Haunting sinuous melodies interwoven by piccolos and Peruvian pan pipes, punctuated by a perfect blend of voices backed by mandolins, guitars and 10 string charangos, peppered with conga drums and a professional quality home-made bass drum can be heard at the La Pena de Sol Latino five nights a week. This is the premier house band in Antigua.
The ceiling is a shiny green and white broad striped canvas awning, covering what was the atrium, the ancient reddish adobe/rubble and brick walls ivy-covered and decorated with five white trimmed arches. A beaming two foot high gaily painted religious statuary sits in a niche behind the band as if to bless their efforts. Could it be Proud Mary? No..it’s Maximon — the perfect patron saint for this venue.
This is Sol Latino territory and the four very professional musicians play Wednesday through Sunday, occasionally backed by Bill Harris, owner of La Pena del Sol, on the conga drums. If he’s not there, one of waiters may step in for a few licks in between serving dishes. This is toe-tapping music, one of a kind, original melodies.
The older, bearded, distinguished looking Paco, aka Francisco Mendoza is the leader/improviser and maker of much of the band’s instruments (a story in itself) and he sits to the right, next to the conga drums. He usually plays the self-made bass drum while keeping a deep breath and flow through the five foot long flutes/ pan-pipes that almost rear the floor. To his right stands David Hernandez looking remarkably like an impish reincarnation of a young Che Quevara: he too plays two instruments simultaneously, a guitar and another set of smaller wooden flute/pipes. To his right, eye-glasses set firmly in place, Hector Gomez is usually strumming a 10 string charango. When he’s really warmed up, about ten minutes into the opening song, his fingers are a moving blur. This is EXTREME strumming. And finally, again on the right, moving to the left and last is Paco’s nephew, ‘˜Chilo’, with a degree in music — the final mix is composed of guitars, piccolos, charangos, and mandolins — .overlaid with the five foot long sabayones wielded by Paco or David.
These are musicians with a capital M. Bill Harris was a session musician in Nashville for thirty odd years, playing drums, including amongst others, Dolly Parton.
Paco started playing music as a child and went on to our Central Park with a sombrero on the sidewalk for donations. They always start on time and immediately jump all over the opening song until it’s lying in the corner, exhausted. Paco might say a few words of welcome and then they launch immediately: belting out Peruvian-style rhythms in the sweetest harmony of voices, strings and wooden one-of-kind flutes, while the hand-crafted deep voice of the bass drum keeps a mesmerizing backbeat. They never coast, cruise or limp through any of their material. They have two switches, off and ON. One speed: FULL ahead. In other words, they rock.