Born David Loubega on April 13, 1975, in Munich, Germany. Addresses: Record company--BMG Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036-4098, website: http://www.click2music.com/bmg.com.Website--Lou Bega Official Website: http://www.loubega.de.
In 1999 it was hard to miss the catchy rhythm and lyrics of Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of...)," which battled Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca" for the unofficial "Song of the Summer" in North America and Europe. After a wildly successful debut on a German music show, the song marched up the charts in Europe, crossed the English Channel to become a number-one hit, and finally conquered America, where Bega's album sold more than three million copies. What many fans of the song did not know, however, was that Bega's hit was based on a classic instrumental tune by mambo legend Perez Prado that first hit the charts a half century before. Adding lyrics to Prado's composition, Bega once again made mambo an international craze and fueled interest in the genre through his own colorful image and witty personality. Keeping it all in perspective after years of trying to get a music career off the ground, however, Bega told Rolling Stone, "To me, Prado was the best of the mambo guys. I believe very much he had the same feeling for this song as I do. It was so much fun when I wrote the lyrics to accompany the song. I had no idea what a hit it would be."
Although many fans of "Mambo No. 5" assumed that Bega had Latin roots, he was born on April 13, 1975, in Munich, Germany. His father had emigrated from Uganda and his mother came from Sicily; they married after meeting in Germany. While his father played reggae and Motown records around the house while Bega was growing up, his mother favored Latin music, especially from mambo masters Prado and Tito Puente. As Bega later told Canadian Press, his mother was also one of the few people to encourage him to follow his early love of music. "I started to write songs when I was twelve years old and liked it somehow. I never really took it that serious, you know, but within the years I got further and further and deeper in it and ended up having a studio with a friend of mine and it just became my job."
Bega's ambition to learn more about music took him to Miami when he was 18 years old. Although the move did not boost his career immediately, it immersed him in Latin music, an experience that was pivotal. His years in Miami also helped him learn to speak English, a great advantage when he came back to North America in later years on promotional tours.
One relationship in particular led him to appreciate the mambo tunes that his mother had played while he was growing up. As Bega told New Straits Times-Management Times in 1999, "Some time ago, I had a girlfriend from Miami who was Cuban. Whenever she danced, it was like a brilliant firework display. I couldn't take my eyes off her. It was as if she became one with the music." It was not the last time that one of Bega's relationships would inspire his music; later, some of Bega's other girlfriends would serve as the basis for the lyrics he composed to "Mambo No. 5."
After spending two years in Miami, Bega attempted to enter the nightclub business in his father's homeland of Uganda. After struggling for another two years there, however, he moved back to Munich and resumed his music career in earnest. Unfortunately, the then-22-year-old, who wrote songs that followed the dominant hip-hop style of the day, had a hard time getting his career off the ground. As Bega frankly assessed his initial work in an Entertainment Weekly interview in November of 1999, "I had written songs, and they were [awful]--nobody liked them." In addition to his professional woes, Bega received the devastating news that his father had cancer; the disease eventually took the elder Bega's life in March of 1999, just before his son became an international recording star.
Inspired by Perez Prado Song
Once Bega decided to steer away from hip-hop, he found himself instinctively drawn to the Latin rhythms that he had heard in his childhood and during his stay in Miami. He also realized that Latin music was a great match for the visual style that he had developed over the years: a modified zoot suit--usually pin-striped--along with flashy ties, high-buttoned spats over his shoes, and a wide-brimmed Borsalino hat.
Bega was also inspired by his love of women, as he explained to Billboard in September on 1999, "Last year, I was sitting outside in the summer sun in Munich with a friend of mine, and all of these beautiful women were passing by. No one had ever made a love song for more than one woman--they're always about a name or they're nameless. So we decided to be the first." He added, "It starts with your mama, then your grandmama, then your girl. Whenever I used to get into trouble, it seems like it was always women helping me out." Thus, he added a list of former girlfriends' names to lyrics he composed to accompany Prado's instrumental standard "Mambo No. 5." With a new recording contract in hand, he entered the studio and completed his debut album, A Little Bit of Mambo, which included the track as its lead cut.
Major International Success
Even though he was only 24 years old in 1999, Bega had already struggled for several years before he got his start as a recording artist. The timing for the debut of his Latin-themed album, however, could not have been better. Led by Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, Latin-influenced music--recorded in English for audiences in North America and Europe--was just beginning to take off. When "Mambo No. 5" was first released in Germany in April of 1999, it was welcomed as another addition to the Latin craze that seemed to dominate the international charts that year. Feeling that his music transcended easy categorization, however, Bega begged off such comparisons. In an interview with Canadian Press, he commented, "I'm quite different because I'm coming from another continent and from another angle. I like their music, but you know, I wrote that stuff way before I'd even heard of that Latin wave explosion thing. I don't even speak Spanish." Instead, Bega attributed his success simply to writing some witty lyrics to an already catchy tune. "I guess I would be mighty intelligent if I knew," he told Billboard in September of 1999 about the success of "Mambo No. 5." "I suppose people just feel it's something different. I really feel that the song is all about joy and just being natural. If you're open-minded to music, then it just keeps you moving."
Bega also attributed the song's success to its appeal as a tribute to women. He kept his tongue firmly in cheek when talking about his own image as a lady-killer, however: "I never wanted to be the sexy guy with tight pants," he told Entertainment Weekly in November of 1999. "I always just wanted to make fun music." He also joked about including the names of former girlfriends on "Mambo No. 5." "I met these girls in Italy and Germany, mostly--Monica, Angela, Tina.... I'm lucky they're international names. Because if you have bad luck over there in Germany, you can also meet girls like Edeltraut or Hildegard."
Second Album Kept Latin Themes
Although Prado had recorded his instrumental version of "Mambo No. 5" in 1949, Bega's version was a sensation a half century later. It was Europe's biggest-selling single in 1999, and A Little Bit of Mambo eventually earned triple-platinum status in America. Bega quickly proved to be more than a one-hit wonder later that year, when his next single from the album, "Tricky Tricky," also became a top 40 hit in the United States.
For his second album, Ladies and Gentlemen, released in 2001, Bega returned to the Latin rhythms and witty lyrics that made his debut so successful. This time, however, Bega's album was only modestly successful with critics and the public. As a Blue Coupe reviewer noted, "It plays like an extension of that first chart-topping album rather than an evolution. Bega is still having fun, still lovin' women a lot and still blending his Euro-African roots with Latin American sounds, but there's simply nothing that seems the least bit likely to set the world on its ear the way that first single did."
by Timothy Borden
Lou Bega's Career
Worked in Miami, FL, Uganda, and Germany before establishing recording career; released debut album, A Little Bit of Mambo, lead track, "Mambo No. 5," topped Billboard charts for six weeks, 1999; released second album, Ladies and Gentlemen, 2001.
Lou Bega's Awards
World Music Award, Best German Artist, 2000; Echoes Popular Music Awards (Germany), Best Exported Artist, Best National Rock Pop Single, 2000.
- Billboard, August 7, 1999, p. 50; September 18, 1999, p. 12; September 18, 1999, p. 118.
- Canadian Press, December 12, 1999.
- Daily Variety, March 13, 2000, p. 16.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 10, 1999, p. 152; October 22, 1999, p. 89; November 19, 1999, p. 98.
- Music Business International, October 1999, p. 4.
- New Straits Times-Management Times (Malaysia),October 24, 1999.
- People, November 29, 1999, p. 215.
- Rolling Stone, November 11, 1999, p. 136.
- "Ladies and Gentlemen: Lou Bega," Blue Coupe, http://www.bluecoupe.com/pop/bega2001.html (December 4, 2001).
- "Lou Bega," Rock on the Net, http://www.rockonthenet.com/artists-b/loubega.htm (December 4, 2001).