Rodrigo Muñoz celebrates his 50th birthday at Juss Jazz on May 6 (Aimee Siple)
On any given Sunday night, if you wander into Juss Jazz, you'll find Rodrigo Muñoz tearing up the dance floor with his salsa moves or on stage grooving with his hot percussion and guitar.
And this Sunday he'll be front and centre on the tiny stage, squashed in with the other eight members of Papa Mambo. Muñoz is turning 50 and according to him, there's no better way to celebrate than by doing what he loves best, playing salsa music.
"I love music because it grabs me in three parts of my body," he explains. "My brain; my heart and my gut, which is the middle part; and all the way downstairs to my pelvis. It has everything in it. It has the groove, which makes it very likeable for most people. You could be playing the weirdest harmony or strangest melody, but if you have a groove, then people still enjoy it because of that. So the groove is just so important. It's the reason why I love it."
The Muñoz family escaped the political turmoil of Chile and landed in Winnipeg in 1975. Rodrigo was 12 years old.
Very soon he and his siblings formed a folk band called Millarapue in which they played mostly traditional Andean music.
In 1989 he pulled together some of the finest musicians in Winnipeg to form Papa Mambo, which soon turned into the city's premiere salsa band. Winnipeggers finally had a chance to hit the dance floor and groove to super high quality bossa novas, cha cha chas, mambos and rumbas.
One of Muñoz's musical highlights was a concert they gave with the amazing Puerto Rican musician Tito Puente. They shared the stage with the Kerry Kluner Big Band. "Puente himself was very professional, a very likeable character," says Muñoz. "He was very accomodating and charismatic - a great band leader, a great musician."
Hankering for a taste of the real thing, Muñoz returned to his native Chile where he soon became a vital part of the Santiago salsa scene. He stayed eight years before returning to Winnipeg and revving up Papa Mambo again.
The salsa band celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009 with a special concert at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The band also has a whole symphonic repertoire which they have performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Thunder Bay Symphony.
Muñoz is also a member of Trio Bembe with singer and pianist Amber Epp and percussionist Scott Senior.
"Rodrigo is one of the best musicians I know," exclaims Epp, "and definitely the funnest!
"Roddy loves to bring people together, and always for a good time. He taught me basically all I know about Latin music, and I love performing with him and having him as a friend."
While salsa may be in Muñoz's blood, he hasn't gotten to where he is without a lot of hard work. "It's challenging music for musicians. Not like rock music. For Afro-Cuban music, you have to go to school. You have to write it down, you have to learn how to play it, you have to practice a lot.You have to have mature, professional musicians to really be able to play this music."
But there's another side to Rodrigo Muñoz that many people don't know. He is a classically trained guitarist and has collaborated frequently with musicians from the classical community - from the Winnipeg Classical Guitar Society to the Winnipeg Symphony and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. He is currently writing material for next season's Groundswell series.
As for the future, Muñoz hopes to make recordings of more popular Afro-Cuban music, create some music videos and he wants to keep writing original material. Oh, and finish the science fiction novel he's currently writing with his wife, Rhonda Martens.
"I'm glad I enjoy doing what I do and making a living at it. To me, that's success."