Trying to Make a Go-Go of It: The Band Mambo Sauce Hopes Genre Will Cross the D.C. Line

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2009

The members of Mambo Sauce look dazed -- but not from the flurries of camera-phone flashes, the grueling world tours or the Sharpie fumes that waft during marathon autograph sessions. That stuff hasn't happened yet. And after a band spends an entire year on the cusp of fulfilling an increasingly elusive "yet," eyeballs start glazing over.

Washington's most ambitious go-go troupe has just finished one of three weekly rehearsals held in a windowless shed behind the Bowie home of bassist Khari Pratt. Hunched over on folding chairs, milk crates and amplifiers, the musicians cast deep stares into the floor while lead vocalist Alfred "Black Boo" Duncan refuses to sit.

"Go-go can be as big, if not bigger, than hip-hop," he declares, as if arguing with phantom detractors. "Go-go is the most energetic music out there. You can't name a go-go song that doesn't make you want to get up and dance." His band mates remain seated but summon a collective nod.

Since forming in 2003, Mambo Sauce has held to its mission: Bring go-go to the masses or bust. Some might call it mission impossible. The sound of Washington's indigenous, hyper-percussive funk music has cast a spell over our city's eardrums for decades, but for various reasons has created only momentary flickers on the national stage. Mambo Sauce set out to change that, abandoning the genre's business model and grafting radio-ready hooks to go-go's contagious, conga-laden pulse -- all with the aim of pushing this staunchly local sound into the unpredictable currents of the mainstream.

On New Year's Eve 2007, those dreams didn't seem far from becoming reality. The group was enjoying an opening slot for Chuck Brown at the 9:30 club after months of dominating local airwaves with two wildly catchy singles, "Miracles" and "Welcome to D.C." The latter single managed to sneak onto Billboard's Hot 100 Hip-Hop/R&B singles chart in late January; the song's video would appear on VH1 Soul in July. But as the band hunkered down to finish its debut album, members began wrestling for control with Mambo Sauce manager and founder Malachai Johns. "You want say-so in your future," Duncan explains. "Especially if you've given up so many years in your life to do this."

It was Johns who conceived the idea of an all-original go-go band (cover tunes dominate the repertoires of most go-go acts), but as he's quick to point out: "The idea was much vaster than just an original band. Every single person was handpicked for their look, their temperament. The idea was to create a national artist.

"Eventually, it came down to control," he says, "and they started to feel like 'This is our band, not yours,' so rather than make a bad situation worse, I just decided to move on." The two parties finally parted ways in October. Johns began managing new artists, while the members of Mambo Sauce held on to their day jobs as their debut album slept in cold storage, incomplete and with no label deal in sight.

The setbacks haven't kept Mambo Sauce from the stage, the one place where it's practically guaranteed to win new fans. In November at Bedrock, a nightclub in downtown Baltimore, you'd never mistake the seven-piece band for the zombie-eyed musicians at rehearsal the week before.

Drummer Patricia "Twink" Little and percussionist Jermaine "Pep" Cole are slapping out righteous cadences while Pratt slides gooey notes up and down the fret board of his bass. Andrew "Drew" White wails on his guitar as if channeling the superpowers of Prince. During the rousing set-opener "Miracles," vocalist Joi "J.C." Carter belts out a chorus that asks, "Do you believe in miracles? Maybe we can change the world." It's an apt credo for a band trying not only to survive but to thrive.

"When 'Miracles' hit, that's when we knew we had something special," says Cole, recalling the summer of 2007 when local stations WPGC and WKYS put it in regular rotation. Soon, Mambo Sauce seemed to be cranking over the city's airwaves twice every hour. The folks at Verizon Center followed suit and started blasting "Welcome to D.C." over the PA during last season's Wizards home games. (Currently, there aren't any Mambo Sauce tunes in rotation at Verizon Center and, as Pratt and Duncan are quick to note, the Wiz are in the tank.)

The group's success only seemed instantaneous. Formed over five years ago, the band took its name from a local condiment -- that translucent orange goop drizzled over french fries and chicken at neighborhood carryouts. All veteran players in the go-go scene, the musicians felt stifled by their experiences and were eager to take a new approach to the music they loved. Musically, that meant adding rock and Latin flourishes to the mix. Businesswise, it meant a complete overhaul.

"The local celebrity thing kinda got old to me," says Pratt, who made his name in the '90s playing bass for the legendary Northeast Groovers. "I want to get out there and get the real money, the real fame."

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