Culver City. "In the society where I lived, being a musician was associated with delinquency. Musicians were vagabonds. It was not until she heard my first CD in 1995 that she accepted that this was the job I wanted for myself."

In 1961, Lemvo's father was chosen as part of a small group of scholars to study in the U.S. He decided to stay and in 1972, he asked his son to join him in L.A. Lemvo did not speak English at the time, and he remembers clearly that there were only three blacks at Lawndale High School, where he had enrolled.

After high school, he drifted, dropping out of junior college and working dead-end jobs until he found a steady gig as a jailer for the LAPD. He says it was easy work that allowed him to play gigs at night.

By the early '90s, Lemvo was heavily into the local salsa scene, but it was not until he recorded his first album, "Tata Masamba," that he thought he could make a living off his passion. "I said to my arranger, 'This is our passport out of Los Angeles,' " he recalled. "We will no longer be considered a local band."

(Lemvo speaks five languages fluently, but he does not read or write music or play an instrument. Instead, he relies on his Cuban-born arranger, Jesus "El Nino" Perez, to put his melodies to paper.)

Critics praised the album as "seamless" and "infectious" and lauded Lemvo for fusing the Central African soukous-style guitar and Angolan kizomba with their distant cousin, the Cuban son montuno.

In 1997, Dan Storper, founder and chief executive of the world music label Putumayo, heard Lemvo's version of "Yiri Yiri Bon" and used it on one of the label's first Latin music compilations. He went on to release the label's first-ever solo artist album with Lemvo. But it entailed more promotion than Putumayo could handle at the time, he said. "Carlos Santana said to me once, 'You know that song "Mambo Yo Yo"? That is a hit if I've ever heard one,' " said Storper. "And one of my biggest disappointments was that if we had had a major label with video and radio support, it would have been."

For more than a decade now, Lemvo has released his albums through his own label, Mopiato. The 52-year-old Lemvo tours frequently across the United States, Europe and Africa, but he also relishes his time with his wife, Jennifer, and 3-year-old daughter, Isabela.

Lemvo has shared the stage with such salsa stars as Chucho Valdes and the late Celia Cruz. But perhaps his greatest moment came in 1999 at New York's Lincoln Center, where he was invited as a special guest vocalist to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Orchestra Aragon. It's one of the happiest memories of a career that shows no signs of slowing.

"To this day, I think, 'Did that really happen?' " he smiled. "To me, it's like a dream."

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