Ricardo Lemvo Spreads Multicultural Sound

The Congolese-American vocalist's new album mixes languages to draw listeners deeper into Afro-Cuban fusion.

A barrage of cross-cultural messages serves as the

introduction to Sao Salvador, the new album from

Congolese-American singer

COLOR="#003163"> Ricardo Lemvo.

The opening track, "Le Rendez-Vous" (

HREF="http://media.addict.com/music/Lemvo,_Ricardo/le_rendez-vous.ram">RealAudio excerpt), has a French title. But as

the song spins into a pinwheel of Afro-Cuban piano figures,

crackling percussion and stratospheric brass blasts, the

feel is pure salsa.

And the mixture is entirely intentional.

"I made a conscious effort to make the record as diverse

as possible," Lemvo said of Sao Salvador, released

on the Putumayo label.

Lemvo, 40, has been mixing Cuban and Congolese

rhythms into something new for nearly a decade. Today

when his horn-heavy nine-piece band,

COLOR="#003163"> Makina Loca, locks onto

a groove — be it Dominican merengue, Puerto Rican

bomba or Congolese soukous — it sounds at home

nearly anywhere.

Music For Everybody

"In my music," Lemvo said during a break from his nine-

month Boom Boom World Tour 2000, "I like to include

everybody. Oftentimes, I've gone to salsa shows where a

Latin band will play, and I'll see people who really want to

dance and join in the fun but feel intimidated because of the

fancy steps some dancers are doing. You don't feel that

with my music."

Sao Salvador was recorded in Los Angeles, where

Lemvo has been based since 1974.

Lemvo became interested in music at the age of 8. In

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the

Congo, he lived next door to a bar that blared Congolese

rumba and Cuban music all day and night. In school he

listened to such Cuban stars as

COLOR="#003163"> Arsenio Rodrigues and



Lemvo's version of Congolese music has evolved from the

tradition established by Congolese stars such as

Pepe Kalle

and Tabu Ley

Rochereau.These bandleaders sang in

phonetic Spanish and adapted the piano parts of the Cuban

son montuno dance-music style for guitars that often

sounded like African thumb pianos.

'Everybody Understands Drums'

The multilingual vocalist opens the cultural door wide by

singing in a variety of languages, sometimes shifting from

Spanish to his native Lingala to Portuguese in the space of

a single song. He feels these sleights of tongue help the

listeners participate and do not confuse them.

"I like to quote [proto-rapper/jazz artist] Gil Scott-Heron,"

Lemvo said. "After he did a show in France, they told him,

'The audience doesn't speak English. How could they like

you?' And you know what he said? 'Everybody

understands drums. And if you understand drums, you get

the message.' "

Lemvo slips into English just once on Sao Salvador,

during a short passage in the hip-hop-flavored "Nganga

Kisi" (

HREF="http://media.addict.com/music/Lemvo,_Ricardo/nganga_kisi.ram">RealAudio excerpt). If Lemvo had his

way, he would have done the whole piece in English —

but somebody upstairs objected.

"I wrote it entirely in English," he explained. "But when I

submitted the song to the record company there was"

— he paused, choosing his words carefully —

"resistance. One of their arguments was, 'Your audience is

unaccustomed to hearing you sing in English. This will

confuse them.' So I compromised, and I sang it partly in

Spanish, partly in Lingala — and that one English part

stayed. But when I play it live, I try to use as much English

as possible."

Minds Opening

In 1990 Lemvo formed his band, Makina Loca, which he

named after a Kinshasa bar. Depending on the language

you use to translate it, the name means either "trance

dance" (in the Congolese Kikongo language) or "crazy

machine" (in Spanish). His band was more experimental in

its earlier years, often performing half-hour-long salsa

descargas, or jams.

These days, however, Lemvo is more interested in the

craft of songwriting. And Sao Salvador, in many

respects, is as much a pop album as an Afro-Cuban party


Of all the languages at his command and on display in

Sao Salvador, his third album after 1994's Tata

Masamba and 1998's Mambo Yo Yo, Lemvo

insisted he singles none out as his favorite. "I used to

wonder how anybody could be romantic in languages like

German or Russian. But you can be romantic and soulful in

any language. It's people who do not understand a

particular type of music who make that argument, I think."

But it's an argument Lemvo encounters less and less

frequently. "The American audience is finally opening up,"

Lemvo said. "American people are very loyal to their own

brand of music, so [they] hesitate before embracing

anything in another language. But take the

COLOR="#003163"> Buena Vista Social Club,

for example: They sold millions of records, and the majority

were sold to non-Latinos. So people are opening up their

minds, and that can only be a good thing."

Ricardo Lemvo tour dates:

March 31; Montreal, Quebec; Kola Note

April 1; Winooski, Vt.; Higher Ground

April 2; Cambridge, Mass.; House of Blues

April 3; New York, N.Y.; SOB's

April 7; New Orleans, La.; House of Blues

April 8; Houston, Texas; Houston International Festival

April 15; San Antonio, Texas; Sunset Station

April 16; Austin, Texas; Antone's Night Club

May 7; Atlanta, Ga.; Music Mid Town Festival

June 17; Columbus, Ohio; Music in the Air Festival Latino

July 1; Roskilde, Denmark; Roskilde Festival

July 22; Victoria, British Columbia; Rootsfest Music Festival