ARTS: The temperature's rising

NIGHTLIFE: Paris is in the grip of Mambomania. Philip Sweeney reports on how the French capital is rediscovering the joys of Latin dancing
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SINCE the 1920s, Parisian nightlife has benefited from two related phenomena: the enthusiastic espousal of tropical dance music, from tango and beguine to salsa and zouk, by immigrant musicians; and a stock of fine dancehalls (dancings), with interiors by artists of the stature of Cocteau, to enjoy it in. Unlike London, where the Cafe de Paris is almost the only classic dancehall left (its very name an admission of French superiority in this area), Paris retains a tangible link with the gilded, mirrored, fake-rococo nightlife of the past.

Its survival over the years is largely due to the tenacity of a few fans - because the 1960s, with the advent of rock, was a bad decade for tropical music and stylish interiors. In 1968, two adoptive Parisians, Jacques Morino and Oscar Lopez, went into business separately. Morino, then manager of a galvanised-metal factory, bought a small dancehall in the rue du Faubourg du Temple, then as now a bustling working-class suburb. Morino is still to be found there today, in powder blue smoking and bow tie, seated behind the cash register at a small reception desk, halfway down the bifurcating semi-circular staircases which descend elegantly to the long, thin basement. "The Java is a historic place. It opened in 1928; Piaf sang here when she was unknown. When I bought it, it was being run by incapables and I had to keep my job at the factory for the first 10 years... Then, two years ago, we began organising Latin theme nights... " These have done extremely well, as the amicable queue of French, Spanish, Portuguese and Caribbeans outside testifies.

Meanwhile Oscar Lopez, a professional singer born in Havana in 1918, was feeling the effects of one of Latin music's unfashionable spells. He too opened a new business in 1968 - a Cuban restaurant across the river in the quartier Latin - but it didn't prosper. Lopez is now also to be found in the Java, belting out mellifluous Cuban sones in his classically trained tenor, in front of several ranks of young, white-tuxedoed musicians.

His return to big-band work and recording is due to Paris's latest Latin renaissance generally, and to one 15-piece band specifically - Mambomania. They, as their name implies, specialise highly successfully in the sound of 1950s band leaders like Perez Prado and Beny More. (Laurent Erdos, percussionist and leader of Mambomania, who formed the band mainly of jazz musicians in 1991, was delighted to find that Lopez arrived for his first rehearsals armed with original hand-written copies of Perez Prado arrangements.) Looking through Lopez's cuttings books in his little flat, you can see how the veteran singer and these young French Latinophiles are made for each other. Lopez is photographed with the great Cuban bandleader Ernesto Lecuona, with Prado, with the singer Abelardo Barroso on a Mexican film set in the Forties, both men's arms inches deep in ruffles. "Mambomania had some shirts made like that, but they don't use them. Tuxedos, though, are essential. If you are going to play Mambo, you can't just dress any way... " Like the rows of small Formica tables around the Java's dance floor, Mambomania and Oscar Lopez offer not only a pleasing harmony of function and design, but a sense of continuity with a Parisian past that was never extinguished.

Mambomania first caught Paris's attention with their season of Thursday nights two years ago, at the Dancing de la Coupole in Montparnasse. The season was notable both for being a traditional residence, as opposed to a mere series of gigs, and for the location. The basement dancehall of La Coupole was as fashionable from its opening in 1927 as the vast brasserie above, and became home to the first wave of Paris's tropical invasion. This was the time when musicians such as Alexandre Stellio, the beguine composer from Martinique, the Argentinean tanguista Bachicha, and numerous Cubans - Oscar Calle, Don Barreto, Eduardo Castellano, Don Azpiazu - arrived in Paris. Calle and Barreto appeared at the Pigalle nightclub Melodies; Castellano opened his own club, La Cabane Cubaine, in the rue Fontaine; and Bachicha took up residence in the mirror-balled interior of the Dancing de la Coupole. His Argentine successor, Roberto Cadarella, was still entertaining a rather elderly clientele there when La Coupole was sold in 1988 to the modernising Flo Group. They axed the live music - until the advent of Mambomania, that is.

TROPICAL rhythm is only a part of Parisian nightlife, of course, but the dancings of the golden era are proving durable. The Balajo, by Bastille, may have passed its late-Eighties peak of chic, but it soldiers on, purveying a mixture of old and new French pop, accordion musette standards, disco, dance and slows, to crowds of youngsters and middle-aged couples. And when you've got decor that includes a long zinc bar and a wonderful neon- lit cityscape above a balcony-level bandstand, who needs Ecstasy or champagne?

Albert Grintuch, one half of the entrepreneurial duo Serge and Albert whose Monday nights made the Balajo hip in 1984 (and who went on to do the same in London between 1986 and 1989 at the Cafe de Paris), nowadays animates the Cafe de la Musique in the huge new La Villette music-city complex, as well as, more characteristically, the 1950s Italian disco near Strasbourg St Denis. Grintuch's past successes include the Royal Lieu - a wonderful cabaret near Opera where Orson Welles used to place an unvarying order of an entire cold chicken en salade and a bottle of whisky, then consume it amid ornate gilded plasterwork - and the Nouvelle Eve, a 1950s red-plush cabaret-and-strip joint in Pigalle, to which Albert applied his customary and successful mix of Peggy Lee, Yma Sumac, Dinah Washington and Xavier Cugat. He thinks the retro spirit of the popular dancings is coming back again, as a counterpoint to the hard blast of techno which eclipsed it.

Supporting evidence is provided by the success of the recent twice-monthly, Saturday-night Le Bal, at the Elysee-Montmartre on the boulevard Rochechouart. A cavernous mixture of ornate arched plasterwork and a metal structure by Eiffel, re-erected two years after the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, the Elysee-Montmartre did time as a wrestling hall, rock venue and home to the Paris production of Oh, Calcutta!, before a group of young promoters decided to recreate the unpretentious, rollicking atmosphere of a traditional Saturday bal populaire, with a specially convened band of volunteers from local musette combos.

If the current states of affairs bodes well for the future of Paris's dancings, a degree of vigilance is none the less called for. The new owners of La Coupole may have kept 80 per cent of the decor, but in reducing and modernising the basement premises have lost a great deal of the original feel. The Royal Lieu has now vanished forever, and only the amour propre of owners like Jacques Morino at the Java, or the ex-boxer Robert Lageat at the Balajo, keep those establishments intact, neither decor being classified or protected. And London? Well, Albert Grintuch, having despaired for years of finding another venue like the Cafe de Paris, is coming to town this weekend to check out the Atlantic Bar and Grill. We may be mamboing yet. !