By Jacob Katel
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This Friday, one of Miami's longest-standing underground bands, Locos por Juana, will have the opportunity to skank the pants off new and old fans alike during the group's album-release extravaganza at Little Havana's Manuel Artime Theater. Thank the forward-thinking folks at FUNDarte, a local cultural nonprofit dedicated to promoting new forms of artistic expression in South Florida.
And the band's frontman, Itagui Correa, is excited about the possibilities of this larger venue. "No offense to the underground clubs, but we want to do a very audiovisual show where people are sitting down, then standing up and going through all these emotions because something is happening and the energy is incredible," he says.
The Colombian transplant and his eight-piece ensemble have spent a decade performing at alternative hot spots such as Jazid, Transit Lounge, Churchill's, and PS14. They've just come back from several years of touring some 80 U.S. cities, representing their very Miami sound. And now, he says, "We want Miami to represent us."
It's high time that happened, says FUNDarte director Ever Chavez, who has brought dozens of world-beat artists to Miami's main stages in recent years. "We have the audience and the infrastructure to give these local bands a push," he says. "We're interested in fusion, and part of our mission is to create bridges between the different expressions of art.
The first five years of the decade-old Locos outfit were dedicated to forging a new mix of ska, reggae, cumbia, hip-hop, and other rhythmic genres brought together by the group's diverse North and South American roots. The second five have been about getting people outside Miami to bend an ear, and the results have been phenomenal.
In 2003, BBC America named Locos por Juana its "Best New Latin Rock Band." By 2004, the group's self-titled debut, released two years prior, was hitting record stores and airwaves in London and Amsterdam. In 2005, Locos was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the category of Best Album by Group for its energetic Música P'al Pueblo.
In between touring and writing music inspired by the transcontinental stages they've played, they were finally able to secure a distribution and marketing deal with Universal Music that would allow them to maintain the underground sound they've created on their own Juana Discos. "We've sold hundreds of CDs on the road," guitarist Mark Kondrat says, "but last week we went to Key West and found that our music is now available at any record store." And most recently, they got to record some tracks for their forthcoming album, La Verdad, in Mexico City with renowned producer and DJ Toy Selecta, known for bringing hard-core Latin hip-hop acts such as Mexico's Control Machete into the limelight.
These experiences, combined with the hatching of four Locos babies now ranging in age from one to four, has helped the band evolve, says Venezuelan bassist and MC Guillermo "Chamo" Cabral. "Being on the road, sharing with people, becoming parents — these things have made us mature, and that influences the music that we perform and write," he says. "It's Locos por Juana in 2008. It's reloaded."
This reloaded version often features more pensive lyrics laid onto hyperactive-style tracks that made their previous albums so popular. For example, Correa wrote "No Te Preocupes" ("Don't Worry") with his one-year-old daughter Salome and the other Loquitos in mind. Using drums and accordion to tease out Correa's folkloric cumbia upbringing, the whimsical number assures the musicians' offspring that they're loved and appreciated, however far the band strays from the nest for its musical aspirations.
In the hard-driving ska-surf-rock-cumbia number "De Donde Es?" ("Where Are You From?"), Correa recalls the time he was held by police during a routine traffic stop on a road trip through the Southwest because he didn't have his residency papers. The song, he says, is a show of solidarity with all of those who have struggled to obtain the legal documents for fulfilling the American dream. "I was an illegal immigrant for 15 years, so I know. I lived that in cold blood," Correa says. Luckily for him, cops let him go when they saw his official invitation to the Latin Grammys.
But the Locos say Gringolandia has also given them many a positive vibe. Take, for example, the time a woman stopped Venezuelan percussionist Alan Reyna after a show in Madison, Wisconsin, to say she came in place of her daughter who couldn't make it. "When you're an immigrant, you come to a country with dreams but very little expectations, so when you're doing your art with passion and people from that other culture open their arms for you, there's just an amazing warmth that you feel in your heart," Reyna says.
"I always felt that we were, like, back in the Fifties when rock and roll was started," Cabral says. "Even before the Beatles, when African-Americans were doing this music and white America was shocked, you know?"
Still, the Locos are content with the way their reggae-ska-dancehall-hip-hop blend has rocked so steadily across the nation. "We fit anywhere. We could be on the West Coast with the surfers, and they love it. We could be with the Mexican-American community and they love it. There's something universal about our sound," Kondrat says. And their new album, La Verdad, is just that: the truth of a new multicultural, cosmopolitan generation, played out in the music that represents their cross-cultural connections.