Every Tuesday night, Santino’s, a seemingly mild-mannered tapas and panini restaurant on Lincoln Boulevard, becomes the hottest place in Santa Monica on this typically slow night of the week. From roughly 8 p.m. until that time when everyone decides it’s best to go home, the tiny shop is packed with locals here for more than just the pizza specials.
Los Pinguos, an Argentine band now based in Santa Monica, holds court over this weeknight audience. Holding on to guitars, bass, drums and other assorted instruments, the members of the band sit pressed up against the wall of the restaurant with only a few inches of empty space separating them from the crowd. The audience members bob along to a South American rhythm while sitting at tall tables. The most ecstatic people in the crowd jump up and shimmy across extremely narrow confines, sometimes seeming as though they might knock over a few band members at any given moment.
The band, whose music has been heard on television shows like The Shield and The L Word, began playing this resident gig when bassist Santiago “Fefe” Lee and lead vocalist Adrián “Coco” Buono lived in the neighborhood. Joined by fellow Los Pinguos member José Agote (guitar), they spent a summer playing on the establishment’s patio – a Beatles anthem here, a Gypsy Kings number there. After a while, they decided to bring in the rest of the members of Los Pinguos (percussionist Juan Manuel Leguizamon and guitarist Juan Manzur) and move the show inside, where they play roughly two hours with a 15-minute break between sets.
This, however, is not the beginning of Los Pinguos’ story. The core of the band formed in 1999, while the members were still living in Buenos Aires. After a year of playing hometown gigs, the band decided to move to Los Angeles for reasons, Lee notes, “nobody knows.”
Lee, who is not an original member of the band, moved to Los Angeles at Buono’s request three years ago. The band needed a replacement on bass and Lee, who had known the rest of Los Pinguos through years of playing music and sports in Argentina, appeared to be a good fit.
“I said okay, if I get the visa, I’ll go,” Lee recalls, “and I got it.”
The band cut its teeth on the Third Street Promenade, where it played almost daily for five years.
“We would play from two in the afternoon until 10, sometimes 12 [at night],” says Lee. “We would play three or four songs and we would stop for five minutes and then we would play another four songs, like that.”
Despite the obvious drawbacks of working as street musicians – like spending eight to 10 hours a day, every day, plucking guitar strings as the bone-chilling ocean breeze of winter strikes – the strategy worked for Los Pinguos. Lee claims that the band sold “thousands” of CDs on the Promenade, while accumulating a fan base of the locals and travelers that visit this stretch of Santa Monica.
As time went by, the band’s visits to the Promenade grew less frequent. Los Pinguos moved from being a daily attraction to working weekends. This year, Lee says, is the first in which the band has not played the famous street. Instead, Los Pinguos has been focusing on writing and recording its seventh album, which Lee says will be titled California. In addition, the band has been playing monthly at the Temple Bar, where it brings in a horn section to augment an already large sound.
Los Pinguos plays the Temple Bar on September 22 and Santino’s on September 25.