Outside the Beauty Bar on Saturday night, two young women in black-and-white shirts and black berets smoked cigarettes like a pair of striped bookends. On another block or another night the women might have been mistaken for mimes, gondoliers on their way to work at the Venetian or waitresses still in uniform after a long night, but not here, at least not tonight. Standing outside the Downtown music venue, the similarly styled women could only mean one thing: a gig by local electro world-beat group Pan de Sal.
Sure enough, Pan de Sal’s trio of petite musicians were mulling around the Beauty Bar’s backyard, listening to a visiting band from Los Angeles, preparing for their set and playing ambassadors for visiting musical act Turboweekend from Denmark. A sparse crowd had gathered for their early 10 p.m. set on the third night of the Neon Reverb Downtown Music Festival, and bassist Judi Brown looked around appraisingly. “Most of our friends don’t go out until midnight,” she winced.
By the time Brown and her bandmates Jeff Madlambayan and Sheila Hall donned their signature black-and-white stripes and stepped onstage, the crowd had filled in some. Experienced Pan de Sal watchers were making their way to the front, where they picked up the maracas, shakers, blocks and other percussive instruments the band hands out at shows to encourage audience participation and create a “non-hierarchical performance.”
Pan de Sal’s music is particularly suited to the exercise. The trio layers a variety of live instruments over heavily percussive electronic tracks, then adds in a vocal line that’s often more chanting than singing. Their melodies are simple and their words direct.
“Revolution is romantic/Don’t keep your feet all planted!” they sang to the crowd. During instrumental breaks Madlambayan and Hall leaped down from the stage in front of the audience, dancing furiously to the sound of a twitching tambourine.
They even asked the crowd to dance along.
“For the kid in us it’s like smushing some peanut butter,” Madlambayan explained to the audience, grinding a foot into the floor as he acted out the line dance Pan de Sal calls the peanut-butter smushy dance. “For the adult in us it’s like stomping out a cigarette.” In an instant the Beauty Bar backyard was full of peanut-butter smushing, line dancing and local music fans—a country hoedown set to an international soundtrack.
A few songs later the group ended their set with another one of their chants, but while the band’s lyrics often address political topics like revolution, social inequality and human rights, this anthem was a purely silly and celebratory exercise.
“When I say ‘Pan de’ you say ‘Sal,’” the trio chanted. “When I say ‘undies’ you say ‘off!’” The crowd happily obliged.