Not Just Another Flash in the Pan Pipe
text and photos by Michael Sherer
Haunting sinuous melodies interwoven with cañas and Peruvian pan pipes, punctuated by a perfect blend of voices backed by guitars and 10-string charangos, peppered with conga drums and a professional quality home-made bass drum fill the green-and-white room at the La Peña de Sol Latino restaurant and bar five nights a week in La Antigua Guatemala. The band, Grupo Sol Latino, starts nightly at 7:30, except Sunday and then it’s 7 p.m.
The ceiling in the patio is a shiny green-and-white, broad-striped canvas awning, covering what was the atrium, sided by reddish adobe/rubble, ivy-covered brick walls and decorated with five white-trimmed arches. A beaming two-foot high religious statuary sits in a niche behind the band as if to bless its efforts. Could it be Proud Mary? No … it’s Maximón … the perfect patron saint for this venue.
This is Sol Latino’s musical territory, and the four, usually five, first-class professional musicians play Wednesday through Sunday, normally joined by Bill Harriss, who plays percussion, congas and drums. If he’s not there, one of waiters may step in for a few licks. Some evenings the room is scattered with music lovers, sometimes it’s packed, depending on the ebb and flow of visitors and locals who enjoy this blend of Central and South American harmony. This is toe-tapping music, one of a kind, original melodies artfully created.
The older, bearded, distinguished-looking Paco, aka Francisco Mendoza, is the leader/improviser and maker of much of the band’s instruments, and he sits to the right, next to the conga drums. He usually plays the self-made bass drum while keeping a deep breath and flow through the five-foot-long flutes/pan-pipes that almost reach the floor. To his right stands David Hernández; he also plays two instruments simultaneously, a guitar and another set of smaller wooden flute-pipes. To his right, eye-glasses set firmly in place, Hector Gómez is usually strumming a 10-string charango. The question is how did they fit 10-strings on such a narrow neck? The answer: very carefully. When Hector is really warmed up, about 10 minutes into the set, his fingers are a moving blur. This is EXTREME strumming. You have to see it to believe it. And finally, again on the right, moving to the left and last is Paco’s nephew, Chilo. With a degree in music he tops off the mix of guitars, piccolos, charanangos and bombas—overlaid with five-foot-long sabayones wielded by Paco or David.
These are musicians with a capital M. Bill Harriss was a session musician in Nashville, TN, for 30-odd years, playing with Dolly Parton, Jimmy Dean, Buck Owens, just to name a few. He has been with Sol Latino for over five of the group´s 25 years.
Back to the music: Paco might say a few words of welcome and then they launch immediately, belting out Peruvian-style rhythms in the sweetest harmony of voices, strings and wooden one-of-kind flutes while the hand-crafted deep sound of the bass drum keeps a mesmerizing backbeat. The congas add a nice touch, yet another flavor-dimension to their music. All eight Sol Latino CDs offer different musical styles, while at the same time, their sound is unmistakable. This group never coasts, cruises or limps through any of its material. These musicians have two switches, off and ON. One speed: FULL ahead. In other words, they rock.
There is always enthusiastic applause. Go hear them. Go see them.
Ed note: La Peña de Sol Latino, 5a calle poniente #15-C, features a delicious international menu; the 3-Chocolate Brownie is on the “Ten Delicious Desserts in Antigua” list. Group reservations and special events, tel: 7882-4468.