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Victor Parra says “Salsa isn’t a musical form, it’s something that I put on my food to give it more flavor.” Host of WBEZ’s “Mambo Express,” this well-known Chicago native has dedicated his life to keeping alive the mambo sounds that swelled dance halls four and five decades ago.

“Mambo came out of the danzon, this slow-paced Cuban music in the middle 30s,” Parra explains. “Danzon was a thing that kept repeating itself, a rhythm that stayed in one place. Then two brothers–Cachao and Orestes Lopez–came along and put some swing into it. They changed the bass line in the middle of songs, gave it more syncopation. When you got into the swing, that was called the mambo. Blackness came into the music with the conga drum.”

Parra, now 55, grew up in a Mexican-American household on the near west side. His father was a barber and musician who worked weddings, baptisms, and other neighborhood functions that called for traditional Mexican tunes.

“That music is part of me and there’s no way I’d deny it,” he said. “But as a teenager I got exposed to Cuban music. The first thing I noticed was the drum.”

In the early 1960s, Parra devoted himself to collecting vintage Afro-Cuban records. A decade later, he opened a record shop at Damen and North, a couple storefronts from Cha Cha Cha, where the Mambo Express now performs. As his collection expanded so did his knowledge of the music. He hosted a weekly Afro-Cuban show on a community radio station and then, in 1981, went to WBEZ, where he turned mambo into a Saturday institution.

“Players like Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, and Willie Colon came along and eventually made music their own way,” Parra explains. “But Ruben Blades and these other young cats, they all know that their music goes back to the mambo.” For one Mexican-born and Chicago-raised singer, the mambo goes back to Victor Parra. Connie Perrusquia, who once toured worldwide with her two sisters as the Golden Sisters, met Parra in his record shop and is now the lead vocalist for the seven-member Mambo Express. They married two years ago.

Restaurateur John Grbac liked their chemistry. “John saw how the Mambo Express used to pack them in at the Moosehead,” says Michael Nahabedian, manager of Grbac’s Wicker Park restaurants–Jimo’s, Uncle Frog’s, and Cha Cha Cha. “So when he opened this Caribbean nightclub-restaurant two months ago, he wanted them here.”

The nightclub feels Caribbean, with peach-colored walls, an airy atmosphere, and a third floor overlooking the dancers on the second floor. Frosted windows are a reminder that winter is coming; the dance floor action suggests that there will be no shortage of heat.

Cha Cha Cha is located at 2011 W. North Ave. The first-floor restaurant is open every day but Monday. The club, which opens Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 9 PM, features a Latin DJ Wednesday and Saturday ($6 cover) and the Mambo Express every Friday ($8 cover). Call 384-2422 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.