Arts Desk

Rubén Blades and Metro Mambo at the Smithsonian This Weekend

Metro Mambo 3-28-10Last weekend was an action-packed one for Latin music in D.C.'s music venues; this weekend is slightly more academic. On Saturday, the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History are offering a free program, “Onstage Conversation- Rubén Blades—In His Own Words.”  American History Curator Marvette Pérez will speak with Blades, the Panamanian musician, composer, actor, and activist who is best known to salsa fans for his work with Willie Colon, and who has also run for president of Panama and appeared in a number of movies, including The Milagro Beanfield War.

On Sunday afternoon, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum presents the third free event in the "Metro Mambo" series, “Abaniquito: The Beginning.”  Host Jim Byers, of WPFW's Sunday night program “Latin Flavor—the Classic Edition,” will be joined in the first hour by pioneering D.C. mambo musicians Hedrick Mitchell and Paul Hawkins, along with the local Rumba Club, who will demonstrate various styles including the mambo, rumba, and pachanga. Byers will also play portions of reel-to-reel recordings of Buddy Rowell’s 1954 mambo sessions at the Cairo Apartment-Hotel on R Street NW, '60s demo recordings by Paul Hawkins' Orquesta Siglo Viente, and live '70s recordings of Maria y sus Magnificos.

Then Rumba Club will give the audience a chance to dance as the band dig into its own catalog for the second hour. The title, Abaniquito, is significant, as that Spanish word meaning “little fan” is also musical slang for the ubiquitous rim shot that begins a musical phrase in a number of genres, from danzon to mambo. I asked Jim Byers via e-mail to tell me about the roles Mitchell and Hawkins played in the early days of DC mambo:

Hedrick Mitchell was still in Cardozo High School when he formed the DC-region’s first home-town mambo band, Los Americanos, in 1951.  A staple of local radio, dances, and nightclubs, Los Americanos also performed regularly on DC’s legendary dance show “Capital Caravan” on WTTG Fox 5!  Taught to play the violin by his father, Hedrick mastered the flute and scored another DC first, when Hedrico y su Orquesta became the town’s first charanga (the Cuban big band format featuring a frontline of flute and violins, instead of trumpets, saxes and trombones)!  Among the members were violin legend Eddie Drennon, who went on to perform with the likes of Johnny Pacheco, Bo Diddley, Ray Barretto and Pupi Legarretta (Eddie Drennon is the featured panelist for the next “Metro Mambo” event on Saturday, April 17).

A DC-native, Paul Hawkins has been a pillar of the DC Latin-jazz and dance community since the early 1950’s.  Before mastering the congas, he started his career as a dancer in the DC Latin dance troupe led by Roland Kave, and was a regular performer on tv dance show “Capital Caravan”.  Further, Paul’s charanga, Orquesta del Siglo Viente, opened for Tito Puente at NYC’s legendary Palladium Ballroom during the early 1960’s pachanga craze!  For years, when Puente’s band appeared in DC, Paul would be the featured conguero (with the concert often followed with a big party back at Paul’s house).  It was the same with Dizzy Gillespie, another of the many legendary figures who were life-long friends of Paul’s.  About 3 years ago Paul Hawkins kindly donated his record collection to me (I often share them on my program).  That gesture was grand enough, but when I got the records home and began going through the boxes, I discovered that many of the album covers are filled with myriad personalized autographs from the legends of mainstream and Latin jazz – Patato, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria…  Personal things like, “Great meal as always, Amigo!  Congrats on the house!  See you again next stop through DC.”   I was stunned.   This is just a small example of the respect these DC-based artists earned beyond the Beltway!

“Onstage Conversation- Rubén Blades—In His Own Words” is on Saturday, March 27, from  3 p.m. – 4:15 p.m. at Carmichael Auditorium, National Museum of the American History, 14th Street & Constitution Ave. NW.  FREE. (202) 633-1000

“Metro Mambo”/“ Abaniquito: The Beginning” with Jim Byers, Hedrick Mitchell, Paul Hawkins, and Rumba Club  is on Sunday March 28  from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum,1901 Fort Place, SE.  FREE but due to the venue’s limited space, advance RSVP’s are required by calling 202-633-4866.

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