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Saucy and spicy hot

Upbeat rhythms, Latin percussion and bluesy horn arrangements fill the spirited sound of Mambo Rico. The ensemble's music is salsa, a lively style of contemporary Latin American popular music that blends predominantly Cuban rhythms with elements of jazz, rock and soul music.

"Salsa is a term that originated in New York City in the '70s in the Cuban, Puerto Rican and other Hispanic neighborhoods," says Marshall Mueller, saxophonist and one of the lead vocalists for the group. "It was a mixture of many different styles, like a sauce or salsa."

It named a style of music and dance created by artists such as Spanish Harlem's Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri; the Cuban singer Celia Cruz; and Latin jazz percussionists Manny Oquendo and Mongo Santamaria.

In Cuba, where the roots of salsa originated, it's also called son Cubano, mambo or timba — and the dance style is called casino. The Cubans blended elements of African rhythms, European harmonies and big-band style horn arrangements to create this distinctive music.

Mambo Rico will perform for a New Year's Eve dance at 9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 31, at The Mobius, 281 Fourth St., Ashland. A salsa dance lesson will start the evening.

Mambo Rico's repertoire is full of up-tempo salsa dance music with some slower tempo Spanish chachachás and boleros mixed in. Mueller and Christina Marsillia sing the lead vocals in Spanish.

"We follow the traditional coro/pregon (call and response) song form," says Mueller. "It's an improvised lead line against a repeated chorus of harmony voices, or a horn line against the chorus. The call and response vocal style is of African tradition, but it is a big part of the Cuban salsa tradition as well as most popular music."

"It's what makes salsa, salsa," says John Gronberg, the ensemble's founder and acoustic bass player. Gronberg founded Mambo Rico about seven years ago with Ashland drummer Chris Wood.

It was right after a visit to his brother Don's ranch in Colorado. Don Gronberg has traveled to Cuba dozens of times to study music and dance at the National School of the Arts in Havana.

"While I was playing music with my brother, I got the idea that I could put together a band like this in Ashland," Gronberg says. "Wood is no longer with the group, and there's been a gradual evolution of members. We usually have 10 to 11 people playing together."

Don Gronberg, a percussionist, will make a guest appearance with Mambo Rico on New Year's Eve. The ensemble also will include percussionists Mike Fitch, Cody Bustamante and Andy Gever; pianist Anne Muth; flautist Marsillia; and Joe Fascilla, Steve Davidson and Patrick McLain on trumpet, saxophone and trombone, respectively.

Mueller, Muth and Marsilia will attend the National School of Arts for a study program in February 2008. Other members of the group already have attended, and it will be Muth's third trip to the school.

"I'm going to study voice, saxophone and arranging," Mueller says. "I expect to be worked very hard. They take their music very seriously there. Music and dance seem to be the national pastime."

John Gronberg agrees. "According to my brother, it's world-class, top-level musicianship and a very humbling experience."

Mambo Rico enjoys a following in Ashland that has exceeded all of its members' expectations, Gronberg says.

"It's unique for a band like ours to be based in a town of 20,000 people," Gronberg says. "It's an artistic community; that's probably why we've survived in an area with a limited number of performance venues."

"There's also a diverse cross section of people in Ashland," adds Mueller. "Some have migrated from larger cities where they were exposed to different styles of music."

Cuban music also was brought into the international limelight through the efforts of American guitarist Ry Cooder, who traveled to the island nation to work with vocalist and composer Juan de Marcos González. The resulting album and documentary, "The Buena Vista Social Club," helped spread the music, Gronberg says.

Admission to the Mambo Rico show at The Mobius will cost $20 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at mamboricosalsa.com and cost $16. Dress is formal. Beer, wine, champagne and snacks will be available. Call 488-8894.

To read about more New Year's Eve dances, turn to Page 26.

Ashland salsa ensemble Mambo Rico features (clockwise) Joe Fascilla, Anne Muth, Marshall Mueller, John Gronberg, Patrick McClain, Andy Gever, Mike Fitch and (center) Christina Marsillia. Other members (not shown) include Steve Davidson, Cody Bustamante and Don Gronberg. - Jamie Lusch