The Last Mambo: Documenting Latin Jazz and Salsa in the San Francisco Bay Area


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One of the major misnomers about the history of Latin Jazz is the small scope of coverage that the music has received outside of the accomplishments of musicians within New York City. There’s no doubt that New York was home to the early incarnations of Latin Jazz within the United States and that the music experienced a number of significant progressions within that region. Still, Latin Jazz has evolved in many areas across the United States and around the world. As a result of the music’s wide spread growth, we’ve experienced an awe-inspiring growth and diversification around the genre, which has taken us into the twenty-first century. While it’s important to recognize the fact that New York has and most likely will always be an epicenter for the music, it’s vital that history starts paying attention to the contributions of Latin Jazz musicians in various locations

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been an important spot for Latin music on the West Coast, acting as home to a thriving salsa and Latin Jazz scene. Historically, the region found some inspiration from its Latino population, but experienced a surge of excitement through the transplant of important mentors such as Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, and Orestes Vilato. One of the most important names in Latin Jazz during the fifties, sixties, and seventies came from Bay Area, vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Today, numerous intelligent and wildly creative musicians such as John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebeca Mauleon, and John Calloway continue to push the music into the twenty-first century. Through the hard work of this long line of musicians, we’ve seen the emergence of a distinctive musical hybrid that calls upon Afro-Cuban influences, jazz tradition, educated musicianship, and diverse stylistic integration. Without a doubt, the Bay Area has produced a highly individual style of Latin music that is intimately intertwined with the history of both Latin Jazz and salsa, but also resonates with its own charismatic personality.

In an attempt to secure the San Francisco Bay Area’s place in the Latin Jazz history books, dancer Rita Hargrave and musician Wayne Wallace have started an ambitious film project entitled The Last Mambo. The documentary movie digs deeply into the rich historical development of the region’s Latin music scene, looks at its bustling modern day state, and peers into the future of Latin music in the Bay Area. Hargrave did significant research into the topic, interviewing musicians such as Santos, Mauleon, and Wallace, as well as area icons Karl Perrazo, Edgardo Cambon, and more. She heard their words, captured them performing, and dug into their years of artistic contributions to the area. She saw the importance of the enthusiastic community around the music as well, getting input and information from local DJs and dancers to round out the project. Wallace served as both musical director and producer, getting the film’s score in order; his company Patois Records will be distributing the DVD, set for release in 2013. The Last Mambo should serve as an important and entertaining slice of historical reality that will set the record straight about the important place of the San Francisco Bay Area within the greater scope of Latin music’s lineage.

With much work on The Last Mambo already behind them, Hargrave and Wallace still have a ways to go, so they’ve established a KickStarter campaign to fund the final steps in the process. Seeking $9,500 to complete production on the film and ensure its distribution around the world, the KickStarter campaign is an important part of making the project a reality. As with any time that we support an artistic venture financially, it’s important to get the full story behind the project; the weight of its worth will undoubtedly clinch our decision one way or the other. The Last Mambo presents an important opportunity to capture a somewhat forgotten history in the greater scope of Latin Jazz, so we wanted to help you make up your mind by asking director Rita Hargrave for the full scoop.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: How long have you been involved in the Bay Area Latin music scene and in what capacity?

RITA HARGRAVE: I started dancing salsa in 1995 and my life has never been the same. I am mainly a social dancer, but I have taught salsa, as well as written about salsa for magazines and websites. For the past five years I have studied AfroCuban percussion at La Peña Cultural Center, The Jazz School in Berkeley, and the National School for the Arts in Havana.

LJC: What initially inspired you to put together The Last Mambo project?

RH: In 2000, I took the first of many educational tours to Cuba with the Oakland based company that is now called Plazacuba. Of course the trip was magical—so much music and dance, and so many warm-hearted people. I was particularly impressed with the number of museums and institutes in Havana that were devoted to music and dance history. But after talking with Olavo Alen Rodriguez, a renowned ethnomusicologist, I realized how much Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area reflects our diverse, ever evolving and high pressure society. We’re not Havana, San Juan or New York. We’ve got our own story and sound that people want to hear.

LJC: What is it about Latin music in the San Francisco Bay Area that is unique and special?

RH: I think Wayne Wallace said it best. Everything we do here artistically is a hybrid. Since there is no one dominant Cuban community, Dominican community or Puerto Rican community, artists can freely borrow flavors from many pots. Cross-fertilization, collaboration, and experimentation are the name of the game.

LJC: The history books have always favored New York as the “home” of Latin music, overshadowing the presence of the music elsewhere, including the Bay Area – what would you like to change about the way that people perceive Latin music in the Bay Area?

RH: There is no question that New York in the mother ship as far as salsa and Latin Jazz in the United States. But the Bay Area is full of gifted musicians, choreographers, and dancers from all over the world who flourish in the free-spirited, creative West Coast environment. I would like more people to appreciate and applaud the talent we have here, find out more about the pillars of the Latin music/dance community, and support live music. I would love for people in Seattle, Portland, Chicago and D.C. to explore and document their own regional experience and history of salsa and Latin Jazz.

LJC: How did Wayne Wallace get involved in the project and what has he brought to the table?

RH: I had been enrolled as percussionist in Wayne’s R&B ensemble class at the Jazz School for over a year before I started this project. Wayne was one of the first people I interviewed and his positive attitude towards music, the creative process, and life in general inspired me to expand the scope of the film. I switched my focus from using the closing of the San Francisco salsa club Jelly’s as a metaphor for the end of informal community salsa to exploring the dramatic expansion of Afro-Caribbean music beyond the nightclub circuit. I used Wayne’s tune “La Escuela,” as the soundtrack for the trailer that won an award at the Berkeley Film and Video Festival. Wayne has become music director and major consultant, bringing all his skills as songwriter, composer and bandleader. The Last Mambo DVD will be released in 2013 under his label, Patois Records. Most of all he is an energetic, creative, and gracious mentor.

LJC: Who are some of the additional musicians involved in the project?

RH: Besides Wayne Wallace, I have interviewed many leading Bay Area musicians including John Santos, John Calloway, Karl Perrazo, Anthony Blea, Tregar Otton, Edgardo Cambon, Kenny Hawkins, Orestes Vilato, Rebeca Mauleon, Marco Diaz, Saul Sierra and Carlos Caro. We also shot footage of numerous bands including The John Santos Sextet, The Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble, Mazacote, La Clave, Orquesta Moderna La Tradicion, Candela, The Wayne Wallace Quintet, Anthony Blea Y Su Charanga, Benny Velarde Y Su Supercombo, and Son Cubanos.

LJC: You included more perspectives than just musicians – how did you involve dancers, DJs, and Bay Area Latin music fans in the project?

RH: I’ve interviewed DJs Luis Medina, Ivette Fuentes, Chata Gutierrez and Jose Ruiz. I was also fortunate enough to film veteran dance teachers and performers Ava Apple and Rudolfo Guzman as they unraveled the subtle differences in footwork and body movement in different styles of salsa—On 1, On classic 2, On modern 2.

LJC: What is the scope of the project in terms of both history and musical styles (salsa, Latin Jazz, merengue, cumbia, Latin Rock)?

RH: “The Last Mambo” is primarily focused on salsa and Latin Jazz though there is no escaping the influence of Santana’s high voltage Latin Rock on the local music scene.

LJC: In my opinion, this is a long overdue project – how has the response been from the Bay Area Latin music community as you informed them about the project?

RH: I have been excited and thrilled by the encouragement and support from friends and family. I’m getting lots of suggestions and feedback by way of Facebook and I encourage everyone to spread the word about the project. People have been amazingly generous contributors to our KickStarter campaign but we need more donations by May 23 to make our goal. All donations are tax-deductible and come with great gifts.

LJC: Following the Kickstarter project, what steps need to happen in order to bring the movie and the message to the masses?

RH: We will be having a premiere event which will include a panel discussion with experts from various fields including, music, dance, education, and more. This will also include an opportunity for people to ask questions and allow us the opportunity to educate the community.

The documentary will be presented at film festivals plus the DVD will be made available for retail. We hope to introduce it to educators. We hope that this film will inspire people to hold their own screening/community events, share this film, and discuss how to continue enriching our community with music and education. Who knows, maybe it will end up on PBS one day!!

We would love to see our multi-ethnic community come together to help educate the community about the rich culture, heritage, and legacy they have created in the Bay Area

LJC: If there’s one thing that you’d like people to know about Bay Area Latin music after seeing The Last Mambo, what would it be?

RH: Salsa in the Bay Area is a powerful force that brings together our unique community of music lovers, embodies cultural preservation and promotes artistic expression and education. Salsa in the Bay lets us showcase our history, our stories, and our songs.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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