Ask a musician why they've settled on the West Coast, and you're likely to hear about the liberation that comes from escaping social hierarchies and stylistic pigeonholes. In a region ripe with self-invention, a player's family of origin often offers little impediment to embracing a tradition one wasn't born into.

In New York and Miami, for instance, a salsa bandleader's lack of Caribbean heritage is still likely to inspire skepticism. Out West, Mexican-American percussionists Pete Escovedo and Poncho Sanchez are Latin music institutions, while Mexican pianist Christian Tumalan and German trumpeter Stephen Kuehn lead the Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra.

So it's no surprise that Congolese-born vocalist Ricardo Lemvo is one of the most creative and successful salsa bandleaders in SoCal. Ever since he launched Makina Loca two decades ago, he's sought to blend the classic Afro-Cuban sound of the 1940s with the rolling sound of Congolese soukous. But his latest album, "La Rumba SoYo" (Cumbancha), adds a lilting jolt of Angolan music into the mix. While he was born and raised in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, his family hails from the former Portuguese colony.

"I just went to my Angolan roots for inspiration," says Lemvo, who performs Friday at the Blackbird Tavern and Sunday at the Los Gatos Music in the Park concert series. "For the most part, my previous albums were mainly blending Cuban and Congolese rhythms, but my family comes from the northern part of Angola, and I wanted to dig deep into those styles without forgetting my core sound."


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His popular following in Angola has led Lemvo to perform there often, and he's become friends with many of the country's leading musicians. They all contribute to "La Rumba SoYo," which was recorded over the course of three years in Los Angeles, Montreal, Paris, and Angola's capital, Luanda.

On "Dikulusu," a collaboration with Angolan songwriter Adão Filipe, Lemvo infuses his joyous sound with accordion-driven semba, one of Angola's most popular styles. In this case, the squeezebox player is Los Angeles-based musician Mario Aguilar, who hails from Mexico. Singing in Portuguese, Kimbundu and Kikongo, Lemvo delivers a humorous lament about paying alimony that his ex-wife uses to support her lazy, whisky-swilling, pot-smoking new boyfriend. The lyric could come from the blues or a country-western anthem, which just goes to show that some themes are truly universal.

Lemvo's last album of new material, 2007's "Isabela," was another stylistically expansive affair, with songs in Swahili and Turkish, in addition to his usual polyglot mix of Portuguese, Kikongo, Spanish and Lingala. Yet "La Rumba SoYo" feels more personal, perhaps because Lemvo is particularly effective adapting traditional songs like "E Moyo," which is "a traditional song from Luba people from southeast Congo and northeast Angola," Lemvo says. "It's an old traditional song that became a hit when a Congolese singer, Tabu Ley Rochereau, recorded it in 1967. I put a Cuban feel to it."

If there's a key ingredient in Lemvo's savory musical melange with his band Makina Loca, it's the sweet riffs of Congolese guitarist Huit Kilos, an architect of the hugely popular soukous sound. In a career stretching back to the 1960s, when he started working professionally at 12, Kilos has played with a succession of top Central African acts, including Papa Wemba, Langa Langa Stars, and King Kester Emeneya. Most importantly, he joined the charismatic singer, prolific songwriter and soukous pioneer Tabu Ley's new band Afrisa in 1970 with vocalist Sam Mangwana, turning Congolese music into a global force (when Tabu Ley died in November, he was hailed in obituaries as "the king of Congolese rumba").

Huit Kilos landed in Los Angeles in 1993, a few years after Lemvo launched Makina Loca (the band's name is an appropriately multilingual pun that means "crazy machine" in Spanish and roughly "dancing in a trance" in Kikongo). He's played on all of Lemvo's recordings, dating back to his 1996 debut "Tata Masamaba." No matter what style Lemvo adds into the mix, Huit Kilos' rippling guitar lines caress the melodies, offering a silvery foil to the bandleader's pleasingly gruff vocals.

"When I was very young age, I was listening to all kinds of music, all kinds of songs," Huit Kilos says. "I don't have a specific kind of music I play. Whatever Ricardo does, I'm ready to follow."

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com.

RICARDO LEMVO AND MAKINA LOCA

When: 8 p.m. July 11
Where: Blackbird Tavern, 200 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: free, 408-278-1050, www.theblackbirdtavern.com
Also: 7 p.m. July 13,
Los Gatos Civic Center lawn, free, lgmip.com.