When Yoruba Son launches into a smoldering Cuban ballad one night, a bartender sighs, "Oh, I love this song." At another point in the set, a trumpet player from bluesman Delbert McClinton's band (which has just finished playing the adjoining Beaumont Club) launches into a solo from the back of the room, complementing what's going on in the set. Later, he joins the band onstage. Such moments illustrate the club's relaxed atmosphere and its striking collaboration among artist, venue and audience.
Son Venezuela deserves credit as the band that established (and, just as important, maintained) this particular beachhead for Latin music almost four years ago. Lead singer Luis Guillen tells the story: "Ramon Badell, who is no longer with us, did a lot of PR on his job, and he convinced John Lundquist [the owner of both the Beaumont Club and the Westport Beach Club] to give us a chance. He started us in the fall of 1998 inside the Beaumont Club, where we could draw 250 people and it still looked empty, but he liked what he saw, and he contacted us about trying us at the Westport Beach Club the following summer."
At a time when Latin music was rarely heard in Westport, Son Venezuela was uniquely positioned to bring a different sound to a new audience. "We started in 1988 as Folklore Venezuela, playing with five members," Guillen recalls. "It was very acoustic, the kind of music people sat and listened to at ethnic festivals. But in late '93, we added a keyboard player with a background in R&B and a bass player, and we played our first gig as Son Venezuela at the Jazzhaus. After four years, we added a horn section.
"We'd seen other bands stay focused on only a Latin crowd, and the numbers aren't there to keep a band going, so we wanted to bring our culture to a larger audience," Guillen continues. "We played Coco Loco in Lawrence, and we drew a big crowd of Asians, Europeans and Americans. We have always directed our whole show toward everybody. That's why we play different styles of music, like calypso, so that everybody will feel comfortable dancing to them."
Son Venezuela's approach worked so well that Lundquist hired Howard Carney, the man behind Salsa KC (www.salsakc.com), to DJ during the weeks Son Venezuela keeps open for other bookings. Carney introduced Yoruba Son to Lundquist, who promptly booked the band for every other Saturday. Yoruba Son's music, though related, offers a bracing contrast to Son Venezuela's contemporary sounds.
"Part of it is the Cuban element in our band," Yoruba Son bassist and founding member Patricio Lazen explains. (Three of the band members are Cuban.) "The Cuban approach always emphasizes jamming, keeping it open." Yoruba Son's sets lay down a groove and experiment with it in various ways, instrumentally and vocally. One favorite technique is the montuno, a Cuban style in which the singer talks to the crowd and composes lyrics from the conversation.
Recently, Yoruba Son added a female vocalist, Christine Castillo, who gives the music a different flavor in ways that go beyond gender. "We want to do more meringue, and she is from the Dominican Republic, which is known for that style," Lazen says. With Yoruba Son placing more emphasis on the contemporary dance styles in its mix and Son Venezuela talking about adding a female vocalist as well, the two bands promise to evolve in ways that could overlap more in the future even as their sounds remain distinctive.
Both bands have nothing but praises to sing for club owner John Lundquist. "It's a great place to play, Guillen says. "Lundquist is the best." Lazen explains why Lundquist deserves the praise. "He is one of the best managers anywhere," he says. "He really respects musicians a lot." And Lazen's appreciation extends to the band that opened the venue to Latin music in the first place. "Son Venezuela absolutely deserves all the credit we can give them. They have kept this thing going by being consistent and professional," he adds.
These qualities are evident the moment Son Venezuela starts to play. Three singers -- Guillen, Keffel Aqui and Alex Velasquez -- front the band with cool dexterity and charisma. The nine pieces, which include keyboard, trumpet, alto sax, trombone, bass and various forms of percussion, snap together with sparkling precision. The impossibly smooth moves of the exuberant dancers on the floor reflect the band's clarity.
Yoruba Son's central charm is different -- playful and funky -- but it also finds these qualities echoed on its dance floor. On two recent Saturdays, both bands packed the floor with what had to be among the most beautiful crowds ever in Westport. This beauty didn't stem from the fact that the dancers were all pretty -- though something in the air made them seem so -- and it wasn't that their moves were especially graceful, though even the toe-tappers on the sidelines seemed to have some style. The beauty shone in the eyes of these people from different races and social classes who had been joined by the joyful rhythms from these bands. That look said they were exactly where they wanted to be and were aware of just how precious that place was. Few scenes can boast that virtue.