By Jacob Katel
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Listening to an old-time radio show years ago, Emilio Reguiera heard a raspy voice slur through a calypso chorus, cracking the words into jagged shards of disappointment without ever losing the beat. He could not understand the English, but he could almost see the lined black face of the chombo, the old Caribbean man induced by strong spirits to belt out his life's complaints.
"That guy was totally drunk, and it sounded great," Reguiera laughs as he throws down a few drinks himself in the afternoon before his band, Los Rabanes, performs at South by Southwest, the annual music conference in Austin. The Panamanian singer and guitar player never forgot the hook of that obscure calypso song: "Oh, my commanding wife/She want to destroy my life." The one word he could pick out right away, commanding, sounded a lot like the official title of the strongman Manuel Noriega, the commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces and de facto dictator from 1983 until he was captured by U.S. troops in 1989.
Reguiera liked the ditty even more when he learned what the chorus meant. "At that time there were a lot of women in uniform standing on the corners with machine guns," he recalls. "My commanding wife made me think about a double meaning. There's this wife who is in the military. She is superjealous and superdominant and likes to play with weapons. And there were all these Norieguistas whose war cry was: “I won't take even one step back!' Those were the people who were ruling the country."
Long after the U.S. government locked up Noriega in a Florida prison on charges of drug trafficking, Reguiera would break into that chorus in the middle of Rabanes' shows to rev up the crowd. He added his own verses, drawing on the calypso tradition of delivering biting social commentary in the same breath as naughty sexual innuendo -- and promising all those guiales (Panamanian slang for "girls") who fancy pistols that he'll "shoot them in the right place." Pulsing through the rhythms and lyrics of "My Commanding Wife" is the history of the Panama canal, built early in the Twentieth Century by large numbers of West Indian immigrants who brought to Panama City their island songs and English patois. Middle-class white kids from the Panamanian countryside, Los Rabanes channel the chombo, or street-smart Panamanian black style, into high-energy party tunes that fuse calypso with son, conga, punk, and metal.
Formed in 1992 with Reguiera's high school pals, drummer Javier Saavedra and bass player Christian Torres, the trio started out as a garage band playing punk at a tiny bar in the tiny town of Chitré. The only club in town, Cinco Rosas Pop (Five Pop Rosas), was not big enough to hold the band for long. "Sixty people is sold out," admits Reguiera.
"People would pack the streets," adds Torres. "It was chaos."
By 1994 the three began making the four-hour trek by chiva to the capital city to play weekend gigs before finally settling into one of the more economical -- and not coincidentally more chombo -- neighborhoods of the big town. Reguiera believes that experience is what distinguishes Los Rabanes from the slew of other bands now fusing rock and Latin rhythms across the continent. "Our thing is more Panama City ghetto," he explains. "We talk about themes that you see more in Latin America: corruption, problems in the street. We use calypso, not ska. We sing in Panamanian-style Spanish, which is really Spanglish."
Soon after the move, Los Rabanes was invited to open for a nationwide tour of the best-known national rock acts. "This was where we really took off," remembers Torres. "We were put to the test, but we ended up stealing the show. When we came back, we began to get radio play.'" Rabanes outgrew Panama almost as quickly as they'd outgrown Chitré. The group recorded with Kiwi Records, the label run by the tiny nation's most famous musician, salsero Ruben Blades, but even conquering the market the sales could only go so far. "Panama is very small, with just 2.5 million inhabitants," Reguiera explains. "We had reached the maximum point in Panama." The trio lit off for Spain with nothing but an invitation to a single festival secured. They ended up touring the country of Cervantes for seven months. "That was brutal," says Reguiera. "We would show up for other shows where we thought there were other bands, but it would just be us, playing for hours."
With a bit of money saved from the European tour, Los Rabanes headed for the Magic City. They shacked up with Roberto Blades, Ruben's brother, at that time a producer, songwriter, and arranger at Emilio Estefan's studio Crescent Moon. The newcomers convinced Blades to produce their first disc in the United States, proposing a recording budget of $30,000, drawn in part from ongoing gigs in Panama the band would fly home for between sessions. "That's nothing," says Blades of the effort. "I ended up putting in my own money, but that still wasn't enough."
The producer hoped to interest his boss in finding the rest by signing the band to his new label, named after the studio. "Emilio would come in and listen," says Blades, stepping back to imitate the impresario stroking his chin. "“It sounds good. I don't understand it, but it sounds good.'" Finally, after rave reviews from his son, his maid, and legendary producer Phil Ramone, Estefan worked out a deal. "We were the last band signed to the label," says Reguiera of the first wave of acts on Crescent Moon. "And the first to be released because we already had our material ready."