Latin music for wallflowers

Had I not tried it, I wouldn’t have believed that Flamenco music went with Nutella-filled crepes, or Pier One-inspired decor, or the metrosexual bar scene.

But it does. In fact, Flamenco — at least the updated version performed by local sextet Cabo Verde — is probably the perfect accompaniment to any evening out.

This isn’t Mariachi

“We’re trying to do something a little different,” reveals the band’s founder, guitarist Juan Benavides. “I think we appeal to more of the crossover sector.” Which is to say that even though half the band answers to “Juan” (Benavides and cajon player Juan David De Narvaez are both from Colombia, and congas player Juan Luis Merced hails from Puerto Rico), you won’t find them playing local Latino hotspots like Margaritas Town.

“We don’t do the standard stuff,” says Benavides. “Latinos go out to dance, and we’re not a dance band.

“We’re danceable,” he clarifies. “But I don’t want to become a jukebox for people.”

Still, Cabo Verde did replace salsa outfit Eta Carina on Tressa’s Downtown Jazz and Blues Club’s Latino Night (Mondays). So, some fans are still coming out ready to cut a rug, though according to percussionist Robin Tolleson, the tango addicts seen on Tressa’s floor are serious about their art. “It’s almost intimidating,” the drummer says with a laugh.

But you needn’t have perfected that dance form’s complex lunges and twirls to appreciate Cabo Verde: When I caught their regular Friday gig at Cafe Soleil, the crowd was decidedly social, and no one gripped a rose between her teeth.

At the same time, the spicy Flamenco — “modern Flamenco,” band members amend — set a nice tone for the multiethnic audience. A small group of Latino men watched the guitarist dreamy-eyed, as if transported somewhere far from Asheville.

Hot fusion

“The band in this incarnation is pretty new,” explains Tolleson. Formerly a collective featuring dancers, Cabo Verde is now a musicians-only venture.

“The music became second to the dancers,” Benavides says. “So, I decided to go back to what I was doing before, which was fusion.”

He adds, “I hate that word, fusion: It’s a cop-out. But here, we’re each bringing something to the table.”

Modern jazz meets traditional tango; funk rhythms override old Algerian chants; Afro-Cuban drums salute soulful Latin strings: The band moves through its intercontinental offerings as easily and deliciously as a diner sipping Garnatxa d’Emporda (Spanish dessert wine) with a crepe La Jamboise (filled with jam).

Before moving to Asheville, Benavides (who also teaches Flamenco through Blue Mountain School House) was half of De Madera (Latin guitar meets Afro-Cuban rhythms) in Charlotte.

“I had several projects before [Cabo Verde], and was taking sort of a break,” he says. “I decided to come to Asheville because I enjoy the Bohemian atmosphere.”

Once here, Benavides met up with fellow Colombian De Narvaez, who introduced the guitarist to bassist Shayne Heather. A recent transplant from Memphis, Heather had moved to WNC with funk-based Klarcnova.

Juan Number Three, congas player Luis Merced, formerly played with Eta Carina. And two Californians rounded out the group: vocalist and woodwind player Jim Kohn, lending traditional tunes (as in ancient hymns) to Cabo Verde’s musical repertoire, and Tolleson, who brings jazz and rock grooves from his other endeavors (Hip Bones, Big Block Dodge and Ruby Slippers).

“It’s one of these really strange things that happens once in a blue moon,” says the percussionist.

Serious synchronicity is the rarity he’s alluding to.

“[Cabo Verde] is a testament to the listening ability of everybody in the band, because there’s a lot going on.”


Hear Cabo Verde at various locations around Asheville. Call the clubs listed for exact times and cover charges. Mondays, 9 p.m., at Tressa’s (254-7072); Tuesdays, 7-9 p.m. (Juan Benavides solo), at Zambra (232-1060); Fridays, around 10 p.m., at Cafe Soleil (350-1140); Saturday, July 30, at Zambra (232-1060).

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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