For the next couple of hours, I’ll be Lou Bega’s hat valet. This is no menial task. The instant smash ”Mambo No. 5” may have given Bega bragging rights to the biggest worldwide hit song of 1999, but he doesn’t have an entourage to speak of just now, and somebody has to carry his box of Italian Borsalinos, where, after all, a good part of the magic resides.
We’re pacing the corridors of Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay resort in the hours preceding his duty as a presenter on the WB Radio Awards. To the young misses staking out the hallways on ‘N Sync alert, the fast-striding, fez-less Bega could be just any vaguely familiar Sicilian-Ugandan-German guy in an impossibly natty suit. When he opens the hatbox and picks out one of three Borsalinos therein, though, he becomes instantly recognizable as the most dapper figure in the Hot 100 — okay, the only dapper figure in the Hot 100 — and the screaming erupts.
Or the dancing. Bega has this weird effect on people: The very sight of the 24-year-old overnight sensation in full ’40s regalia causes folks to start boogying right where they stand. Most of them look like they’re doing the hokey pokey, not the mambo. Still, given the potential for any commoner in his path to pay homage by breaking into impromptu song and dance, hanging out with Bega for a day on the Strip feels a little like being in the eye of a movie musical waiting to happen.
If his presence inspires a participatory vibe at least as much as an adulatory one, he’s happy, affirming that his videos and staging are designed to make fans feel like they’re at the party. ”You should feel like you could step into it,” Bega says in his nearly American yet utterly unidentifiable accent. ”I don’t want them to just sit there and watch how good we are, how fast we are with our legs. Technique is not very important.” He definitely doesn’t care for the sort of boy-band choreography where ”everything is on the beat and really sharp—too overdesigned, oversized. I never have choreography; maybe I spin two times, and the next time you see me I don’t even spin once…. I never wanted to be the sexy guy with tight pants. I always just wanted to make fun music.”
Mission more than accomplished. His entire debut, A Little Bit of Mambo, is a cheerfully mindless, daffy delight, as heralded by ”Mambo No. 5,” the goofiest and certainly most irresistible retro-electro hit since Taco’s ”Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It requires Herculean resistance to stand still once the synth first spits out that percussive riff—an intro Bega says is purposefully established before the tune kicks into full gear, ”because if you just started in with the trumpets and the singing, people would not even realize that this is not an oldie.” (It is based on a 1949 mambo chestnut, by Cuba’s Perez Prado, whose original horn part Bega sampled.) ”Mambo” has topped the charts in more than 20 countries since the single was first released in Bega’s home country, Germany, in April. The phenomenon grew so fast that ABC, NBC, and Fox licensed the song for their fall promotional spots. That’s some ubiquity for a tune created in a ramshackle German studio whose equipment cost a grand total of $7,000.