Lou Bega’s LESSER MAMBOS
Born David Lubega in Munich, Germany, Bega traveled to Miami at the age of 18 where he claims that he was exposed to Mambo music, including its “side steps, brass, upright bass and vibrant percussions.” When he returned to Germany, he formulated the idea of his tropical-flapper-inspired persona and essentially rewrote a 1949 Pérez Prado tune—also named “Mambo No. 5”—to be more nightclub friendly. The song was a meteoric success and rose to number 3 on the Billboard Charts in 1999. It was never released as a single and could only be purchased as an album. Thus, the album went platinum. Bega was a star at 23. Most readers will probably be thinking: “Yeah, the guy was a one-hit wonder, what of it?” And yes, after Bega’s first two albums he already had two Best-Of compilations. But it’s not that simple. What of his lesser mambos? What did his other music sound like? Bega released two later albums that did OK in the German charts, but were never released stateside.
Bega developed his girl-chasing, Latin machismo-laden persona on the debut album “A Little Bit of Mambo.” It’s worth noting that this recording features two versions of “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…),” as well as multiple other songs where Bega counts and lists things. The album is built around ideas introduced in the hit single.
For an artist whose career is so defined by a somewhat innocent sounding single, it is also easy to forget how downright lewd Bega could get. In order to understand Lou Bega as an artist, we must first understand Bega as a lyricist. In many respects—and many might find this surprising—Bega’s lyrics are bad. In the deliriously catchy schoolyard taunt of a song “Baby Keep Smiling,” Bega croons: “I put on my glasses/ to tell how sweet your ass is/ why don’t you jump in my Caddy/ so you can call me daddy.” Throughout the rest of the album, he sings about all the girls he has, gold-digging whores, how much money he is making, cars, being the Mambo king, and making lots of noise with his boys. It is easy to see how Bega—who is of German and African descent—could travel to Miami for a weekend, talk to a couple of Miami bros, hear one or two Mambo songs and come away from the city with decidedly limited information in tow.
On his second album released in America titled “Ladies and Gentleman,” Bega embraces a more inclusive version of his hedonistic Miami-inspired paradise. Consider the first song on the album, “Just a Gigolo/I ain’t Got Nobody.” On the previous album, Bega would have used this song to gloat and brag about all the women he successfully hunts. Here, however, he observes the single life in a more reflective refrain, claiming that he’s so lonely and that all he wants is a “sweet mama” to take a “chance on [him].” “[He] Ain’t so bad,” he pleads. This reveals the hidden insecurities within Bega’s persona, and perhaps even the difficulty David Loubega is having with his newfound fame. In a Billboard interview in 2013, Bega lamented the expedience of his rise, saying, “You don’t know where your head is,” and claiming that all he ever wanted was a “medium career.” He later says in one of the songs on this album that he wants a girl with “fingertips [that] will paint rainbows in the night,” and has a song titled, “God is a Woman.” He uses somewhat aggressive, highly modulated auto-tune, the music engineering patron saint of confessional pop.
In the same album however, Bega returns from this more submissive, somewhat feminist worldview to his earlier misogynist demons, again ranting about gold diggers. His perverted chauvinist stance is echoed in “Gentleman,” a song in which Bega portrays himself as a perfect gentleman then says he wants a girl that will “explode with [him] tonight.” He laughs menacingly.“I send you e-mails…just to show I care,” sounding somewhat like the words of a stalker. The more Bega repeats that he is a gentleman, the less believable it is. This is also reflected in the shockingly vulgar lyrics of “Pussycat,” off of 2013’s “Lounatic.” Bega laments: “You think you got the pussy/ but the pussy got you.” A chorus of ladies then offer themselves to Bega, “Uh huh you want some pussy baby?”
A little bit of Monica in my life
A little bit of Erica by my side
A little bit of Rita is all I need
A little bit of Tina is what I see
A little bit of Sandra in the sun
A little bit of Mary all night long
A little bit of Jessica here I am
A little bit of you makes me your man
In a way, Bega—who refused multiple interview requests for this article—represents a less authentic, primordial version of Pitbull. While his rapping, career, diversity of production, lyrics, and flow are much less impressive than Pitbull’s, they both share similar song structures and devotion to their party-going personas and subject matters. Both artists have a habit of rapping over barely changed samples. On Pitbull’s “Back in Time,” and Bega’s “Ballin,” a similar Mickey & Sylvia sample of “Love is Strange,” is used. Pitbull and Bega represent a sort of idealized, paradisiacal—for men, at least-version of Miami that is echoed by most pop culture representations of the city.
Aaron Fishbein, a local production legend who has been a fixture of the Miami music scene for decades, confirms that Bega’s sound isn’t really even a Miami sound, and is more of a New York sound akin to “King Creole and the Coconuts.” According to Fishbein, however, some production elements closely resemble the work of Miami Sound Machine drumming pioneer Joe Galdo.
Pit and Bega continuously gloat about how hard they work and how they will only inconvenience their busy schedule for the promise of sex. In Bega’s world, women are mommies that cannot be trusted with a credit card and numbers to be listed. Bega has at least four songs in which women are listed by number. In Pit’s, women are more of an ephemeral platitude. They are a goal to be reached as part of the rest of the life’s riches. Bega is an infinitely worse lyricist, at one point rhyming “World Wide Web” with “Internet.” In a way, however, Bega paved the way for an artist like Pitbull to come along. Bega’s all-too-consistent tropical Mambo persona helped keep Miami’s vibe on the map in pop culture in the post-Will-Smith’s-“Miami” era.
He probably did his longevity no favors by literally continuing the same songs across multiple albums. There are at least four different versions of “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…)” and two versions of “Baby Keep Smiling.” What more a reflection of the transient nature of Miami than a flash-in-the-pan gigolo who aspires to the lifestyle of a weekday lady hunter at Blue Martini.
It’s unclear how long Bega stayed in Miami, but all the interviews he’s ever done indicate he never lived here and only visited on vacation. However, Bega’s tenuous grasp of a butchered Miami aesthetic is akin to many tourists’s feelings about Miami. They visit South Beach for two days, either go to a couple clubs or the beach, and they have a defined opinion of the entire city. Bega probably saw an old mobster movie with men wearing zoot suits before visiting, and when he got to Miami, saw someone playing a bongo for five minutes. From there, it was history. He trapped himself in his own time capsule of 90s cultural tourism. He became a walking meme of the most cursory backwards Miami stereotypes. Of course his persona would include misogyny, as most young lads visiting Miami on stag are looking to get laid. That’s the South Beach way. It’s a place where women are more decorative features to be won and displayed, rather than to live determined lives.
Naturally, the only music that could escape this persona would be glossy, repetitive schmaltz, as it’s just supposed to be a backdrop. It is music for music’s sake; the sound of an aimless South Beach weekend spent going to bars in Art Deco hotels and trying to find halfway decent Cuban food, only to find yourself awoken on the beach by a homeless man running away with your jeans. Lucky for Bega, he can detach himself from the reality of his art, and return to his utopian Germany, where his representation of America is a piece of exotic fantasy. For those Miami listeners who have had their souls pierced by Bega’s sounds however, they are forever mired in Bega’s crude, fictitious swamp.
Jonathan Peltz is an expert at writing about the worst stuff.