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root salad La Mambanegra

Currently one of Colombia’s most exciting bands, thinks Bas Springer


a Mambanegra hail from Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia, where music blares from bars, houses and cars day and night. Blending the

distinctive rhythms and irresistible horns of Nuyorican salsa from the ’70s with funk, hip-hop, Jamaican raggamuffin and soul, Jacobo Vélez’s nine-piece band create mod- ern Colombian dance music for people with open ears. Without doubt they are current- ly one of Colombia’s most exciting bands. On their latest album El Callegüeso Y Su Mala Maña, there is plenty of room for bru- tal Latin rhythms, ear-shattering horn play- ers, exuberant Latin vocals and stirring per- cussion. Already popular in Central and South America, it’s Europe’s turn now.

In recent years such young Colombian bands as Choc Quib Town and Bomba Estéreo have made a name for themselves with their upbeat fusion of traditional music and elec- tro-pop-folk. La Mambanegra (The Black Mamba), based in Santiago de Cali, usually known by its short name ‘Cali’, travel far beyond salsa tradition with a unique sound. Band leader, composer and singer Jacobo Vélez is inspired by his grandfather Tomas Renteria. He tells a very long, almost mythical tale about his grandfather who went to New York by boat in the 1930s. “He was thrown overboard near the Cuban coast because he was a stowaway, lost his memory, got rescued by a Babalawo (priest from the Ifá religion) who gave him back his memory and contin- ued on his way to New York, where he set up a band called La Mambanegra.”

True or not true? When Vélez tells this

story it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. He continues: “Everybody believed that my grandfather had died but one afternoon I met him in the Barrio Obrero, the work- ing class neighbourhood of Cali. My grandfather gave me a hat and a stick. Every time I put on the hat I will receive my grandfather’s power, whose nickname was El Cal- legüeso, which is also my nickname. That’s why our lat- est CD is called El Callegüeso y Su Mala Maña”.

Jacobo Vélez started his professional career in the band La Mojarra Eléctri- ca who recorded three albums between 2003 and 2011. “In the beginning we played a mix of traditional folklore, jazz and later

Afrobeat and timba. In 2012 I was asked to form a special big band to perform at the closing ceremony of the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá, one of the biggest theatre festivals in the world. I invited a lot of good musicians and formed a band with the name La Mamba- negera, as a tribute to my grandfather”.

“Cali has a very special link with salsa. People fell in love with salsa in the ’60s when salsa legends Ritchie Ray and Bobby Cruz performed here. Everybody in town went crazy because they had never heard this music before. Now you hear salsa in every part of the city, on the bus when you going to your school, in coffee and tobacco shops, when partying. Salsa is omnipresent in Cali. Salsa is the soundtrack of my life, I can’t live without it. But I also love funk, hip-hop, raggamuffin and Cuban music”.


e are an atypical band, we don’t play tradition- al Colombian music. We are not so much influ-

enced by Joe Arroyo, but more by the Fania All Stars, La Sonora Ponceña, Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz, let’s say the classic salsa from New York. We have our own sound, which is not appreciated by everybody in Colombia. We call our music ‘break salsa’ because we have a lot of rhythmical and musical breaks in our songs. No other band in Cali is doing what we are doing. In the past the music lovers in Colombia were divided: you either listened to salsa or reg- gae or funk. We bring all those people together because we speak a new lan-

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guage. We sing about different subjects like love, politics, social problems in the barrio, street life. Sometimes the mythical figure of my grandfather enters the lyrics.”

Despite positive changes Cali still has a bad image. How is life in Cali now ?

“It’s still a bit dangerous, like every city in Latin America. In the ’60s we had a big cultural movement with theatre, cinema, lit- erature. In the ’70s there was a big pause in the cultural movement because of the narco - traffic, everything closed down more or less. Narcotraffic influenced the cultural life the same way whisky influenced the big bands in the 1930s and cocaine did with salsa. Cin- ema, theatre, everything died with narco- traffic. This very dark period more or less ended in the late 1990s.”

“Now we are recovering and there is a huge cultural movement. For example, we have the best salsa dance schools in the world, and there are a lot of bands playing new music. Literature and theatre are com- ing back again. After the crisis the cultural renaissance in Cali is very strong. The biggest problem in Colombia is the corrup- tion. Popular music in Colombia, like reggae ton, is completely corrupted. In Colombia we have a big payola problem. This means that you have to pay if you want your music to be played on the radio.”

“It would be pretentious to call our band the symbol of the new Cali because there are a lot of great artists here. So we are not the only one but we are definitely con- tributing to a better image of this great city”. F

Photo: Iris Velez

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