Latin Musicians Remix Their Roots

Chupadero is probably the last place one would think to find a recording studio.

But here, in this sparsely populated hamlet 30 minutes outside Santa Fe, musician Todd Lovato and Jono Manson, the producer and owner of Kitchen Sink Studio, are listening to playbacks from the day’s session. Lovato is recording an album for his band, Todd and the Fox, a duo that blends an electric banjo, drums, and synthesized bass, which Lovato plays on a foot-pedal keyboard.

Blips of digitized sound fill the room until a song appears. Somewhere along the Americana trail from Appalachia to Mississippi and up through the Río Grande Valley lie the origins of the sound that pulses in the room. It’s hard to imagine a banjo reshaping the chord progression of a Mexican folksong, but somehow it works.

Todd and the Fox are central in the evolution of new a Latin music scene in New Mexico. They are part of a growing coterie of musicians that culls from a panoramic source of traditional influences to create expansive new sounds. Where salsa, conjunto, flamenco, native flute, and mariachi music underscore much of the musical character of the state, this new breed of musicians favors the restless side of their traditional roots.

“I always tell people, this is New Mexican music. We’re all standing on the shoulders of our grandparents, of what they already established for us musically,” Lovato says. Like many of his contemporaries, Lovato maintains a liminal stance between tradition and the future.

“New Mexican music as a whole is a melting pot of cultures and influences that perfectly bridges the gap between our histories with contemporary edge,” he says.

In much of this scene, there are variations on well-established themes.

Abiquiú’s Manzanares, led by brothers David and Michel Manzanares, is one of New Mexico’s most prolific bands, and a progenitor of Latin rock—or what they call Nuevo Latino. Imagine flamenco, with its theatricality, jazzy flows, and rumba grooves, delivered with the urgency and sex appeal of rock ’n’ roll.
“The basic sound of Manzanares is Latin rock, but it can be as varied as the individual band members’ experiences and personal influences,” says David Manzanares. “My brother Michael and I encourage the guys to tap into their personal journey when performing—it creates a deeper texture and musicality for the band. It allows the band to venture into many different genres under the Latin label.”

Other artists, such as Nacha Mendez, Nosotros, and La Juntahave all managed to wrestle and repackage traditional roots influences. Within their respective styles—salsa, boleros, funk, hip-hop, and more—a new complexity in Latin music materializes. This ethos of creativity and experimentation produces nothing so much as surprises.

Mendez (Marghreta Cordero), for example, can be found playing around Santa Fe most nights of the week. The La Union, native began playing local rancheras under her family’s tutelage. After studying classical and contemporary music at New Mexico State University, Mendez developed a style that combines world-music orchestration with folk-music candor. Her shows are a world tour of music, assembled in tidy and energizing sets.

Nosotros is an award-winning group that fits the quintessential definition of the salsa band: muscular rhythms, brass punctuation, and a singer unraveling impassioned stories. From there, Nosotros launches into jazz and Latin rock explorations to create a fluid and enormous sound.

Regardless of where you travel in New Mexico, any place there happens to be live music, chances are good that you will encounter an accordion. What you might not expect is a zydeco trill escaping from its keys. The band biography of Albuquerque’s Felix y Los Gatos reads like the description of a college course in cultural anthropology. The self-described sound of zydeco, Americana, blues, funk, rancheras, and cumbias merely hints at the boundless energy of the band’s sound. Guitarist and lead singer Felix Peralta and accordionist David Gomez effortlessly bob and weave musical styles in a way that makes standing still an impossibility.

Todd Lovato grew up down the hill from Chupadero, on family land in Tesuque. While he and his contemporaries have traveled throughout the world making music, their restless spirits and sense of wonder truly comes from New Mexico—its landscapes and the complexity of the Latino experience. So as the sun descends over the western horizon and musicians begin to play their instruments on stages across the state, listen closely; the music speaks of place through every song.