Ablaze with heat of Latin beats

To some, Hong Kong's fetish for Latin American culture could be construed as overkill. From restaurants doing specially themed Latin menus to frequent salsa nights, the overexposure does not bode well for its sustainability.

But that has not stopped one local band from having high hopes about its future. The Montuno Nation, the current resident band at Mexican eatery La Placita, are confident that salsa is here to stay.

Michael Jonsson, the half-Latin American, half-Swedish founder of the Latin-tinged group, is not surprised Hong Kong has taken to the 'uplifting' music so well. But, he says, not all trends in the local Latin scene have been progressive.

'Spanish restaurants that have been open for five or six years, the first time I went they were playing Gypsy Kings, I go now and they're still playing Gypsy Kings. I mean, enough! There are other Latin bands . . . They're not even Spanish! They're French,' said Jonsson.

Jonsson is hoping to use the five-piece outfit to educate fans of Latin American music to the breadth of the genre. Naming the band Montuno Nation after montuno, a type of Latin accompaniment music, most of the songs in their repertoire are underpinned with a Latin beat. In addition, Jonsson on guitar hopes to add flamenco guitar-playing to their performances.

Until then however, the band is struggling to find its niche in this new late-night venue, which, Jonsson says, still does not have a 'crowd'. Known in the past for a Filipino mariachi band who could barely get themselves excited, let alone the audience, La Placita is recreating itself as the 'home of the Mexican fiesta'.

Jonsson and lead vocalist Beverly Rono admit that not everyone comes to La Placita to party, and performing for diners can occasionally be a daunting task.

'It's like singing to zombies. Although people are having dinner, the least they could do is applaud. At least to appreciate our talent or our effort on stage,' said Rono, who is more accustomed to performing in nightclub settings.

In order to cater to the variety of audiences at La Placita, ranging from families having dinner to salsa and soul fans wanting to dance, the Montuno Nation have created an enormously diverse repertoire. Latin classics such as Oye Como Vas and Guantanamera can be heard alongside ballads by Babyface and Sade, and funk from the artist formerly known as Prince.

Part of their success in pulling off the variety stems from the Montuno members' musical backgrounds. Jonsson, who comes primarily from a rock background, is also well versed in Latin, R & B and jazz, while keyboard player Randall Lipford, grounded in R & B, has done extensive work with local Canto-pop stars. Newest addition to the group, drummer and vocalist Pauli Carman, is best known for his pop ballad work with Champaigne, a group that had considerable American chart success in the late 1980s.

Jonsson admits that the breadth of musical ability in the group can also have its drawbacks, occasionally limiting the types of songs they can perform. 'There are also a lot of songs we couldn't do because of the limited orchestration of the band,' he said. 'Some of the Latin stuff, we need the horns, and we'd need nine or 10 people. [The repertoire] depends on the ability of the musicians, and what kind of line-up you have.' Rounded out by bassist Rob Scott, who plays in most of Hong Kong's live music spots, the greatest problem the band has encountered is in scheduling. 'It's difficult, bouncing between bands and trying to remember how they do the songs,' said Scott.

The group's members have mixed opinions on the overall state of Hong Kong's music scene. Carman thinks it is far more open and accepting than in the United States, where, he believes, musicians are pigeon-holed into one genre.

'The States is a little jaded, there are more musical barriers that you can't cross. If this is what's supposed to be happening, then this is what you better be doing. Radio here, you can hear Johnny Mathis and the next song can be something from the Smashing Pumpkins.' Jonsson, on the other hand, believes there is a lack of qualified musicians on the scene, and that local audiences are still not open to diverse genres of music.

'In other Asian countries, people listen a lot more to music, people are more in tuned with what's going on with music trends. It definitely does get frustrating, there are a lot of tunes that I'm just sick to death of playing.' Nevertheless, Jonsson, content with his line-up, is looking for another venue for the five-piece group after their contract at La Placita is up at the end of February. In addition, they hope to put together original work and even take the group to other spots in Asia.

The Montuno Nation at La Placita, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10pm to 1am. 13/F Times Square, Causeway Bay. Tel: 2503-3308