Mike Wheaton’s musical influences needed to be reconciled. Tito Puente, Reubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Oscar d’Leon, and folk influences from Latin America pulled one hand; the Who, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and the Police pulled the other. In public, he was gigging in straight-up salsa joints, playing guitar in Latin bands, singing en español, and learning the music he’d heard as a child in the Dominican Republic. At home, he was digging Santana and quietly seeking conspirators to bring the music of the Americas, the music he listened toall of it, togetherinto an amalgamation called Jaleo.
In 1994, Wheaton teamed up with Brazilian drummer Alejandro Lucini and Puerto Rican bassist Adrienne Lastra, and set out to try his recipe: equal parts rock, funk, salsa, and merengue fueled by Latin rhythms. The resulting album, Rock and Salsa on the Slopes of Mount Pleasant, is a decidedly mixed bag, a rock album with a Latin subtextexactly what Jaleo was after.
“It’s kind of funny, because it’s a little hard to take what we play on the CD into a Latin club,” says Wheaton. “We sort of run a schizophrenic existence: Sometimes we’ll do straight rock and pop music; sometimes we’ll do all Spanish music. It’s a split existence, and we haven’t completely figured out how to put that together. We’ll do stuff in English and Spanish, depending on who we’re playing to. But people love it; people dig it.”
Wheaton founded Long Distance Records to release the album and says he hopes to create local interest in Latin-rock hybrids. Jaleo has shared the stage with bands like Machetres and Eclipse, which have similar aims, and Wheaton says D.C. has been receptive to the “rock en espanol” movement. Except for a rousing version of “La Bamba,” however, the songs on the Jaleo album are all sung in English, with lyrics by Wheaton and co-writer Brian Price.
In lyrics like “Here in the serrated city, I’m on the edge once again/Half of me is everywhere and the other half has never been,” Wheaton addresses the pluralism of his bilingual influences and tries to fuse them. Whereas the record is full of saucy pop gems like “Anything Amy,” “Swimming in Your Arms,” and “Place to Play,” Wheaton promises a live show that will be full of traditional Latin music favorites as well.
“When we play, we try to build up a lot of energy, and our drummer is kind of the main driving engine for that,” says Wheaton. “Jaleo roughly translates to ‘wild, insane party,’ and we try to work up that kind of frenzy. That’s what this is all about.”Colin Bane
Jaleo performs next at Kramerbooks Thursday 9-12 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 27, at 10 p.m.