By Don Macica
Last summer, I went to the Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Rogers Park and stumbled across a band whose musical style was simply described as ‘psychedelic cumbia’ on the festival website. I was intrigued by this description as well as the group’s name: Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta. I subsequently learned that the band had only recently formed and that this was one of their first gigs, but the tightness of their sound suggested a group that had spent years getting to know one another. The farfisa organ and fuzzed out wah-wah guitars that Dos Santos employed resonated with my rock n’ roll youth, while at the same time the deep cumbia rhythms compelled me, and a lot of other people, to dance.
They were playing what I identified as chicha, a Peruvian variant on a traditional Colombian sound. It’s a music that sprung up in the 1960s and 70s when Caribbean rhythms, Andean folk melodies, rock instrumentation and a strong dose of the mind-altering indigenous corn liquor called chicha mixed together in Peru’s newly urbanized environment. It’s a sound that only recently came to the attention of North American audiences through a handful of reissued recordings from that period.
Dos Santos pretty much blew me away that day, and I’ve been keeping track of them ever since. In the past year they’ve been one of Chicago’s hardest working bands, playing by my count at least two dozen shows throughout the city. On Thursday, May 15, they’ll celebrate their first anniversary as a band with a show at Beat Kitchen. Lead guitarist/organist Alex Chávez and the other band members were kind enough to answer a few questions about that year, their music and the Dos Santos mission.
One of the first things Alex did was set me straight. “Well, chicha is only one of the styles that we play. But it is the case that much of what we do falls under the umbrella of cumbia, although we also venture into related pan-Latin American styles—Afro-Caribbean-based to U.S. Latino inspired. Still, I think, for a lot people, the notion of chicha—a vintage brand of psychedelic Peruvian cumbia which has recently gained popularity among Latina/o audiences—calls to mind the spirit of what Dos Santos does overall. As a band, we invoke an older—perhaps more analog—sound from the 60s and 70s. We are huge fans of that moment in Latin American and Latino music.”
Chavez elaborates on that moment. “And we’re talking everything from La Sonora Dinamita (Colombia), to Los Beltons (Perú), Rigo Tovar (México), to Fania (New York). The energy of those records is inspiring, as is the approach, particularly the groups who were interpreting cumbia within a rock-ensemble context: electric guitars, electric bass, organ, drums, and traditional percussion. That sound was fierce.”
It’s worth noting, if it isn’t already obvious, that there isn’t a substantial live cumbia scene in Chicago, especially when compared to salsa, Mexican son and Puerto Rican bomba. And, in fact, the members of Dos Santos came together from some of those musical backgrounds. Chávez only recently moved to Chicago from Texas, where he played everything from R&B to Mexican son and collaborated with noted bands like Grupo Fantasma, Brownout and Charanga Cakewalk. Bassist Jaime Garza and guitarist Irekani Ferreyra are regulars in the city’s son jarocho scene. Drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo was born and raised in Panama and started his career playing in Panama City rock bands. Percussionist Peter Vale is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican who plays with several salsa and Latin jazz ensembles.
They all share a deep respect for Latin American folkloric traditions, and they collectively realized that playing cumbia would fill a void. Still, the band members are all relatively young, and rock is in their DNA. Thus, the electrified, yet vintage cumbia sound was what inspired them. As Chávez puts it, “a straight-ahead five-piece band—no horn section, no huge percussive component—stripped down, electric, honest, and unfiltered.”
Drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo is quick to agree. “While we were all fans of cumbia, this more throwback style really excited me. I was sold on the idea right away.” And so it was that after Chavez and Irekani Ferreyra started working together, Irekani recruited both Jaime Garza and Villarreal-Carrillo, who in turn approached Peter Vale. After a couple of months of rehearsals, they played their first gig at the MAGI Cultural Center in Pilsen.
As noted earlier, they’ve since played over two dozen gigs in front of diverse audiences throughout the city. According to Jaime Garza, “Chicago’s cultural diversity encourages that. I think the Chicago music scene is huge with so many roots, electronic and rock music, from jazz and blues, to hip hop, spoken word, punk, rock and all its sub-genres… we’re right in the middle of it.” Alex Chávez continues, “We don’t make assumptions about who our music is ideally for, about what we should be playing, or about the limits of our musical identities. From the stage, I love seeing the mix in the audience, different people of different backgrounds on the same dance floor, either returning to the sound of home or trying something incredibly new.”
This is another place where the very idea of chicha inspires the group. It’s a music that isn’t precisely cumbia, and least as it was practiced in Colombia. In Peru (or, for that matter, Panama or Mexico) it became something a bit different. As Chávez puts it, “When it comes down to it, the story of ALL music is one of change, of hybridity, of a diversity of experiences and encounters. So, when we talk about crossing musical borders, there needs to be the recognition that music has always been crossing cultural, social, and expressive borders. This is its history—one of multiple crossings. We shouldn’t try to fix music (or its audiences) in place, that is, construct borders around it.” Irekani Ferreyra adds, “Think of son jarocho, which has witnessed a swell in popularity among young Mexicans in the U.S. Some of us in Dos Santos have personal experience with this music as performers and we realize that its history is what Alex describes. I mean, the fact that it is now a transnational phenomenon is just one more chapter in its ongoing change.”
Continues Chávez, “For Dos Santos—in the context of 21st century Chicago, this time, this place, and considering our own varied backgrounds, from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, and the U.S.—to play cumbia is to occupy all these spaces.” Peter Vale agrees, “Ultimately, Dos Santos’ approach to music is this: we keep it honest, with a nod toward the traditional, the familiar, but without fear of innovating. Cumbia, being folkloric at its base, is at the heart of our music. However, in this present-day age of fusion we don’t hesitate to reach for other sounds—guajira, soul, bugalú and anything else we feel. I maintain our sound is not just here to stay, but here to grow and change, as music should, and quite frankly, always does.”
By the end of this summer, Dos Santos will be releasing their first record, a vinyl EP in collaboration with stubbornly vinyl DJ collective SONORAMA. The tie-in is pretty natural. Alex Chávez again, “By virtue of playing this style of throwback cumbia, we immediately grabbed the attention of some of the DJ crews in town who spin Latin vintage fare, tropical bass, and cumbia—folks like Sound Culture, Itzi Nallah, Sunny Daze, and, of course, SONORAMA. We had all along intended to release a vinyl single or EP at some point. SONORAMA approached us about their plan to launch a record label and told us that they loved our sound and wanted Dos Santos to be their first vinyl release. We jumped at the opportunity… to keep it local and independent, to keep it part of the scene and thus strengthen it, and to work collaboratively so that what we do collectively is seen as a representation of Chicago music culture. This is big, it’s important. “
If by some chance Dos Santos has escaped your attention over the past year, May 15 would be a good time for you to get up to speed. They’ve invited DJ Sound Culture to open the night. In a nod to tradition, they’ve also invited Fandanguero, a Chicago-based folkloric group specializing in two Afro-Latin genres, Mexican son jarocho and Cuban son montuno, two cousins of cumbia and further elements of Dos Santos’ ever-evolving sound.
About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.