Mongo Santamaría, Cuban percussionist and band leader in the latter half of the 20th century, is basically “the first five of the Ten Commandments of Latin music” says Eric Trujillo, who pressed this upon the adolescents seated before him. They’d soon learn, not only of Mongo, but of folks in Denver’s deep Latin music history—sax player Freddie Rodriguez Sr., band leader Rudi Medina, and violinist Giga Romero.
Trujillo, a longtime Latin jazz musician himself and co-owner of Mi Vida Strings instrument shop in Westminster, is determined to help youth carry the legacy with pride. He teamed up with the Latino Cultural Arts Center (LCAC) to create the Mambo Orchestra.
Now in its pilot phase, the group includes middle and high school students who, for eight weeks, study classic and contemporary Latin, mambo, and salsa-based music. They practice the flute, trumpet, piano, xylophone, congas, bass, and violin, all coming together to create rhythms with wide influences.
“You find Afro, Arabic, Asian, and a little bit of everything in mambo,” Alfredo Reyes, executive director of the LCAC, says. “I am very excited to contribute to that environment, where young people and families can learn mambo as a community and liven up Denver in a really powerful way.”
One of Trujillo’s protégés, his son Daniel, started music lessons seven years ago at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA). The fourteen-year-old appreciates having participated in intergenerational bands, gleaning knowledge from elder players and adding to his own style.
“There’s been so many different ways I’ve been trained and different perspectives I’ve seen from,” Daniel, who plays the piano, congas, and timbales says. “That really shaped me into my own personality and way of expression.”
Jazz’s great tenant, improvisation, is key to Trujillo’s instruction. When musicians open the world of improv, he claims, they listen harder, get to know fellow musicians better, and can create new sounds—one of the LCAC group’s main goals.
What makes this mambo orchestra different is its use of strings. The style was commonplace in the 1930s and 40s, mainly in Cuba and some pockets of Mexico, according to Trujillo. Popular music in the U.S. changed things in the early 50s as big bands took on AfroCuban rhythms, and largely left the strings behind.
Jump forward to today’s string students; they’re not used to working with different musical notations or improvisational techniques that the Mambo Orchestra employs.
“We’re trying to teach string players to be flexible that way, which has not been offered to them in most places where they would usually have played,” Trujillo says.
While he leads the way with instruction, drawing on a decade of experience teaching youth bands in his family’s shop, Trujillo also relies on the help of mentors to give each orchestra student one-on-one support. Ana Luna Uribe, a violinist and master of performance; Sonya Walker, a University of Colorado student pianist/trumpeter/composer; and Rain Mestas, bassist and daughter of famed piano player Victor Mestas, currently fill these roles.
How each of these seasoned musicians come together for the same purpose is part of the magic surrounding the Mambo Orchestra. The LCAC and Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music have a longstanding relationship grounded in the annual Viva Southwest Mariachi Festival. The two recently partnered, along with CCJA and Nueva Escuela de Música, to own and operate 800 Kalamath, a large, bright green building near the Santa Fe Arts District.
Students and maestros of many types of music and expertise will be on site engaging in group rehearsals, testing out different instruments on hand, and practicing in personal soundproof rooms.
Marialuisa Meza-Burgos, LCAC’s Music Coordinator, wants all kids and families to feel welcome in the space and take advantage of its offerings—especially those who are underrepresented in music education. Thinking back to her days at MSU Denver, she could count on one hand the amount of Mexican students.
“I think as we become more assimilated, sometimes we lose that culture or lose what’s from our home countries,” Meza-Burgos says. “I believe that music helps us stay connected to our roots.”
The goal is for students to advance their music education and for families to participate in activities provided in the common areas.
Look out for Mambo Orchestra and other music programming news by signing up for the LCAC newsletter at lcac-denver.org.