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Silver streak

Winnipeg's Papa Mambo is celebrating 25 years of filling local dance floors with hot Latin American rhythms

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Papa Mambo members (L to R) Dave Lawton, Gilles Fournier, Amber Epp, Jeff Presslaff, Ken Gold, Victor Hugo Lopez Bustamante and Rodrigo Muñoz.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Papa Mambo members (L to R) Dave Lawton, Gilles Fournier, Amber Epp, Jeff Presslaff, Ken Gold, Victor Hugo Lopez Bustamante and Rodrigo Muñoz. Photo Store

Although it's the name of his band, folks sometimes refer to Rodrigo Muñoz as Papa Mambo.

The mistake is easy to make; after all, Muñoz is Winnipeg's undisputed salsa king. His venerated collective, which has become a fixture of the Winnipeg music scene, turns 25 this year, and is celebrating with a show at the West End Cultural Centre -- the venue where it played its first show more than two decades ago.

"It doesn't feel like it's been 25 years," marvels Muñoz, 52. "I feel like we just did our 20-year anniversary show."

Reflecting on the past 25 years, performing with the late, great Puerto Rican musician Tito Puente and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra rank among the highlights in a career full of them.

Of course, Papa Mambo's story begins well before that first gig at the WECC in 1989. Mu±oz picked up the guitar as an eight-year-old in Chile.

"We had a guitar in the family. My sister took lessons, and she'd teach me everything she learned. I ended up doing much more with it than she did."

Muñoz's family fled to Argentina after the 1973 Chilean coup d'etat. There, he was surrounded my musicians singing songs about revolution. When his family arrived in Canada in 1975, Rodrigo would perform at the social gatherings organized by Winnipeg's Chilean community. "I would get up and do my thing -- but because I was a little kid, I was the comic relief," he recalls with a laugh.

Still, being onstage stirred up a love of performance. Before long, Muñoz was performing with a folk outfit called Millrapue. "No one could pronounce it," he laughs. "We played Andean folk music. The music of the Incas."

In the early 1980s, Muñoz studied classical guitar at the University of Manitoba. "Now they have a jazz program, but back then it was mostly classical," he says. "The classical guitar is beautiful, but it's a quiet instrument that you enjoy at quiet concerts.

"I wanted to be onstage and see a sea of people dancing."

It's little surprise that his imagination was captured by salsa, a general term for Cuban and Puerto Rican dance music. The red-hot genre both excited and challenged the guitarist.

"I listened to salsa music and I didn't understand it at the time. It's not the easiest to play or to get your head around, but I was attracted to it." He started listening to as much salsa as he could, transcribing songs along the way. "It was very challenging and it took quite a few years. Even in the first couple years of Papa Mambo, it didn't sound correct."

In the 1990s, Muñoz returned to his native Chile and spent a few years soaking up the Santiago salsa scene. "I learned a lot. And I kept Papa Mambo alive."

Twenty-five years and a lot of studying later, Papa Mambo -- whose ranks include Amber Epp (vocals), Ken Gold (alto/baritone sax), Dave Lawton (trumpet), Gilles Fournier (bass), Jeff Presslaff (trombone), Will Bonness (piano), Victor Lopez (bongo/vocals), Ramiro Sepulveda (congas) and Shannon Kristjanson (flute/alto sax) -- turns out authentic Afro-Cuban music.

"It's gotten more accurate," Muñoz says of Papa Mambo's sound. "Now we know exactly what we're doing. I know what each instrument should be doing."

To pull it off, he needs to surround himself with the best of the best.

"All the people I employ, they're some of the top players in town," he says. "You need seasoned players to play this music."

And you need Papa Mambo to get a sea of people dancing.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 C3

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