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The Rumba Kings use pandemic pause to grow their show

The Rumba Kings in action at the Triple Door, Seattle
Courtesy of the artists
The Rumba Kings in action at the Triple Door in Seattle.

The Pacific Northwest's favorite Latin/Mediterranean/guitar extravaganza band The Rumba Kings have been busy during the COVID-19 lockdown. They've spent months improving and expanding their live show, and you can see it at the Triple Door Nov. 19 and 20.

"We're really progressing with the show, revamping and adding a lot of new elements," says lead guitarist George Stevens. "This downtime that we've had really put everything in perspective as to what needed to be done and gave us the time to do that."

Bassist and producer Johnny Bacolas adds, "That's been our attitude from the outset of this, to turn lemons into lemonade and to utilize this time, since everybody was going to be at home. George and I put the entire show under a microscope. We added songs, auditioned several additional musicians, brought in new percussionists and three new vocalists, and spent a lot of time training other instrumentalists. It was a really good time for us, since everybody has a home studio and we were able to collaborate electronically. It ended up being a really positive thing."

Johnny and George dissected every song in the band's repertoire, looking for ways to improve them. They added a string quartet to some and changed the percussion instrumentation in others. They taught the new instrumentalists their parts and, in some cases, created new parts for them, note by note. And then, they had to write all the charts.  

The result? Their 90-minute show is now almost three hours long.

It was the recording of the Rumba Kings' "quarantine videos" that prompted this staggering amount of production work. 

"As I'm recording these, I'm thinking, 'This could be a lot better,' " says George. He realized that the amount of "winging it" on the stage could be replaced by attention to every little note and accent, thereby improving the overall performance. "We're really fine-tuning every song and every element of every song."

Johnny elaborates: "When we first started this band, we learned a lot of our songs at our initial rehearsals. We started in small clubs, and as we moved on to venues like Bake's Place, we never changed any of it. This break gave us a chance to say, 'Let's really look at these songs now: Can we do them better, or can we keep them the way we've done them since the initial rehearsals, which became kind of routine and ingrained and automatic for us?' "

Some of their songs have taken three or four weeks each to revise to their satisfaction.

The energy and fire will still be part of the show. "There's space for improvisation on a lot of the songs; you leave that open for playing from your heart and being in the moment," says George. "That's where a lot of the passion comes from."

The Rumba Kings' music of passion and romance will be enhanced by the Arcobaleno String Quartet, additional percussion, keyboard and guitar; and new vocalists including Deseo Carmin and Charlie Hernandez.

Their next shows are at theTriple Door on Nov. 19-20.

Here is the band's latest video with more information about their expanded show.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.