Art Without Borders | Music | Salt Lake City Weekly

Art Without Borders 

Bilingual indie-pop band The Chamanas shine a realistic light on their peaceful life in synergistic El Paso/Juárez.

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click to enlarge Manuel Calderón, Paulina Reza, Alejandro Bustillos and Héctor Carreón of The Chamanas - BRETT MUÑOZ
  • Brett Muñoz
  • Manuel Calderón, Paulina Reza, Alejandro Bustillos and Héctor Carreón of The Chamanas

Life along the United States' southern border is all about dualities. While many Americans look at the area as a lawless region populated solely by desperate migrants and stern ICE agents, those with roots in and feet planted on both sides of the border know the narrative is far more complex.

Such is day-to-day life for self-described "fronterizo indie-pop fusion band" The Chamanas, who call the geographically intertwined metropolitan area of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, home. Since forming five years ago, Manuel Calderón, Héctor Carreón, Alejandro Bustillos and Paulina Reza have paired mainstream pop accolades (a Best New Artist nomination at the 2016 Latin Grammys) with a strong allegiance to the boleros and rancheras traditions of their homeland, blending everything from icy synthesizers to soaring '70s pop to rustic huapangos into an infectious, distinctive sound.

"When The Chamanas started, we wanted it to have a romantic vibe," says bassist Calderón. "We're influenced by pop singers like Jeanette and old Latino rock bands like Los Ángeles Negros. But nowadays, it's hard not to be political."

That's reflected in bilingual April single "If You Build It, We Will Break It Down," a collaboration with Jim Ward of post-hardcore icons At the Drive-In and acclaimed accordionist Kiko Rodríguez that takes direct aim at President Donald Trump's proposed border wall. Hailing its mixture of American rock, Colombian cumbia and Spanish pop as an ideal mash-up, Calderón—who co-produced the single and engineers all of The Chamanas' recordings—said it's the perfect example of "positive, productive" activism. "Even though we sing about breaking down any wall that might get built, we do it through the collaboration of cultures in El Paso," he says. "It's a nice, synergistic area that serves as this hub for people from all different dimensions. Everyone tolerates and respects other peoples' beliefs while believing in what they want, too."

As the band's profile has grown, they've expanded their horizons. The Chamanas' current tour is presented by popular Mexican beverage company Jarritos, and their recently released deluxe edition of 2017 album NEA (billed as NEA II) features the first material the band has written in English. "La Verdad" is a smoky, sultry song with a hook so catchy that, if the playlist algorithm gods do exist, should be an instant summertime hit.

"We've always tried writing in English," Calderón says, "but it just didn't feel right until now. We wanted to establish our Spanish-influenced sound, which has more of a romantic essence to it, and we wanted to give our singer Paulina time to pick up English. She's come a long way—there's still a bit of an accent on some of the pronunciations, but we like that. We want to push Latinos to not feel self-conscious about speaking English with an accent. You can be proud of your roots while also embracing new beginnings. We're proud to push that bi-cultural image."

That open-minded nature has earned The Chamanas plenty of new adherents, expanding their fan base from its Latino core. "We're playing a variety of new cities on this tour," Calderón says, "including Salt Lake City, Corpus Christi and Boston. We have our Latino fans, but we're starting to see other people from other cultures as well. By mixing our Mexican roots with English lyrics, we're hoping to achieve a little crossover. We're from the border, so we have to speak in Spanish and English every day. We just didn't expect it to sound so good when we starting singing that way, too."

Shining a realistic light on border life is critical to The Chamanas—especially in this environment of polarized, pugilistic attitudes about the dividing line (or lack thereof) between the United States and Mexico. "El Paso is one of the safest cities in the U.S.," Calderón says. "It's a clean, beautiful town with a beautiful park. I walk downtown with my girlfriend and my dog every Sunday. Things are way chiller in Juárez now than they were several years ago, too. There are restaurants, bars, theaters and music festivals there. People go back and forth across the border every day, and both cities work together to place an emphasis on business, art, music and other happenings. Anything that can add to that shared culture between El Paso and Juárez is what The Chamanas are trying to promote."

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