June 7, 2011. The hottest day in Minnesota since 1988. One-hundred-two degrees, 60 percent humidity, steam heat hissing from the tar and pavement outside the Driftwood Char Bar in south Minneapolis. A few grizzled regulars hunker over sweaty beer glasses at sidewalk tables as MTC buses honk by. One gent tilts his head back wearily and blows cigarette smoke in the direction of the Cremation Society down the street; the sun is finally, mercifully, going down.
Inside, boisterous Spanish and English harmonize as one Spanglish din. Sundresses, shorts, sandals and straw Cuban fedoras are the order of the night, and when the six members of Malamanya swing into their first song, you'd swear you were Woody Allen-Ernest Hemingway in "Midnight in Havana."
In fact, it's just another Tuesday night at the Driftwood, the old Westrum's Tavern, which in the past two years has been resurrected as a viable live music venue by owner Heidi Fields and booker Larry Sahagian. Blues and jam-band staples make up the weekly calendar, but the sexiest is the fast-growing Tuesday residency by Malamanya. (However, July 19 is one Tuesday night Malamanya won't appear at the Driftwood; DJ Miguel Vargas will be filling in that night.)
"This band is a gem, the best-kept secret in town," says one Burroughs Elementary School teacher to another teacher-gone-wild on the last day of classes. "It won't be like this," he says, nodding at the crowd of about 150, "for long."
Malamanya is no garden-variety salsa band. Drawing on Cuban son and other traditional folk music, the group of Twin Cities natives -- singer Adriana Rimpel, bassist Tony Schreiner, trumpet player Jason Marks, percussionists Jesse Marks and Luis Ortega and guitarist Trevor May -- has fashioned an acoustic sound that creates a timeless connection and joyous blues that's as old as the working class itself.
"I think there's a sincerity with the music," says Rimpel. "Even though the music is new and really happy and people dance, the lyrics are talking about things that are deep-seated. We do a song that's a tribute to Che Guevara, and a song made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club that talks about your homeland and kind of going back to simpler things. I feel like we're trying to share the experience with all the people in the room with us."
That comes through like a breath of fresh humid air. The Driftwood has the feel of a surf-town dive, with comfortably clad people coming in off the beach to imbibe in a post-waves celebration. A big reason is Rimpel, a beautiful 27-year-old thrush who is as great a singer as the Minnesota music factory has ever produced; she's Billie Holiday reincarnated as a late bloomer with Mexican and Minnesotan roots.
"She's the least jaded, most pure person I know," says Schreiner, who founded the group a year ago. "People are drawn to her. When I heard her sing the very first time, I was like, 'Thank you! Thank you!' She's gold. Gold."
To be sure, there is an old-school stillness and stateliness to Rimpel, who grew up listening to Holiday and Nina Simone while studying at Creative Arts High School in St. Paul. Like the whole of Malamanya, she seems unfettered by the rat race of overcommunication, and seems beamed in from another time. She drips with confidence and power, and dances with the same in-the-pocket spontaneity as the band, trilling and improvising as couples and singles fill the dance floor.
Her wide grin ignites the place; she snaps her wrist -- muy caliente -- as band and dancers meld and get mischievous. When the musicians take a break, Rimpel walks around talking to relatives and friends, more like a hostess making the rounds at a church potluck than a hypester working the room.
"My whole thing with this group was you start with a bunch of old beautiful wooden instruments and you put them together and right away you've got an old, rootsy thing," says Schreiner. "The reason the music is so infectious is because it grabs hold of something inside of everybody, and returns you to this lost time and simpler things. Nowadays everything has gotten so complicated, and you're bombarded with [stimuli], and roots are getting smaller and smaller."
Not at the Driftwood on Tuesday nights. The roots snake out the door, extend down Nicollet to ports of call all over the planet.
One new connectee is Joseph Berns, a twentysomething with Mojo Nixon sideburns who stands on the sidelines watching his friends dance. "What's the name of this band?" he asks a stranger. Faced with "Malamanya," the kid asks, "Is that the name of the band or style of music?" and bolts for the dance floor.
Rimpel explained: "'Malamanya' means 'bad habit' in Spanish. It comes from a song done by [the Buena Vista Social Club's] Ibrahim Ferrer. It's about a woman who has a bad habit of going to bed with strangers."
"I want people who listen to our music to feel so full of passion that they have to share that with someone else -- either someone in the room with them, or find someone else later."