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Cuban breakout Cimafunk brings ecstatic dance party to 'Austin City Limits' taping

Cuban artist Cimafunk performs at his debut "Austin City Limits" taping.

At the top of Cimafunk’s debut “Austin City Limits” taping, executive director Terry Lickona said he considered removing the bleacher seating placed on the floor because the funk sensation from Cuba packs a wallop of sound that brings crowds to their feet. 

“You’re not going to want to sit down,” he said. 

He was not wrong. For a little over an hour, the soul dynamo flexed his spectacular range and radiant starpower over a churning cyclone of sound from the eight-piece powerhouse at his back. The group transformed the Second Street concert hall into a sweaty mess of exuberance and polyrhythms. 

The room was pin-drop quiet as Cimafunk opened with the smoldering blues ballad “Salvaje.” Accompanied by a mournful piano line, his voice was thick with emotion and raw power. Sensuality steamed from his being as he drew the audience into his world, building the song into a heart-stopping full band climax. 

“This is like a dream come true,” he said in English as the song faded out.  

Cimafunk brought an eight-piece ensemble to the stage for his debut "Austin City Limits" taping.

Then he channeled the spirit of James Brown, as he rapped, danced and broke it down proper on the funky jam “Rompelo.” The floor exploded with bodies in motion as the band unleashed the first of many grooves that were both impossibly tight and dancing on the verge of chaos. Just when it seemed like the hype couldn’t build higher, Hilaria and Kay Cacao, a pair of backup vocalists in glittery dresses, picked up a trombone and sax and blasted the groove to the next level.

The next hour passed in an ecstatic blur of hard funk, island rhythms and copious swagger. Each of the instrumentalists proved his or her mettle as a world class talent while creating an onstage vibe that was pure party. 

Cimafunk takes his name from the Spanish word cimarron, which refers to the enslaved African people who escaped to Cuba and took refuge in the mountains. The band builds their Afro Cuban sound with two percussionists plus a drum kit, four-part vocal harmonies and familiar piano riffs. Stir in funky slap bass, low horn blasts and the occasional guitar solo and the band’s exhilarating grooves transport you onto another plane with a super sonic island soundscape.     

While the “George Clinton’s mothership crashed into Cuba” effect is real, the music doesn’t feel retro. Cimafunk’s roots are firmly planted in the post-hip-hop era, and he harnessed rap bravado on songs like “Beat Con Flow,” a fiery throwdown that ended with Cimafunk rocking the front row flanked by the two horns. 

Vocalists Kay Cacao (right) and Hilaria Cacao also played saxophone and trombone through the show.

As the show built to a close, the energy neared a fever pitch. A fast clap anchored the punchy pandemonium on “Relajo” before the pure insanity of “Me Voy.” To celebrate the 2018 hit that made him a household name in Cuba, Cimafunk brought a crowd of roughly 20 fans to the stage for one of the most euphoric set closers in “ACL” history.

When the music ended the crowd went wild demanding the band return to the stage with the insistent change “Otra, otra!” 

The group came back to take the show out with the George Clinton collab “Funk Aspirin,” which opens their excellent 2021 album “El Alimento.” They delivered it with rapturous verve, buoyant bravado and stratospheric star power, a perfect coda to a performance that cements Cimafunk's status as a rising global phenom.