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Sabado Gigante at Chino Latino

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The blinds are drawn on a Saturday night at Chino Latino, a Durham roadhouse with a slightly prohibited feel, like one of those smoke-filled, mob-run gay bars of the 1950s. The management of this establishment is friendly though--Alberto Canuto, who operates the combination Mexican-Chinese restaurant on Highway 98, just over the tracks past the 98/70 split.

This place is androgynous in more ways than one--half restaurant, half nightclub, the after hours scene features weekly "transvesti" shows--drag queens lipsynching not to Brittney and Cher, but Thalia and Graciela Beltran. Their personas range from pop star in leather pants and corset with dangling pearl nipples, to cowboy cocktail waitress in halter top and red lame sarong, to prom mom in conservatively femme taffeta dress. Perhaps surprisingly, the latter was the hands down winner the night I went (according to audience response as measured in gritos--ay!--and dollar bills), performing flamenco stage moves to a torchy ranchera by Rocio Durcal.

Mixed couples--men and women, Hispanics and non-Hispanics, drag queens and men in sports jerseys and mechanics shirts--danced the rest of the evening to volume-cranked cumbia, with a little merengue, bachata, and Honduran punta mixed in.

They'll never run out of lime for your Corona at Chino Latino, where the median beer price is $3.50. Cover is $5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, with drag shows Saturday at midnight. To get there, take Holloway Street from downtown Durham, or I-85 to get to 70, then follow Highway 98 East.

Movimiento Popular
Austin's 12-piece Grupo Fantasma (minus one) blew through Carrboro April 12 to promote their new CD. The Monday night show attracted about 30-40 people to De la Luz, the backroom concert space at Templeball organized around couches, Persian rugs, and a central wooden post akin to the peristyle in a Vodun sanctuary. The bartender looked askance through his dredlocks when I asked about beer at this alcohol-free venue. Admittedly, the selection of wholesome beverages was oustanding, including magnum-sized bottles of Latin American "Jamaica," a sangria-colored iced tea brewed from hibiscus flowers.

Grupo Fantasma have all the energy, hunger, and rough edges you'd expect from a band of mostly 20-somethings. The positive vibe is visceral and extra-large, anchored in a horn section so funky, so sweet and in the pocket, it belies their years. This uncategorizable Latin big band, whose Tejano and midwestern members were drawn from the ranks of cumbia, punk, salsa and skronk jazz outfits, has recently been fine-tuned in the ways of Caribbean rhythms by their Nicaraguan bandmate, Jose Galeano. The 40-year-old percussionist, vocalist and songwriter comes from a lineage of great Latin music mentors--his uncle, Jose "Chepito" Areas, wrote a lot of the great salsa-leaning tunes for the original Santana band in the late '60s and early '70s. These guys can only hope that history repeats itself.

Among Grupo Fantasma's revelations: speeded-up cumbia and quebradita dosed with punk are on the same spectrum as ska, dancehall, reggae and hip hop. While some of their romantic lyrics drift into cumbia cliches, others strike up conscious themes that are a better fit with this band's organic, urban roots sound. Brian Ramos' rap-inspired lead vocals energize, alternatively sweetened by Galeano's rumba-style harmonies. If their current batch of songs has a glass ceiling, it's Latin rock's tendency to turn mambo coros into melody lines, foregrounding vamped elements that--in their original context--were meant as background for a soloist. That said, restyling cha cha chas into lean, funkified groove machines does have a time-honored pedigree, and the whole jam gels nicely, so look to the trumpet, sax, guitar and cuatro for your fix of melodic line innovations.

The title of the 2004 self-release, Movimiento Popular, reflects Grupo Fantasma's mission to make danceable music that doesn't forget its progressive grassroots. This newest CD holds up to the live energy and easily makes summer playlist. Look for it at their Web site, www.grupofantasma.com.

May Day parties
From the salsa-loving collective who produced Bio Ritmo's sensational debut at George's Garage earlier this month comes a new type of Latin fiesta: Saturday, May 1 at Parizade and Cafe Verde, two live bands (flamenco and Brazilian) and DJ Latin dance parties for the price of one. Ed Stephenson's Paco Band and a live flamenco trio will perform, with DJ's spinning eurotrance, salsa, merengue, and other tropical dance music. Joint admission to both venues, located side by side in Durham's Erwin Square, is $10 at the door, less for students and those who prepay online at www.trianglefiesta.com .

E-mail Sylvia Pfeiffenberger at spike@duke.edu with your news for Latin Beat.

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