Until recently, the only way for Jacksonians to experience live Latin dance music would be to book a flight to New York, Miami or another distant city. However, a new group has emerged in Jackson that brings the vibrant music of the Caribbean to local clubs. Latinismo has been energizing Jackson dancers and Latin music fans with its lively shows for nearly two years. It is a large band, bringing together three percussionists, a full horn section, piano, bass and guitar, along with strong vocals (sung in Spanish). Latinismo takes on a wide range of music, from fast-moving salsa numbers to expansive Latin jazz compositions that showcase the skills of each band member.
At the center of the group is percussionist and singer Manuel "Cucho" Gonzalez. A native of Puerto Rico, Gonzalez grew up listening to the romantic songs of his home country as well as rock and jazz. He started playing music while still in elementary school, learning how to play drums and the traditional percussion of Puerto Rico. As a teenager he formed a group with his four younger brothers. They played a mix of traditional songs and contemporary pop music and performed throughout the island. "We were kind of like the Puerto Rican Osmond Brothers," Gonzalez jokes.
After moving to Pennsylvania to attend college, Gonzalez devoted himself to the local rock scene, playing the drums for a number of groups. He was still drumming in rock and blues bands when he moved to Mississippi 10 years ago. Once he had established himself within Jackson's music scene, other musicians gradually became aware of his Latin percussion skills. Gonzalez began branching out as a percussionist, adding a Latin flavor to the music of a number of local groups, including Break of Dawn, The Earth Angels, Meet the Press and several others.
Spurred on by the recent mainstream success of several Latino performers in the U.S., Gonzalez began putting together a large band in 2005 that could perform a wide range of music from the Caribbean. He wanted professional musicians involved in the project, but knew it would be impossible to keep the lineup constant in a nine to 10 person group. "I knew when I started this band, I would have to rotate musicians," Gonzalez says.
Slowly, a core group of musicians came together, forming the foundation of Latinismo. A number of musicians active in the Jackson club scene join Gonzalez in the nucleus of the group, including guitarist and vocalist Rick Moreira (a native of Honduras and the group's other Spanish speaker), percussionist Rufus Mapp (who learned hand percussion from his Cuban and Puerto Rican schoolmates while growing up in Miami), trumpeter Jeff Reiter, saxophonist and vocalist John Powell, drummer Steve Cook and keyboardist Richard Smith. Bassists Johnny Hubbard and Bob Pieczyk and Baton Rouge-based trombonist Andy Pizzo round out the group.
The group has played a number of venues around Jackson since its inception, including Mardi Gras, Panino's, and Festival Latino, Mississippi's only statewide celebration of Latin cultures. Latinismo plays music from a wide range of traditional Latin dance styles, such as salsa, meringue, cha-chas and boleros. They also perform "Latinized" versions of rock and pop songs, designed to appeal to audience members who are less familiar with the Latin dances. Included in this part of the set are songs by Ray Charles, The Beatles and Earth, Wind & Fire. "You're not going to be such a stranger to the atmosphere," Moreira reassures.
Latinismo has found a receptive audience in Jackson's dance community. Instructors and students from local ballroom dance and other classes have been flocking to the group's shows for the opportunity to dance to a live Latin band. Sujan Ghimire, a salsa dance instructor from Jackson, encourages all his students to attend Latinismo's shows. "They work hard," he explains. "You can feel the music inside (yourself), and it really makes you want to dance."
Ghimire notes that the energy generated by the dancers at Latinismo's performances frequently rubs off on others who attend. He often gains new students from among the non-dancing club goers who see him and his classes working on their steps at the band's shows.
It's not easy keeping such a large group performing on a regular basis, but the time on the stage re-energizes Gonzalez and his band mates. "Have you seen those bumper stickers (that say) 'There's no place I'd rather be?'" the bandleader asks. "It's a rush. Especially that you're playing your kind of music. It's something that's not as common here, and the people are digging it. It's beautiful."