Melcochita Delivers the Goods

El Sonero Peruano amazes an adoring crowd with salsa artistry and playful attitude

By Emilio Parrada & Isabel Morongo
Published on LatinoLA: December 28, 1999

 Melcochita Delivers the Goods

Century City on a chilly Thursday night is not a very welcoming place. The underground parking lot under the ABC Entertainment Center is large and easy to get lost in, and once you ascend the myriad of escalators to the surface there are three levels of shops, restaurants, and theaters to wend your way through.

Finally, our destination is found ? the Zodiac Club, for the opening (and unfortunately, the closing) night of Zodiac Latino.

Formerly the Playboy Club, the Zodiac is located on the uppermost level of the Entertainment Center. It is a large, rambling venue with several bars, a couple of dance floors, and lounging areas. Entering unfashionably early, it is, in a word ? dead. A couple of couples are listlessly dancing to some anonymous salsa. Groups of men in suits are huddled close together, sharing secrets or conspiracies. An out-of-place-looking man ? he's not wearing a shiny suit ? and woman glanced nervously about, so we sit with them.

A schoolteacher and an administrator, they'd heard about the Zodiac on KPFK's Cosmic Barrio show and had wrangled a babysitter and here they were, to see and hear and dance to Melcochita, el Sonero Peruano. We asked if they'd ever heard Melcochita, and they shrugged and said they hadn't, but it sounded interesting. The music grew louder, so conversation ceased and we continued to scan the crowd and wait for something to happen.

As the crowd thickened, an older man in a funky tuxedo mingled among the crowd. We thought he was one of the promoters or something, so we really didn't pay much attention. He sure was friendly, though, having his picture taken and putting his arms around men and women alike.

Finally, the band was ready and the REAL promoter got up on stage and welcomed us to the auspicious opening of Zodiac Latino and to the exciting night ahead. Up bounded the older guy in the funky tux we'd noticed earlier. So THAT'S Melcochita!

The horns blared, the congas and timbales kicked in, the woman in the skin-tight outfit started scratching the guiro, and the energy level EXPLODED as the old man suddenly seemed about twenty years young, tearing into a song we'd heard somewhere before ? something about "Tibiri Tabara" ? and as if magnetized, the men in suits, the previously dancing couples, and us gravitated to the periphery of the stage to witness an explosion of rhythmic energy and playful artistry.

No one danced. The only movement was the dropping of jaws, the nodding of heads and the stretching of smiling lips as the madman gestured wildly while singing his total nonsense. He suddenly dropped back to the timbales and cracked off a sizzling solo worthy of Tito you-know-who, only to return to the microphone to verbally joust with the two TV cameras staring him in the face. He ripped off some marvelously funny rhymes about Channel 34 and CNN, finishing minutes later with a fanfare, already sweaty and ready for more.

The next song brought on the dancers ? expert movers flourishing their practiced, practiced steps; the more traditional salseros looking each other in the smoldering eye while subtly setting the dance floor afire; and the wanna-bees (we know who we are!) just getting by. The rest of the night went that way, with Melcochita providing a lesson in musical artistry for the committed and converted alike.

A native of Lima, Peru, with Afro-Cuban and French ancestry, Melcochita is actually Pablo Branda Villanueva. He began his career forty years ago as a comedian who sang and played various musical instruments in his act. Once he was established as a comedian, his musical virtuosity landed him a gig playing drums and singing back-up vocals at the most exclusive nightclub in Lima. It was there that Melcochita was discovered. He has since served stints with El Gran Combo and composed songs for Celia Cruz and Willie Colon. He has recorded extensively, with his most recent release, 1997's "Tributo Al Jefe Daniel Santos" playing on Spanish-language radio stations throughout the U.S.

Leaving the club that night, buzzing with the rhythm (and a few, ahem, drinks), we were ready, willing and able to brave the Century City environs the following week. Unfortunately, Zodiac Latino is no more, due to an unforeseen administrative dispute (no chisme from us!). En Clave Productions, the promoters of the show, however, assure us that they will find another spot to showcase salsa and other tropical sounds. More important, they promise that they will be bringing Melcochita back sometime in February 2000.

And that is something to look forward to.

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