Having grown up next to a nightclub in the capital city of the Congo, Ricardo Lemvo knew by the age of eight where his ardor would lead, but his musical career didn't begin in earnest until he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a political science degree at Cal State. There, he fell in love with Mexican rancheras, abandoned his aspiration to be a lawyer, and began singing with mariachi bands. In the early '90s, with a desire to more strongly integrate the sounds of Africa and Latin America, he formed Makina Loca ("crazy machine" in Spanish and "dancing in a trance" in Kikongo) and released Mambo Yo Yo, which became an immediate favorite of forward-thinking Cuban music lovers who admired Lemvo's fluid fusion of salsa and soukous. The recently released São Salvador, however, is the album that elevates Makina Loca to world-class status. From the horn-heavy funk of "Nganga Kisi," which tells the humorous tale of "smooth operator," to the South African-inspired a capella of "Dans La Forêt," which offers a riveting percussive beat created by Lemvo's voice, Makina Loca bridges two continents with adeptness, grace, and soul. Singing in Spanish, English, Portuguese, Lingali, and Lucumi, the language spoken by Afro-Cuban devotees of santería, Lemvo offers sassy musicology history lessons, mournful tributes to Beatríz Kimpa Vita, the Congolese Joan of Arc, and alluring love songs, while his band keeps you wiggling in your skin. Ricardo Lemvo and Makiva Loca perform at the Great American Music Hall on Saturday, March 4 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15; call 885-0750.
Of all the projects guitar rogue Kid Congo Powers has most recently lent his distinctive hand and name (Botanica and Congo Norvell, among them) only Knoxville Girls comes close to his earlier, possibly insurmountable, glories with the Gun Club and the Bad Seeds. But it is close enough to raise the down on the tips of your ears with a nearly forgotten anticipatory tingle. Born with a blood-and-bourbon pedigree -- Jerry Teel of Honeymoon Killers, Chrome Cranks, and Boss Hog on vocals and guitar, Bob Bert of Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth on drums, Jack Martin of Estranged Blackstrap Molasses Family and Congo Norvell on third guitar (who needs bass?), and Barry London of Stab City on organ -- the Knoxville Girls' self-titled debut is a druggy feast of loose-limbed rockabilly, slithery Delta blues, seaside noir, and from-under-the-thumb-nail rock and roll. It's nothing new -- c'mon, all the kids are doing it -- but the Knoxville Girls are the difference between street skag and medicinal morphine. They are professionals, spared the paranoia, nausea, and overcompensation that rise from the chasm dividing desire and talent. The ride is, instead, as smooth and seductive as the honey-eyed beauty who fronts you a five. Blues harp and gospel organ seep through the crevices of three sweating guitars as Teel's comfortable voice rises and recedes in the heat, singing about that girl, that truck, that low-cut apron, that kung pao chicken, all the things that rustle around in your mind and leave you with a nod and a smile. Well-weathered and sure of foot, the Knoxville Girls' ravaging traditional blues idioms with roughneck grumbles and downtown grinds that don't beg attention or try to strut. This is punk-damaged blues you can sink into, the kind of music that makes you enjoy the smell of your own sweat, created by a group of musicians who make playing sound like the end rather than the means. It's about time. Knoxville Girls perform on Tuesday, March 7 at Bottom of the Hill with Dura Delinquent and Vue opening at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 621-4455. And 6 p.m. at Amoeba Music. The show is free; call 831-1200.