During a hot summer of ugly racial tensions, overheated campaign rhetoric about a wall to keep out Mexicans, escalating violence between police and black men, heated debate over the Second Amendment and mass violence from Orlando to Nice, it can seem like a miracle when people from different backgrounds come together in public spaces to have a good time.
At risk of sounding trite, that’s the power of music.
The music of West End Mambo, led by Nicaraguan keyboardist and arranger Cesar Oviedo, is stylistically grounded in the classic salsa sound established in New York City in the 1970s by artists like Ray Barretto and the Fania All-Stars. The band effortlessly reaches back to mambo, Latin jazz and the core tradition of Afro-Cuban music while extending a pan-Latino umbrella to include merengue music from the Dominican Republic, along with variants from Venezuela and Colombia. Established in 1999 — the name comes from Winston-Salem’s West End Boulevard, where the band rehearsed at a founding member’s house — West End Mambo evolved from a Latin jazz band to an ensemble firmly committed to dance music by 2014, Cesar Oviedo said.
One didn’t need to know the distinctions between a cha cha cha and guaguanco or cumbia and timba to get caught up in West End Mambo’s life-affirming energy and exuberance during the band’s free concert as part of Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership’s Summer on Liberty concert series on July 16. Watching the dancers — an African-American woman with braids wound into a bun nimbly trying out new moves, a young Latinx couple executing complicated salsa dance steps, an interracial group of millennials who looked like they might be Americorps volunteers spinning each other around below the stage, a grizzled white man performing a manic step routine in loafers, and an elderly black man doing the chicken strut — was half the fun. A woman in a wheelchair swung her partner’s hand, and another who was missing a forearm thrust her hips from side to side. Sometimes crossing lines of race and age as the dancers changed partners, the expressions of surprise and joy on their faces told stories of discovery, pleasure and challenge.
A steady downpour that delayed the concert a half hour past its designated 7 p.m. start time broke the heat, and the golden-hour light suffused the street with pastel warmth. A mural depicting a lively urban scene with ’60s vintage American cars that covered a derelict building to the left of the mobile soundstage paid homage to a time a half-century past when Liberty Street pulsated with R&B and soul music — a fitting prelude to the multicultural tableau of the present.
A white couple visiting from Pinehurst, who had accidentally stumbled upon the music, marveled at the scene as the band performed “Quimbara,” a song popularized by the late queen of salsa music, Celia Cruz.
“The dancers here are so passionate,” the woman said, adding that they had seen a lot of Latin music in places like Atlanta, but never anything as good as this.
A typical number began with a percussive intro — a syncopated and electrifying interplay between Atiba Rorie on congas and Ramone Ortiz on timbales — next Cesar Oviedo coming in on piano with a jazzy exposition, and then the band taking off in a simmering groove with bass player Tim Singh hewing closely to the beat and vocalist Oscar Oviedo (no relation) lining out lyrics with a smile on his face and exhorting the crowd. Just before the end of the song Cesar Oviedo would rise from his bench and signal across the stage to saxophonist Steve Blake, and the horn section — also including trumpeters Steve Sutton and Christian McIvor — would join the bandleader/keyboardist in a closing finale: Ba-da da-da da-da-dat!
The salsa standards and dance numbers that form West End Mambo’s repertoire might be a bit below the musicians’ paygrade, but none of them were complaining.
“I love playing jazz and fusion,” Cesar Oviedo said during the break. “Here it is just joy, energy and yeah! It’s like ‘The Electric Slide.’”
When the band returned to the stage for a second set, they obliged fans of virtually every style of Latin music.
“Para Colombianos,” cried Oscar Oviedo, a native Colombian. “Cu-cu-cumbia!” As Cesar Oviedo took a lyrical piano break, the dancers laughed as they recognized themselves on Jumbotron set up on Sixth Street.
The band shifted into a low-key mode for a pastoral rendition of the Cuban folk song “Guantanamera.”
The horn players grabbed their music sheets as the band picked up the tempo for “La Faldita,” introduced by Oscar Oviedo as “merengue for Dominicans.”
Before the last number, Oscar Oviedo shouted out homelands, prompting loud cheers and sometimes laughter in response to each.
“Puerto Rico!… Cuba!… Dominican Republic!… Mexico!… Winston-Salem!… Uruguay!… Chile!”
The band closed with a cover of the Ray Charles’ classic “Hit the Road, Jack” that segued into “Moliendo Café,” a Latin song of roughly the same early ’60s vintage as Charles’ North American R&B hit that Cesar Oviedo arranged for West End Mambo in the Cuban guaguanco style.
If there was one sour note, it was when a drunk man in a battered straw hat climbed onto the stage as Cesar Oviedo was introducing the musicians, leading the bandleader to expedite the ritual and gesture furiously for the interloper to get lost.
“It’s always great to be here,” Cesar Oviedo said. “You’re always fun. We have fun. And we get paid. How about that?”