Mambo Arizoniano

By: Marcelo Báez

When someone utters the word “fusion” while describing new music to me, I immediately roll my eyes. I’m a pessimistic asshole, sure, but “fusions” are often nothing more than sacrilegious musical mishaps (ever hear Technotronic’s mariachi-fused techno song?). A friend recently asked what I thought of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, a band I knew nothing about. Being fully aware of my musical prejudice, he carefully described them as “an updated mambo band.” Ultimately my friend’s description made me feel even more suspicious, but, after listening to Mambo Mexicano!, La Orkesta’s debut LP, I can’t deny their genre-mashing brilliance.

Considering Mambo Mexicano! is two years old, I’m a little late to the Orkesta party. But they’re not the type of band that blows up overnight anyway. Being based out of Tucson, Arizona, (by no means a major music hub) their geography probably hinders their musical presence, but it also grants them allure. It’s true: there’s nothing more exquisite than discovering a pleasant surprise from, or in a place, where it is least expected. Plus knowing Mendoza is from the magical city of Nogales, where brass-heavy Mexican music has always been very popular, helps to connect the musical dots.

“Indie mambo,” a genre listed on the band’s Facebook page, is an easy way to describe their music, but it completely undersells it. While “Mambo Mexicano,” the opening track, is certainly a punchy mambo number, “La Cacharita” is more like half Ángeles Negros, half spaghetti western soundtrack. “Amada Amante” is a deadly, elegant danzón that definitely needs María Rojo in its music video.

’60s San Francisco psychedelia is all I can think of when I listen to “Toma Tres.” The Pérez Prado influence is in full effect on shorter songs like “Mambo in the Dark,” but “Mambo Dukesa” is a lot more reminiscent of Herb Alpert than the mambo king.

I wish the band would explore more of the sinister sound of “Orkesta y Sonido,” a short interlude, because it sounds as if Tom Waits—no stranger to Latin rhythms—had something to do with it. The closing track, “Sueños Amargos,” with its bittersweet ’60s vibe makes for a perfect exit.

Mambo Mexicano! works because Sergio and co are not appropriating mambo, boleros, cumbias (or any brassy genre), but instead are building on them. Mendoza clearly grew up listening to the masters (Pérez Prado and Chico Che are name-checked on the band’s website), and it’s obvious he took his time to understand and dissect their work.

With their debut, La Orkesta flawlessly pulled off what others struggle to get right: making the genres they work with evolve.

Mambo Mexicano! by Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, available now

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.