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Cuban Swing Express gives popular songs a Latin flavor

Cuban Swing Express reinvents classic songs with Latin flavor and no lyrics.

For Cuban pianist Ivan "Melon" Lewis, all instruments should have a chance to be center stage.

His project, the Cuban Swing Express, is made up of 10 musicians with no singer. Instead, the piano and the guitar often assume the role the vocals would have had.

"The idea is to sing with your instrument, instead of your voice," Lewis says.

Lewis and his band reinvent classics like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," José Martí's "Guantanamera" and Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5." Songs by Perez Prado, Benny Moré, Herbie Hancock and Michael Jackson are also part of their repertoire, as well as original songs by Lewis. The combination of brass and Latin instruments, such as the congas and timbales, give the songs a Latin jazz feel.

He will debut the Cuban Swing Express in the United States with a show at the North Beach Bandshell on Thursday, Sept. 8, followed by another performance at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach on Friday, Sept. 9.

"The singer usually catches all the attention, and very often the audience misses a lot of music coming from the rest of the band,"  says Lewis, 42. "Having a singer would make the project very similar to hundreds of bands with this profile."

The two-time Latin Grammy nominee formed the project in Spain, where he lives, with nine other Cuban musicians who also live in Europe. Only three original members flew to Miami for the show with him. The other six spots will be temporarily taken by local Cuban musicians, such as Yosmel Garceran and Leo Garcia from Miami salsa band Timbalive. Lewis sent them songs in advance, but the full band had only two rehearsals before the shows.

"We didn't spend time learning the music, but just improving it because they already knew it all," he says of the local musicians.

Lewis has been living in Madrid for the past 18 years. He left Cuba looking for more opportunities to perform and grow internationally as a musician.

For years, Lewis collaborated with eminent singers, such as Cuban salsa singer Issac Delgado, and Spanish singers Joan Manuel Serrat and Buika. The Cuban Swing Express is the second project he led. Before the Cuban Swing Express, he's recorded two albums with his own quartet.

"I want to make people enjoy music in a certain way, telling the people through music that they can enjoy, they can dance, they can even think of music without the need of singer," he says. "We as musicians also have the ability to transmit that message, to transmit that energy."

The Cuban Swing Express will play at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Admission is free. Go to RhythmFoundation.com. They'll also perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Arts Garage, 94 N.E. 2nd Ave., Delray Beach. Admission costs $30 to $45. Call 561-571-8510 or go to ArtsGarage.org.

bduarte@sunsentinel.com

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