Tropicoso (Profile)

Celebrating 11 years of lighting up Monday nights

Mar 11, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Nicholas Radina’s schedule is so tightly packed with things demanding his attention, by all rights he shouldn’t be taking time for lunch. He’s a sound engineer, running concerts and events at the 20th Century Theater, as well as a local promoter (he co-founded the CincyLatino festival in 2003), erstwhile Over the Rhine tour manager and sideman, doing occasional solo acoustic gigs and holding membership in four separate Latin-based bands: Acapulco (formerly Salsa Caliente), Mambo Diablo, Zumba! and Tropicoso.

“I’ve got the disease,” Radina says over white chicken chili at Habits Cafe, just across the street from his day gig at the 20th Century. “If someone calls me up and they’re like, ‘How’re you doing?’ and I don’t say, ‘Busy,’ I feel weird. I feel fortunate to be able to do what I do for a living. I’m constantly reminded, especially in these times, that I’m still doing it and I’m still happy doing it.”

Tropicoso’s show Saturday at the Mad Frog is a celebration of the band’s longstanding Monday night gig there, but Latin Monday at the Frog dates back even further. Radina’s previous band and Tropicoso’s precursor, Bailando Desnudo, began the tradition in the mid-’90s, and the night has remained a powerful draw.

“It’s been steady every Monday, rain or shine, for that long,” Radina says. “So many people have been to it, and there are so many memories. This is a celebration of the fact that we’ve held onto it this long and the Mad Frog has always been behind us. It’s going to be a big old dance party.”

Radina’s musical path is long and cool. He began playing music at 8, formed the R&B band Out of the Blue and played gigs at 14 and ultimately received a scholarship to Boston’s Berkelee School of Music. Unfortunately, he didn’t get anything out of the program that wasn’t already in his toolbox.

“I was at Berklee making phone calls home booking gigs,” Radina says with a laugh. “There’s more to being a musician than playing your instrument. I just felt like it was the wrong place for me.”

Radina’s OotB bandmate Brian Andres suggested blending Afro-Cuban Pop with the R&B they were playing, and the band morphed into Bailando Desnudo. The new band’s fresh Latin/Caribbean sound was an immediate sensation.

“Once that hit, it was six nights a week for three years,” Radina says. “There was a niche that that band completely worked itself into. It was magic.”

Bailando ran its course in 1999. Radina moved to Florida and bassist Jim McCoy (along with pianist/music director Larry Feldner, who sat in on numerous Bailando dates) assembled the beginnings of what would become Tropicoso. As a goodwill gesture to the fledgling band, Bailando passed along their regular house gigs to Tropicoso. Between Bailando and Tropicoso, the Mad Frog’s Latin Monday has spanned at least 11 years and more than 572 nights.

When Radina returned from Florida, he got back into the scene by sitting in on timbales with Tropicoso, and then moved into a permanent slot when regular timbalist Orlando Torres moved back to Puerto Rico.

“It was kind of odd, because I was still playing some of the same songs that I was playing with Bailando, and I’m still playing them all these years later,” Radina says. “It’s kind of freaky, to be honest.”

Although Tropicoso has weathered a number of lineup changes, the band has always maintained a solid core as well as a fiercely loyal fan base (some of whom date back to the Bailando days). The band — Feldner, Radina, lead vocalist Carmen Velez, Charlie Schweitzer on conguero and vocals, Chris Velez on bongocero, Bill Gwynne on trombone, vibraslap and vocals, John Zappa on trumpet and vocals and Garin Webb on saxophone and vocals — still manages to draw a large and always enthusiastic crowd on a typically slow club night.

“I’m proud to have had a house gig for as long as we have,” Radina says. “Only a couple other groups have done that. The Blue Birds have been doing it forever and, of course, the Blue Wisp Big Band. And I want to keep that as long as I can.

“I want to keep making records with Tropicoso and playing and writing original music with the group. Realistically, the group isn’t built to tour, so I want to keep the Monday night and grow the Monday night even more than it is.”

For this weekend’s festivities, Radina says Tropicoso will offer a number of special treats (including appearances from previous Tropicoso members, new merchandise, new tunes and door prizes), but he’s quick to add that the most important aspect of the Saturday night party is to emphasize as well as commemorate the longstanding Monday night gig.

“The night itself is a celebration for the people that have been coming out and the people who haven’t come out in a long time,” he says. “And we’re doing it on a Saturday because crowds ebb and flow. People come for years, and then they can’t keep getting up at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, so they burn out a little.

“But we just want to let people know: Come out on Monday night. This is what it is. It’s fun, it’s safe, it’s a great band. And be prepared to sweat.”

TROPICOSO plays The Mad Frog Saturday (and, of course, Monday). Free salsa dance lessons start at 9 p.m. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.