February 22, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press


Red-hot rhythms live on

Papa Mambo's brand of musical salsa still sizzles 30 years later

When Rodrigo Muñoz started a new band in 1989 he had two objectives: the music had to be loud and the rhythm had to be danceable. It’s safe to say he’s achieved both with Papa Mambo.

At the time, the 10-piece ensemble was the first Latin band of its kind in Winnipeg and 30 years later, the group’s blend of salsa, jazz and Afro-Cuban music is still an outlier in the city.

The staying power of Papa Mambo is a testament to the calibre of the musicians involved and Winnipeg’s apparent soft spot for groovy music.

But, longevity wasn’t top of mind for Muñoz back in the ‘80s.

"I just wanted to make some music," he says. "When I finished with university I wanted to do something else aside from classical guitar."

Papa Mambo leader and percussionist Rodrigo Muñoz. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Papa Mambo leader and percussionist Rodrigo Muñoz. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Muñoz was born in Santiago, Chile, and moved to Canada when he was 12. His was one of a number of Chilean families who settled in Winnipeg in the 1970s after fleeing a political uprising at home.

The time was frightening for many Chilean families, but for Muñoz, the move to Canada was exciting.

"As a kid and when your parents are taking care of you, it’s kind of a big adventure for you — you’re not living the hell that they are."

His family was an integral part of his musical journey as well.

"Latin Americans are very musical people," Muñoz says. "So there was always music around the house. My parents loved music, they were not professional musicians, but they sang in choirs."

His sister introduced him to the guitar and he was part of a family folk band called Millarapué when he was a teenager. The group played festivals and gigs around town, but the project "died naturally" when Muñoz started studying music at the University of Manitoba.

When he graduated he wanted to get back to his roots and start a band that was equal parts challenging and fun. With its heavy syncopation and complex arrangements the Afro-Cuban music he heard growing up seemed like it would fit the bill. He pulled a band together with some of the classically trained musicians he met at the U of M.

Papa Mambo take a break during practice for the band’s 30th anniversary show Friday, Oct. 11 at X-Cues Billiards and Cafe. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Papa Mambo take a break during practice for the band’s 30th anniversary show Friday, Oct. 11 at X-Cues Billiards and Cafe. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The pop music world and the classical world can co-exist, but you have to really work at it," Muñoz says. "We did a few gigs and it sounded weird, but it was fun."

He found the sound he was looking for when he was asked to sing with a local salsa jazz band called El Sonido.

"I stole a whole bunch of people from that band and that’s when I started Papa Mambo," he said, laughing.

Ken Gold was one of those defectors. A professional saxophonist, Gold has played "anything and everything for anybody" throughout his career, but Papa Mambo holds a special place in his heart.

"It’s something that’s really a labour of love," he says. "We’re not doing it for the fame and fortune."

The early days of the band included a lot of gigs at the West End Cultural Centre and a lot of learning. During this pre-YouTube era, Muñoz learned how to play Afro-Cuban music by listening to recordings and travelling to Latin America to work with experts. Papa Mambo’s sound evolved as he shared what he learned with his bandmates.

The band’s membership has changed over the years, but Gold is one of a handful of musicians — including bassist Gilles Fournier and trumpet player David Lawton — who have been involved since Day 1. The camaraderie and the music is what keeps him coming back.

"There’s nowhere else in Winnipeg to play the kind of music we play," Gold says. "It’s a good mix of people and we love doing it... It’s a great outlet for all of us, we’re all busy as musicians playing in various other capacities, but we always make time for Papa Mambo."

Papa Mambo percusionist Daniel Roy. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Papa Mambo percusionist Daniel Roy. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Amber Epp is one of the newer members of the band. She started out as a fan of Papa Mambo and would follow the group around the city before she was invited to join as lead vocalist in 2008.

Epp’s story is a classic tale of faking it until you make it. She is a trained jazz musician, but growing up in Steinbach meant she didn’t have a lot of exposure to Latin music. She also didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

"When I started I would print out the lyrics in Spanish and I would write underneath, phonetically, how to pronounce the words," she says. "I would just pretend I knew what the words were even though I had no idea."

She eventually enrolled in language classes and now sings in Spanish more often than she does in English.

Epp is a soloist and performs with several smaller groups in the city, but relishes every opportunity she gets to hit the stage with Papa Mambo.

"When you get to play in a bigger band there’s just a different kind of energy, you’ve got horns and percussion and there’s just more people working together to make this big groovy machine and everyone’s playing a part," she says. "It’s great to have that feeling of support, not only from the other musicians, but they’re also taking a cue from you."

The band has gained a dedicated following in Winnipeg over the last 30 years and has played some pretty interesting gigs.

For Muñoz, highlights include getting invited to play on the short-lived CBC variety show Friday Night! with Ralph Benmergui in the 1990s, touring across Canada in 2005, playing the mainstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and performing with Tito Puente, when "The King of Latin Music," visited Winnipeg.

When asked why he thinks the band has been a success, Muñoz says it all comes down to the music.

"Most people really like it because it’s very groovy music, as soon as you hear it your shoulders start to move and you can’t help it."


Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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