The Dig! Interview – unedited

If you’re in Winnipeg, you might have read about Rodrigo Muñoz in the Jan/Feb issue of dig! Magazine. Here’s the full, unedited version from Winnipeg’s favorite Latin musician. (You can see him play this Friday, Jan 25, at the Park Theatre with Trio Bembe & Rambling Dan Frechette for Jazz Winnipeg’s Nu Sounds Concert “Latin Blues”.)

1. You came to Winnipeg from Chile. When was that & how old were you? What has that experience brought to your musical life?

I came to Winnipeg with my family on July 25th of 1975 when I was 12 years old. One of the things that got me involved in music and performing was my experience in Argentina where we spent almost a year living before coming to Canada (Argentina was the first country we fled to after the 1973 coup in Chile). As the child of refugee parents I would hang out with Chilean singer songwriters and musicians and would learn songs and chords from them and soon enough I found myself performing songs of revolution and also sexual double entendre, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, without of course my parents knowing. When we arrived in Canada I behaved much better since we were finally back to living a more or less normal life. A few years later after being rejected at first (I was too young they said) I joined a folk group started by my brother and uncle. After a few months I became their musical leader. I learned to play all the instruments and then I would teach them the parts at rehearsals. We performed at one of the first “Winnipeg Folk Festivals” (maybe the second, I can’t recall). Finally I went to the school of music at the U. of M. from 1981 – 85 where I studied classical guitar under Harold Micay and Paul Hammer.

2. You’re known far & wide as Papa Mambo. How did that name come about? How would you describe “the Papa Mambo sound”?

Papa Mambo has always been the name of the band but many people started calling me Papa Mambo. At some point I stopped correcting them. The name came about when my first timbale player (Steve Denby) one time introduced me as Papa Mambo after I had introduced everybody else in the band as having Mambo for a last name but didn’t introduce myself.

Since the beginning Papa Mambo has strived for the authentic salsa sound which at first was patterned after the Nuyorican bands of the seventies and later the Cuban bands. I think we are finally there with a combination of both. It’s been a long road of learning.

3. I remember dancing to your band when I first came to Winnipeg in the late 80s! Tell us a bit about the history of Papa Mambo, & how the band (I guess it’s “bands” in the plural now) continues to develop.

I formed a band with university friends in the late eighties (87-88) and we called it Yeah Mambo Eh! I knew very little of writing pop music charts at the time, the School of Music at the time was strictly a classical music school churning out mostly singers, pianists and music teachers and so my first charts were all ridiculously long, for instance I would write out every single note the piano and bass had to play, since then I learned to instead teach my players to play in the style and simply write out chord symbols unless there is an obligato section. About a year later I was invited to sing and play congas with a latin jazz/salsa band called El Sonido formed by Ray Egan and Hubert Grenier (both trombone players) this band was made up of more mature players who were steeped more in the jazz music tradition and they sounded really good, soon enough I formed Papa Mambo and the Gringos (the Gringos was dropped soon after) by using some of the players from this great band, Ray Egan on trombone who became my right hand man on arranging, Ken Gold on saxophone who has been with the band ever since, the local living legend Gilles Fournier on bass, one of the finest trumpet players (and singer) in town the great David Lawton who joined the band about a year and a half later, the incredible pianist Marylin Lerner, who later studied with Sonny Bravo (Tito Puente’s main pianist) in New York, Carlos Diaz a great Salvadorean conga player, Greg Black a great local drummer that I trained on timbales, Carol Hutchinson on vocals who was my girlfriend at the time (later became my first wife) and Marcelo Ulloa a great Chilean singer. Papa Mambo jumped into the local scene, we recorded our first self titled album in 1991, performed the main stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, performed at the first ever Jazz Winnipeg Festival, were featured on CBC radio several times and gigged at the most popular music venues in town including the legendary West End Cultural Centre, The Spectrum (now The Pyramid), The Norwood Hotel etc. we also had the honour of being the core of Kerry Kluner’s Big Band that accompanied the great Tito Puente at Le Rendez-Vous in March of 1992.

Thanks to a government grant I went to San Juan Puerto Rico the following year to study percussion with “Cachete” Maldonado Anthony Carrillos and Tony Sanchez (Puerto Rican All Stars) and also arranging with the legendary Puerto Rican trumpet player Juancito Torres who was also my host in the island, all of these people are of course alumni of the famous Fania All Stars of the seventies.

After almost 24 years Papa Mambo is still going strong. Gilles, Dave, Ken and myself are still here plus the newer members like Scott Senior, Victor Lopez, Will Bonness, Amber Epp, Marcelo Hinojosa, and my new right hand in arranging and producing trombonist/pianist/arranger/composer Jeff Presslaff. We have recorded two new Albums since I restarted the band after coming back to Winnipeg in 2001, did a cross Canada tour of Jazz Festivals, and lately performed with the WSO and the TBSO symphonic salsa. Our latest project is the recording of a salsa album, the 2 CDs that we have produced up to now are all latin jazz.

4. You are also one third of Trio Bembe. Are you in other ensembles as well?

Yes besides being the guitarist and one of the arrangers on Trio Bembe. I am the timbale player (sometimes upright bass player) for Victor Lopez’  Son Urbano  who performs more in the newer Cuban timba style. I’ve also collaborated with many other musicians such as The Duhks (was their drummer on their first year of touring and album), the great Larry Roy, Greg Lowe, Dan Frechette, and many others. I am the guitarist and sometimes arranger of the MCO’s outreach group (six piece ensemble, string quartet plus bass).

5.  I know you as a singer, guitar player, percussionist, band leader, arranger, composer. (Have I missed any of your various hats?) How do those various roles feed into one another?

I also play standup bass, I recorded the bass on Papa Mambo’s “Amanecer” album that came out in 2005. Father of 16 beautiful children……just kidding (no kids except the people in the band who act like kids often).

It really helps my arranging to be able to play a lot of instruments, also being versatile is essential to making a living as a musician in my case, I still play classical music for a living once in a while (I played a rare guitar part on Verdi’s opera Otello with the WSO a few years back) and my latest composition “Marejada” will be premiered on a concert put on by Groundswell where other better known and more renown composers like Jim Hiscott and Sid Rabinovitch  will be featured in May of 2013.

Being versatile not only helps me in making a living as a musician but it also keeps things interesting, this is something that probably most professional musicians will agree with me (for most pro musicians playing several instruments is commonplace as well as arranging and writing)

6. Who are your most vital/important musical role models?

There is so many great musicians out there whose work I admire that it would take several pages to write down, and most of them are not “famous”, as well as many of them are either local people or people whom I had the honour of sharing the stage with.

7. What are the biggest life lessons you’ve learned from being a musician?

I always joke that after years of being a band leader I should be given an honorary psychology degree. The most important thing that music has taught me is how to work with other people (still learning), also to know myself better, some of the reasons I enjoy my work are the fact that it strokes my (giant) ego, being on stage and being the centre of attention does this nicely, also when you play music specially if it’s with other people you get a what I would describe as a mental massage, and when you go in “the zone” is like being in a state of hypnosis, percussionist more than any other musicians will understand this because this is how we can play for hours repetitive patterns without getting bored, paradoxically when speaking about egos it is exactly this emotion the one that you have to put in check for this job, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone from one gig where I am the centre of attention with people asking for my autograph, applauding me and congratulating me for the great show that we put on followed the next day playing at some insignificant local event where you are just background music and nobody cares or notices you, this kind of thing keeps your ego in check.

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Check out the GIGS section to see where Rodrigo and Trio Bembe are playing next.

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