From the first notes Fatal Mambo sounds like a pleasant, vivacious salsa band--albeit one that takes a decidedly lighthearted approach to traditional Cuban dance rhythms, incorporating humor and even a fair amount of camp (a la Perez Prado). But you realize something's not kosher as soon as the singing starts: the lyrics are all in French. Turns out the band hails not from Cuba but from the southern French city of Montpellier, where the band seems to have sprung full grown from the whimsical brain of Jean-Francois Hammel, the group's founder, lead percussionist, and vocalist. Smitten by Cuban music after hearing Tito Puente for the first time, Hammel managed to find enough simpatico confreres to bottle his unique brand of salsa. As you might expect from his decision to abandon traditional Spanish lyrics, Hammel has no qualms about adapting his adopted idiom. The group's second and latest CD, the relatively short Fatal Mambo (Tinder), includes one track that's more disco than descarga, another that revolves around a distinctly Middle Eastern riff, a lazy rock groove reminiscent of the early Kinks, and several tracks that ham it up with Gallic cabaret cuteness. Those with sensitive palates will also notice a splash of Gipsy Kings throughout. The vocals of Sonia Sala add another unusual flavor--few authentic Afro-Cuban bands feature les femmes up front--and Hammel has smartly turned over the arranging chores to keyboardist Mathieu Valeur, the de facto musical director. The band's press release likens Fatal Mambo's music to "escargot with jalapenos"; Hammel himself has coined the term "salsaioli" to describe his music. Either way, purists will hate it, tourists won't get it, and everyone else should lap it up. Early arrivals get free hors d'oeuvres, which they don't do in Cuba either. Friday, 9:30 PM, Apollo's 2000, 2875 W. Cermak; 773-247-0200. There's also a free performance Friday at noon at Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark; 773-477-5994. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.