Brave New Directions for Alt-Latin Pop
José Manuel Simián
If you happen to enter the 92YTribeca on March 15, make sure to check your expectations of what alt-Latin pop sounds like at the door. Because the acts taking the stage of the downtown cultural center, electro-pop duo Sweet Electra and SLV (the solo project of Pistolera leader Sandra Lilia Velásquez), are some of the most restless members of the city’s small but vibrant community of Latino indie artists.
In the case of Sweet Electra, founded by Giovanni Escalera in Guadalajara, México in 2002 and also consisting of singer Nardiz Cooke, the show will mark the end of a long period away from live performances — a period that started around the time they released their last album, Sweet Electra at the end of 2011. It will also be the opportunity to celebrate the band’s 10th anniversary, a celebration that should have happened before but, like the involuntary hiatus, was caused by Escalera becoming a parent and the “25 jobs you need to survive in this city.”
“I miss being on stage!” says Escalera, whose other many jobs include composing music for films, DJing and promoting cultural events at Mexican restaurant/venue Casa Mezcal. “I also got this thing inside of me wanting to resume the electronic phase of Sweet Electra (I got some new toys I haven’t got the chance to use yet) and the nostalgia of thinking that I have been doing this for 10 years!”
In a way, the second half of that decade is also a decisive time for the indie Latino scene of New York. According to Escalera, the party that made the duo decide to settle in the city was also a landmark for many other cultural agitators.
“That was the year when everything happened!” the bespectacled musician says of their 2006 visit to New York to play at the Celebrate Mexico Now festival. “We ended up playing at a party organized by Issel Luna and Oscar Bernal, now partners in [Manhattan Mexican restaurant] Salon Hecho, I can say that pretty much a lot of the people that is doing something in the Latin Culture in the present met there: REmezcla website founders Claire Frisbee and Núria Net; DJ Marcelo Báez, who opened for us and then created the now famous Nacotheque parties, and so on… That was a key party for the future of the new generation of Latin people in NY in the alternative music world.”
For Sandra Lilia Velásquez, the performance will be another chance to reinvent herself as a solo artist through her debut EP Dig Deeper, a collection of songs radically different from the blend of rancheras, cumbias and rock that define the sound of her band.
“I wrote in the same style over 7 years for Pistolera —it takes years to develop a strong style— and because I had success with it, I thought it was my style,” the San Diego-raised singer says. “But just like as human beings we are in constant evolution, our art evolves. I started feeling limited by this ‘alternalatino’ style and the expectations it created. So I started writing without thinking of my audience or the reactions it would generate.”
The result shows an open palette of musical colors in the hands of Velásquez, ranging from funk to Brazilian-infused soft jazz and R&B.
“The fact that Meshell Ndegeocello liked my songs was a signal that I needed to explore all the range of emotions I had inside of me,” she adds, referring to the famed bassist who produced the tracks. “I realized that I am not a Latino composer — that I am a composer, period.”
“It was very liberating,” the Brooklyn-resident musician says of the process of co-writing the songs with drummer Sean Dixon and Ndegeocello. “Part my growth process as a composer and artist was learning how to give up control.”