La Mambanegra @ Pavilion Theatre, Manchester

La Mambanegra, Pavillion, Manchester International Festival, Manchester, 14 July 2017

Colombian eight piece outfit La Mambanegra came into the city of Manchester on the back of a current European tour and they well and truly set the festival alight with one of the finest and most audience friendly performances ever witnessed by a Latin music band in the city, and certainly one of the most charismatic by a lead singer and band leader, the irrepressible and endlessly energetic, Jacobo “El Callegüeso“ Velez Mesa. This follows hot on the heels of one of the year’s most acclaimed Latin releases, ‘El Callegüeso y Su Mala Maña’, which in some ways is a return to the hot and sweaty sound of the brassy and undiluted salsa of New York City in the 1970s, yet goes beyond that to encompass the sounds of revolutionary Cuba, and especially the innovatory sounds of Los Van Van. This plus a healthy dose of funk in the bass lines and some jazzy keyboards that morph into house, with the gospel-infused vocals of the female vocalist, Carolina Mosquera Arrechea, close in pursuit and able to operate both in English as well as her native Spanish.

The electrifying rapport with the audience is what marks this band out as one to watch out for they initially teased the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm, but then increasingly drew in the public with variations in the participation of the former, and so terrific and physically demanding were their endeavours that the audience could not fail to be seduced by the quality of the music they generated. If the musical foreplay entered into by this group could be bottled, then they would surely have become millionaires by now. This was seduction on a scale that even the late great Barry White would have struggled to match on this evidence. In particular the interplay of the two male and female vocalists with their deliberately nasal harmonies was a joy to hear and watch as they clearly delighted in each other’s company and ad-libbed off one another, as did the brass and piano.

Based around a storyline of a street character from that hotbed of throbbing salsa, Cali, in their native Colombia, the band expertly weaved their way through the repertoire from their latest recording, with frequent instrumental breakdowns that included bassist Yeferson “Jeffry” Carabali Obando, who clearly is a disciple of Jaco Pastorius, the great and innovative bassist from 1970s jazz-fusion super group Weather Report, as well multiple influences from the world of funk. This writer especially appreciated the subtle jazz-inflected contribution of keyboardist, Daniel Gutierrez Morales, who has soaked up the influential Sonora Ponceña band leader and pianist, Pappa Lucca, and almost certainly has internalised some of the legendary piano vamps of the one and only Eddie Palmieri.

As for the brass, it was satisfyingly tight, with the two piece trumpet and trombone, augmented just occasionally by the lead singer, who also happened to be a saxophonist and trumpeter, Roger Torres Rivera, impressed with his soloing and, in general, the band leader constantly encouraged the instrumentalists to stretch out and exert themselves, which is a very pleasant departure from other band leaders who restrict the growth of their individual members. Definitely not this band leader who seemed to have a very detailed historical knowledge of Latin music and had incorporated disparate elements of what he had learnt and made them an integral part of the band sound. That is an impressive feat for sure. By the time the band tore into the fiery, ‘Barrio caliente’, the two vocalists were imploring the audience to have a ball with them and the latter wasted little time in responding in kind.

One of the most endearing things about La Mambanegra is that they have a strong and well grounded social consciousness and this was reflected when the lead singer whose English was limited (‘More power’, he urged, when the audience’s collective voice was not loud enough), still managed to communicate his love of Manchester as an internationally renowned music city and his desire to lift the city’s inhabitants morale up after the tragic events at the Manchester arena. Colombia has sadly had its fair share of tragic loss, but is in a new and, hopefully, upwardly moving phase in its history and so it was genuinely heart warming to hear that a representative of another country could find it in his heart to empathise with the sorrow of Mancunians. The band clearly revelled in the atmosphere and invited some twenty members of the audience to come on stage and dance, while the evening ended on a high with the entire band posing for a selfie photo while the audience looked on in admiration.  

The Barcelona football team have a motto that distinguishes them from the rest: ‘mas qué un club’, ‘More than a club’. A fitting motto for La Mambanegra might well be, ‘Mas qué un grupo’. Fitting indeed.

Tim Stenhouse