Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2013: Sean Sam

Rodrigo Muñoz

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Rodrigo Muñoz was 12 years old when his family came to Winnipeg in 1975. They were Chilean refugees, fleeing the coup. The previous year, living in exile in Argentina, Rodrigo hung out with Chilean musicians, learning to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and sing songs about sex and revolution. Arriving in Canada settled his behaviour, but he had caught the music bug. After a lot of pestering, he was allowed to join a folk group started by his brother and uncle, and soon was leading the band. All these years later, he’s still leading bands, and making a big impact on Winnipeg’s music scene.

Most people know you as Papa Mambo. How did that come about?

Papa Mambo is actually the name of my band, but many people call me Papa Mambo and at some point I stopped correcting them. One time I introduced everybody in my band with Mambo as a last name, then Steve Denby (my timbale player at the time) called me Papa Mambo—and it stuck.

I actually started my first Latin band in the late 80s when I was a student at the U of M School of Music, then got invited to join El Sonido, a band formed by Ray Egan and Hubert Grenier, where I had a chance to work with musicians more steeped in the salsa tradition.

Over the next few years, I formed Papa Mambo and the Gringos. Early players included Ray Egan, Ken Gold, Gilles Fournier, Dave Lawton, Marilyn Lerner, Carlos Diaz, Greg Black, Carol Hutchinson, and Mercelo Ulloa, all terrific musicians who brought a lot to the band. Almost 24 years later, Papa Mambo is still going strong. Gilles, Dave, Ken and myself from the original cast have been joined by newer members like Scott Senior, Victor Lopez, Will Bonness, Amber Epp, Marcelo Hinojosa, and Jeff Presslaff.

Over the years, we have performed countless shows, from big concert stages to small clubs, indoors and outdoors, here and away, and produced several recordings. We’ve always strived for an authentic salsa sound. At first we patterned it after the Nuyorican bands of the 70s, and later the Cuban bands. We’re finally there, with a combination of both—it’s been a long road of learning.

I know Papa Mambo isn’t your only gig…

I’m also the guitarist and one of the arrangers for Trio Bembe, and the timbale player (sometimes upright bass player) for Victor Lopez’ Urbano Son which performs more in the newer Cuban timba style. I’m the guitarist and sometimes arranger of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra’s outreach ensemble. I’ve collaborated with many other musicians too, including The Duhks, Larry Roy, Greg Lowe, and Dan Frechette. Trio Bembe is teaming up with Dan Frechette to open this season’s Nu Sounds series at The Park in January.

Plus I still play classical music for a living once in awhile—my latest composition, “Marejada” will be premiered at a Groundswell concert this May. Being versatile is essential if you’re going make a living as a musician!

What life lessons have you learned from being a musician?

I always joke that, after years of being a bandleader, I should be given an honorary psychology degree! Music has taught me is how to work with other people (still learning), but also to know myself better. Being the centre of attention on stage strokes my (giant) ego, but very often a big gig is followed by another gig where you are basically insignificant background music—that certainly keeps your ego in check!

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