Every time Adriana Rimpel stands before a microphone, she opens a window to another time and place, taking herself — and her audience — on an island journey.
As the lead singer for Malamanya, a Twin Cities band that plays traditional Cuban son, Rimpel explores the beauty and struggle of daily life by singing music that emerged on the island more than a century ago.
When Malamanya takes the stage, the performance is a celebration — whether she sings of love or heartbreak. It's also about sharing Latin American music and culture, sometimes with Latinos and at other times with college students who bounce to the music with uncertain, if joyful, steps.
The band touches a chord with both crowds — each hungry for vibrant Latin American music — even though none of the members of Malamanya are Cuban. Joining Rimpel are bandleader Tony Schreiner on upright bass and guitar; Luis Ortega Castrellon on congas; Jesse Marks on timbales; Trevor May on tres and guitar; and Jason Marks on trumpet.
In two years, Malamanya has transformed itself from a band of musicians from different backgrounds inspired by Latin music to a tight ensemble that knows its music, with Rimpel, a Mexican-American who grew up in West St. Paul delivering its songs with emotion and style.
"You're the intermediary between the audience and the music," Rimple said of her role as lead singer. "I felt a huge sense of responsibility to help transport people. [And] I have been really fortunate to have audiences who seem willing to go on that journey."
A CHANCE DISCOVERY
Malamanya has spent two years pursuing an authentic sound, one that bandleader Tony Shreiner discovered by chance.
Schreiner, 26, found the inspiration for the band's sound seven years ago, when a friend gave him a disc of songs from a Cuban music website.
Compiled by a New York DJ, it included songs by the late Celia Cruz, the Cuban singer who was the undisputed queen of Latin music. Also on the recording were the Fania All Stars, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Panamanian and other Latin American musicians who sparked the salsa craze of the 1970s.
"There was this blaring trumpet and it was really syncopated," Schreiner recalled. "I said, 'I absolutely need a copy of it.' He gave me a copy that day and I went home and I started listening to it. It was like instantaneous love/obsession."
At first, Schreiner had no idea who he was listening to. But he was so inspired by the songs that he began studying the music and trying to work out the tunes.
"More than anything, I just really wanted to get a group of people together my age to play this music live in front of people," he said. "From that point forth I just started keeping my eyes open for musicians that might be interested in the same thing."
A few years ago, Schreiner was accompanying singer Ashley Gold. He found a kindred spirit in Ortega, a Puerto Rican and Panamanian musician then playing congas for singer Maria Isa.
They recruited musicians to play the music. But the project didn't come together until they met Rimpel, a mezzo soprano who hadn't performed with a band.
"I was blown away by her natural ability," Shreiner said. "She blew everybody away right off the bat."
ENDLESS PRACTICE PAYS OFF
The musicians grew closer during endless practice sessions and a year's stay at the Driftwood Char Bar in south Minneapolis, where they packed dancers onto a tiny floor. For the last several months, they've expanded their reach with gigs throughout the Twin Cities.
"We all were united under a love of this music," Shreiner said. "We realize that it's maybe not the most authentic. But I think we wanted to give our own honest best. It takes a fair amount of time, I think, to internalize the rhythms."
Rimpel, 27, grew up listening to romantic Latin music. She credits her mother, activist Pamela Zeller, with keeping her connected to Latin American culture, and surrounding her with Mexican and Puerto Rican friends.
"She has maintained friendships and connections to the people who were young and listening to this music and bringing Latin music into the Twin Cities," Rimpel said. "So growing up in the west side I was able to still maintain those connections but through the [next] generation."
Although she doesn't know her Haitian father, a drummer, Rimpel still feels connected to Afro-Caribbean culture.
That could help explain her affinity for traditional Cuban music, a fusion of Spanish, African and other elements she embodies on stage.
During a recent show, she explained that the band wants to share Latin American music not just with its Latino audience, but also with others.
"They have the permission to celebrate this music even if they're not from those countries," she said, "or don't know the music.
"We typically say that it's basically old country music of Latin American countries — because it's true. It's folk music."
Rimpel is studying the music with Viviana Pintado, a masterful Cuban performer in the Twin Cities. She's also absorbing the work of Cuban singers like Cruz and La Lupe.
But just like Cubans on the island, Rimpel, who came of age listening to Mary J. Blige and Destiny's Child, also works the music she loves into performances — from fairly modern Latin music to R&B.
"I would say [there's] a modern twist only because that's inevitable," she said of her delivery. "We're playing this music in this time."
She performs the band's songs — in English and Spanish — differently each night, adjusting the tempo and timing to suit the mood.
"I'm giving them heat, I'm giving them passion," she said. "I'm not from the tropics, but that's in my blood too."
Malamanya performs in a free show Sunday, May 27 at the Memory Lanes Block Party in Minneapolis.