Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Who's On First?" Mambo

Here is my interview with Kåre Kolve, who wrote the "Sotomayor" mambo being passed around the 'net since Judge Sotomayor's nomination.

Read his story--an Onda Carolina exclusive!--of how the song was written in 1998 about Cuban Olympian Javier Sotomayor, and how Kolve's band Mambo Compañeros developed from its beginnings on Norwegian television and remains one of Norway's leading salsa bands.

The first part of our conversation reads like an Abbot and Costello routine, so I've left the comedy of errors intact, as we both try to understand why we seem to be talking about completely different songs! In a sense, we were...

Kåre was just bidding dinner guests farewell in Trondheim as I called him Wednesday morning at 10:30 am Eastern Time (US):

Sylvia Pfeiffenberger: You’re on your way to a rehearsal, is it for Mambo Compañeros?

Kåre Kolve: Yes.

SP: How did you produce this song so quickly, and when did you start writing the Sotomayor Mambo?

KK: Why?

SP: When. Like how soon after this nomination?

KK: Oh. I wrote it way back in 1998.

SP: The song? But not the lyrics?

KK: What?

SP: Did you add these lyrics for the occasion?

KK: Well some of them, yes. I got a little help with the Spanish and also had some contribution from the lead singer, he’s a Cuban guy.

SP: Which one is it, Alexander [Fernández] or Luison [Medina]?

KK: Yeah, Alexander.

SP: Ok. So he added some lyrics to a tune you had previously written.

Yes and there’s other guy that is called…uh…uh…he helped me to translate into Spanish some of the words there…

SP: Not Luison but someone else?

KK: Cortes!

SP: I don’t know this name.

KK: I think he’s written on the record somewhere.

SP: Cortes?

KK: He’s called uh, Cortes, is his last name. His surname is…oh, I can’t remember…

SP: That’s ok. Is he a member of your band?

KK: No, no, he was just a friend.

SP: What do you do in the band, what’s your instrument?

KK: Saxophone player.

SP: Do you normally write tunes?

KK: Yeah, I do a lot of writing.

SP: Ok. 1998, what was this track originally called? Was it on your album in a different form, in a different version?

KK: Ehh, excuse me, one more time?

SP: Was this tune on your earlier album in a different version? Did it have a different name? Have you recorded this song before?

KK: Ehh, no, it was just during the uh, the first time we uh, played it was actually on a Norwegian TV show…

SP: Oh really?

KK: Which was hosted as an athlete's show. And Sotomayor was one of the guests.

SP: You’re kidding me. So she was a guest on the show, back then, and you wrote the song for her?

KK: Well, I think you misunderstand a little bit.

SP: Ok. I’m trying to get the picture…

KK: Are you talking about the…

SP: Sotomayor Mambo…

KK: …the minister of the…?

SP: Well, she’s the nominee for um…well, I don’t know who you wrote the song for. But over here, they’re playing this song for Sonia Sotomayor, the...


SP: …nominee for Supreme Court Judge.

KK: Oh! Well, the song is, originally I wrote it for the high jumper, the Cuban high jumper—

SP: No kidding!

KK:Javier Sotomayor.

SP: Laughs. Ok, well, I knew there was going to be some story here, I was trying to get to the bottom of it!

KK: Laughs. I was thinking a little bit about it because I thought it was a little bit strange that you uh…

SP: Why am I calling now for this song…

KK: Yeah, because, yeah, I mean, it was released in 2002-2003. I was thinking something maybe happened with Javier Sotomayor, or something like that. But I was thinking also about the new minister, or no, this is a court…

SP: Yes. Who’s the new minister that you mentioned?

KK: Yeah.

SP: Who is that?

KK: Didn’t you uh…?

SP: Oh you mean our, in the US.

KK: In the US, yeah.

SP: Well she’s the nominee for our Supreme Court, so she’s a judge.

KK: Yeah.

SP: Ok. All right. This, you didn’t re-record it with different lyrics or anything?

KK: No no no. This was actually, if you catch the lyrics, you know, it’s all about the high jumper. He’s still got the world record in high jump.

SP: There was a couple words in [the song] I didn’t get, that didn’t make sense to me, and now I’m understanding why.

Both: Laughter.

KK: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. So this is a kind of contribution then to uh, because he’s one of the most famous athletes from Cuba, and uh, since we were playing on this show and he was a guest, you know, and so I wrote this song as a tribute to him.

SP: How interesting!

KK: And actually, after he returned to Cuba, and some years later, he started his own salsa band, which he called Salsa Mayor.

SP: Oh, no wait a minute! No way! Because I know that band, but I didn’t know this guy’s name or that a guy in the band was an athlete…

KK: Oh really? Laughs. Yeah I think he’s got a record in high jump, you know, I think it’s like 2.45 meters.

SP: So he’s got records and records.

Yeah I think he’s still got it, he’s had that record for 15 years or something.

SP: Ok. And Salsa Mayor, is that the same band, with you know, Maikel Blanco? That band?

KK: No, no.

SP: Oh, it’s a different one.

KK: Yeah this is a Cuban band.

SP: Yeah, but this is a Cuban band I’m thinking of…

KK: Oh really? Oh maybe, maybe, I’m not sure actually. But he’s not playing in it, he’s just using his name on it in some way. You know, like a brand.

SP: All right. Now this took place in Norway, this was in Norway, he was a guest.

KK: Yes.

SP: And you guys are in Trondheim?

KK: Yes.

SP: And you have a couple Cuban guys who are based in Oslo, is that right?

KK: Yes, they are part of the band.

SP: All right, so they travel—how far is it from Oslo, to Trondheim?

KK: It’s about one hour with plane. We’re one of the leading salsa bands in Norway, so we are used to travel, so I mean, if you live in Oslo it’s not far actually. We don’t feel that way at all.

SP: All right. So if I want to find your version of "Sotomayor" on an album, is that on the [2004] Viva Salsa album? [follow link to Amazon download]

Yes, it’s on the Viva Salsa album.

SP: It is. Ok. Well this is explaining a lot! Because I wondered how you got the song out so quickly. They started emailing it around to people. Various Latino policy organizations have mailed it around and asked people to play it in support of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. Did you know that?

KK: I didn’t know. I’ve read [about the nomination] in the paper, yes.

SP: How do you feel about that?

KK: I think it’s really great. It’s about time that the Latin people are finally getting some important position, and especially a woman, because it’s such a macho, Latin people are so macho you know. A lot of man thing.

SP: Laughs. Interesting to get your Norwegian perspective. Have you spent time in the Latin American world yourself?

KK: Yeah, I’ve been a couple of times in Cuba.

SP: Yeah, I thought maybe, so, you have a lot closer ties to Cuba than we do, lucky for you.

KK: Yeah, we are. It’s no big deal for us to go there. Laughs. It’s more difficult to get from the States to Cuba actually than for us.

SP: Yeah, that’s definitely a fact, that’s a fact. Ok. So, the sonero on this song is Alexander Fernandez, and Luison plays conga, does he sing backup, does he also sing as a sonero?

KK: No, he’s the conga player. He sings on some of the songs but not that song, yeah. Alexander is our lead singer of that song.

Dale Harmon: Mambo Compañeros first time w Alexander Fernandez

SP: So, you didn’t make any effort to get this song out to US markets [after the nomination]? Like I didn’t know if you had any contacts over here that you know, maybe you sent the song over here to somebody and said, hey, check this out...

KK: No, no. It’s just a coincidence. There was just a review for an album [in 2004, by Rudy Mangual] in the Latin Beat music magazine in L.A. which is the biggest Latin newspaper about Latin music. That is actually the only contact we have had with the United States about anything.

SP: And no one’s contacted you now, since this happened? Am I the first person to call you about this, in relation to the judge?

KK: Definitely. If you can get us a tour over there, I’d be happy to.

SP: Laughs. Yeah, I wish I had that power. Sounds like a good band. I know there’s a hot Cuban music scene in Scandinavia. Michelle White, the timba specialist who covers it for, she’s in Sweden.

KK: Yeah yeah, that’s true.

SP: We had the Afro Cuban All Stars here recently and Calixto Oviedo [who lives in Sweden] was with them…

KK: Yeah Yeah, I know him, very good friend. Oh, that’s nice. Alexander played a lot with Calixto.

So uh, all these [Cuban] guys. Alexander, usually he was a regular member of Manolito [Simonet] y su Trabuco…and he, what do you call it, when you find a Norwegian girl and he, what do you call it when you’re leaving, and you’re jumping off…you’re coming from an isolated country…

SP: You mean like…he married a girl there?

KK: Yeah, yeah, I mean he’s like the old Soviet people…

SP: Defecting.

KK: Yes, yes. He did that on a tour actually with Manolito and he stayed here in Norway. He’s been here ever after, but you know, both of these guys have Norwegian passports now so they can go wherever they like, and can go back to Cuba also.

SP: That’s nice for them.

The people who sent me this file of your song are from the National Institute for Latino Policy. I have a blog post about this, I’m going to supplement it now with our interview, because this information changes the picture considerably!

Both: Laughter.

KK: Yes. You know I was mentioning this to my girlfriend just for a joke, when we saw news about Sonia Sotomayor, I said, well I wrote a song about this!

SP: And maybe someone will start paying attention to it!

KK: Yeah maybe, maybe, you never know. Well, Spanish people, they will probably recognize there’s something with the lyrics that doesn’t fit.

SP: So what’s the word for high jumper?

KK: In Spanish it’s salto alto.

SP: Oh, that’s what he’s saying! That’s why! You know at the end of the song he says El Rey…

KK: El Rey del Salto Alto.

SP: And I thought, maybe that’s the singer’s nickname. I just couldn’t make sense of that.

KK: Yeah. That’s the king of high jumping.

SP: Got it. And are they saying Bienvenido, something?

KK: Yes, Bienvenido al Noruega

SP: Al Noruega…[Welcome to Norway]

KK: Yeah, and this was broadcast on the TV show, so this was a like, a celebration for him. And he actually was dancing to our music on the Norwegian television.

SP: That's cool. What’s the name of that TV show, is it a well-known show?

KK: Well it was at that time, but it’s like 11 years ago since that was. But you know I think we still got a clip of it somewhere. In Norwegian it's called Ja Vi Elsker [translation: Yes We Love], the first line of the Norwegian national anthem. Maybe you can find it, it’s not more than 2 minutes or something. It’s very charming, and it’s very early in our career also. Because we didn’t have Cubans in the band at that time, so I was the lead singer, which I am not anymore! Laughs. I’m the saxophone player.

We talked to him [Javier Sotomayor] afterwards. He was surprised and he was extremely happy about this song. We sent it to him after we recorded and he really appreciated it, we got nice thanks from him.

SP: That’s pretty cool. You just started the band in that year, didn’t you?

KK: About the time, I think it was 1996.

SP: Ok. Well, that’s really cool, Kåre. I appreciate your time.

KK: That’s fine, I mean, it’s very funny, I mean it’s a small world so, it’s quite funny that you always find something here and there, with Myspace and YouTube and whatever. New music can pop up everywhere actually.

SP: That’s right, and I figured why not make it even smaller, I’ll just try and contact this guy and see what the story is!

KK: Laughs Thank you, that’s very nice of you.

SP: How do you describe the music you guys make, you call it Mambo Compañeros. It’s not exactly timba, right?

KK: I think, our style is more of a mix of traditional salsa and timba.

SP: Ok cool, what a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck, say hi to the guys in the band.

KK: I will do that.

SP: Ok, take care!

KK: Yeah, same to you, bye bye!


DOWNLOAD Mambo Compañeros' album Viva Salsa for $8.99 at Amazon.

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