Friday, May 18, 2012

RADIO LA CHUSMA: Musical Medicine from the Borderland

In the Southwest border region of the U.S., miraculous things happen with hardly a notice. Border regions, in general, move to the beat of their own rhythm, removed from the rest of the country. In the city of El Paso, way off in the western corner of Texas – as much southern New Mexico as it is Longhorn State – the local culture comes with a decidedly Mexican flavor.

El Paso butts up against Ciudad Juárez, best known today for its spiraling narco violence. But throughout its history, Juárez has been a vibrant musical crossroads. All manner of musical rhythms coming up from South America and the Caribbean pass through the once-thriving clubs and bars of Juárez, hop the Rio Grande, and cross into the U.S. via El Paso. There, musical styles further mix, cross-pollinate, and create some unique sounds that will inevitably be borrowed, approximated and ripped off by mainstream American music-makers.
One of the most eclectic contemporary examples of this unique and infectious borderland melting pot is Radio La Chusma.

The band was formed in 2002 by Ernesto Tinajero, born and raised in El Paso. Ernesto is a proud Chicano, but his musical interests bypass most of the more common borderland styles such as tejano or norteño or mariachi.

Radio La Chusma is, first and foremost, a reggae band, but the band also incorporates cumbia, Afro Cuban music, and world beat rhythms that are a combination of all of the above. In fact, the band is a veritable word beat encyclopedia of sounds.  A shining representation of the borderland not because it adheres to any one localized style, Radio La Chusma inhabits many. It is a band at the crossroads, with a style and sound that crosses borders and cultures with ease.

RASTA MEXICA, the band’s latest CD, is a stellar example of where the band stands philosophically and musically. On the inside of the CD case, the band states its creed: “Thank you Creator for all your blessings. For the Sun, the Moon, our Earth, the air we breath and your life giving waters. Thank you for all our fellow creatures, and thank you for this BEAUTIFUL AMAZING LIFE!”

Radio La Chusma performing at The Irish Mexican Alliance event in El Paso.
The band’s reggae roots are most evident in the CDs first song, “Rasta Mexica,” which is basically a musical statement-of-principles. With the hard-driving reggae guitar rhythms and lead vocals by Ernesto, with Selina Nevarez singing backup, the song is both a musical and lyrical explication of “rasta mestizo,” a style that Radio La Chusma has virtually invented, a combination of reggae and various indigenous musical styles.

The band signals its musical diversity with “Mis Padres,” the very next cut on the CD, which is a cumbia with a Manu Chau-style vocal delivery by Ernesto and a potent brass section of trumpet (Matt Nava), trombone (Marco Guerrero) and alto sax (Maribel Bueno).

Of all the tunes on the CD, my personal favorite is “Oya,” which is not reggae or cumbia. It starts as a Native American chant, and then, led by Ricardo Amaya on djimbe drum, it transitions into a beautiful Afro Cuban grita to the orishas, with lyrical solos by Leo Martinez on jarana and Randy Sanchez on tres. Lose yourself in the exultant melody of this song and you may just have an out-of-body experience.

Radio La Chusma is a party band, a celebration of the human spirit designed to move feet, booties and souls. Every song on RASTA MEXICA is uptempo. The band is attempting to fuse physical liberation (i.e. dancing) with an enlightened political and spiritual consciousness. There are songs about personal liberation (“Rise Up”), economic exploitation (“Night Shift”), and political repression (“Cruzando Fronteras”), but mostly the band is dedicated to good times -- personal liberation not through preachy lyrics but through the release of the physical self through movement, or, as Ernesto sings in “One and Only One”: “When I wake up in the morning, I wanna feel the sun/ When I wake up in the morning, I wanna have a little fun.”

In many ways, Radio La Chusma represents the future of the U.S. encapsulated in one band. They sing in English, Spanish and Spanglish. Their sound is an infectious mix of Caribbean and South American sounds aimed at a mainstream American audience.

At a recent event in El Paso called The Irish Mexican Alliance, which I co-produced and hosted, Radio La Chusma best represented the spirit of the occasion, which was an attempt to bring people together across cultures, continents and borders and call attention to an important issue: the devastation of the U.S.-Mexico narco war in Mexico and the borderland region. Radio La Chusma made it happen; they brought a sense of celebration and fun to what was a serious occasion, a harnessing of mind, body and spirit into a musical sound that is a force to be reckoned with.

The more this band is heard, the more they will be loved. If you have not yet experienced the music of Radio La Chusma, get your hands on a copy of RASTA MEXICA, and you will soon be swaying and booty shaking with the best of them.

Check out one of the band's many videos on YouTube, or listen to sample songs, purchase the CD and learn more about Radio La Chusma at the following link: