On the corner of Wilshire and South Carondelet Street, sandwiched between Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown and Little Bangladesh, is one of LA’s largest and most fun Mexica Restaurants, La Fonda de Los Comperos. I say “fun” because it is the home of the Mariachi Dinner Show. As of last week, I had never been to the La Fonda, but I received an irresistible invitation to join the fun. My friend Julieta Isela, founder of The Living Sessions music event production group, was launching her new PR firm, RepubliquePR, combined with a concert by the Guataca System band in a dance concert produced by Sunset Eclectico. Although I didn’t know the band and had never been to the venue, when two heavyweight firms invite me to LA’s most fun Mexican restaurant, I say “yes”.
Founded in 1969 by Mariachi Los Camperos band leader Nati Cano in a historic Spanish Churrigueresque-style building built in the 1930s, La Fonda is a large two-story restaurant and music venue with a lot of history. Several restaurants occupied the space in the decades before 1969, but it was the La Fonda that really worked – it quickly became a favorite nightspot for Mariachi aficionados and a mecca for many of the finest Mariachi musicians in La and on tour from Mexico. It closed in 2007 after nearly 40 years of enchiladas, Margaritas, and music. Happily, it reopened three years ago with new owners committed to the ideals of Nati Cano and the original La Fonda. Once again it has become a center of Mexican music and culture in a certified historic-cultural landmark.
Arriving gringo-early to get some dinner before the crowds showed up, I was met at the door by a smiling Julieta Isela who presented me with a gift bag, a drink ticket and an introduction to various people already there. A little later she made it official by putting a name tag on my lapel. I dined at the bar and sipped a very good Margarita while I chatted with Luis Polanco, the founder of Sunset Eclectico. The band was mic-checking on the stage across the (large) room from us, so I got a hint of the fun to come. More people trickled in through the front door, got their name tags and either smoozed in the bar lobby, canoodled in the balcony overlooking the dance floor, or settled at tables for the night.
And what a night. The RepubliquePR launch party gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with people from music, TV, film and lots of other worlds. Conversations were mostly in English, but my improving Spanish and Google Translate helped out in the bilingual exchanges quite nicely.
One of the most interesting exchange was with an executive from the San Antonio Winery, the oldest winery in Downtown Los Angeles. San Antonio is a historical landmark operating in the same community where it was founded in 1917 — and a hidden gem, to say the least. The winery is known throughout the LA music community for its support of events and concerts and it – and its wine – are beloved by artists, promoters, and everyone connected to music in the city. I was honored to meet her.
The trickle of people coming in became a torrent and by the time the band had changed out of its mic-check jeans and T’s into stage clothes, the place was full and humming. The Guataca System is a collective musical wizard that transmutes diners and drinkers into dancers…a lot of dancers….and the audience was ready to rock, or more likely salsa. Led by the band’s founder, Filip Guzmán M. on drums and timbales, Guataca System last Friday night was pure Latin dance joy. They mixed salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, bachata and a little rock and roll and some romantic songs in sets that kept people moving.
The nine-piece group fit comfortably on La Fonda’s stage, although lead vocalist Francisco Ruiz occasionally stepped off onto the dancing throngs to cheer on the other members, especially Lorenzo Ferrero on tenor sax who added a jazz-rock flavor to the sound. Toward the end of the evening, when virtually everyone in the room was dancing either on the main floor, between the tables, in front of the bar or upstairs, Ruiz would accompany his vocals with a triangle or a guiro.
During a break in the music and dancing, the RepubliquePR staff brought out a cake with sparks-shooting candles for founder Isela, who was appropriately joyful and embarrassed (mostly joyful – she knew it was coming). The music started again, giving everyone a nudge to get out on the dance floor, which they did until way past my bedtime.
Every week there are a handful or more of such events in the LA music community. This week there is an AdSocietyLA mixer and panel on Music Marketing, and an LA Times wine and cheese get together for the music press – not to mention a dozen concerts and showcases every night of the week. The La Fonda event was special; of course it was industry-oriented with name tags and was created so an important player the LA Latino music world could introduce her new company. But combining it with a Guataca System dance party in a location with a history and the vibrations of Mariachis long past made it human and jubilant and truly in the spirit of what music is all about. As Grateful Dead Groupie Wavy Gravy says, “You don’t stop dancing because you get old, you get old because you stop dancing.” No wonder the night is always still young at the La Fonda.
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