When Claudio Ortiz first heard his sister Liza belt out her song "Reina de Mi" during rehearsals for his Charlotte band Chócala, he was taken aback. After all, he still thought of Liza, who at 28 is two years younger than Claudio, as his kid sister. He watched as she wailed the words "Soy la reina de mis dolores" (I am the queen of my pain), over the group's spare mix of percussion, bass and saxophone. It blew him away.
"I'd held on to this idea of us as children," Ortiz says. "Then all of a sudden I realized, 'Oh wow, my sister's a badass!'"
In truth, Liza Ortiz was always a badass. Claudio saw it early on, during the holidays, when pots and pans of all shapes and sizes would fly out of cabinets in the Ortiz home. Not that it's unusual for kitchenware to come out during the holidays — what familiy doesn't prepare big feasts for Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's and other special occasions? — but for Puerto Rican families, pots and pans take on dual roles.
- Liza Ortiz belts it out.
"In Puerto Rican households, wherever you are on the planet, you get together and play bomba y plena," Claudio says, referring to the two prominent African-derived musical traditions that have inspired the island's inhabitants to dance and celebrate holidays ever since bomba rumbled out of the cane plantations of the 17th century. The big, barrel-like conga drums, or barriles, of bomba have a lower pitch and provide a different rhythmic accompaniment from the panderetas, the smaller, tambourine-like hand drums of plena, a younger tradition that grew out of bomba in the early 20th century. When the two are played together in Puerto Rican homes, the vibe is positively electric.
"That's a big memory for me — my sister and me, sitting around, playing and dancing and singing together, and using these percussion instruments," Ortiz says. "And if there weren't enough percussion instruments to go around, we'd use pots and pans and cheese graters and forks, or just whatever." His sister, he says, would attack the instruments with a special kind of gusto.
Today, Claudio and Liza Ortiz revive their shared memories of playing bomba and plena in Chócala, which launches a month-long residency at Snug Habor on Wednesday, March 7. The band — Liza on keyboards and vocals, Claudio on bass and percussion, along with percussionist Davey Blackburn and saxophonist Michael Anderson — will play on a bill with the Charlotte soundscape designer Brother Aten, the project of Chris McWayne, also known as Maf Maddix, and Combo Chimbita, a New York City band that performs a mix of Afro-Latin rhythms, electronics, funk and psych-rock that the group calls tropical futurism.
For Ortiz, his childhood experiences of banging on pots and pans have come full circle after years of playing and listening to more contemporary forms like punk and hip-hop. "There's a resourcefulness to plena and bomba, which taught me a lesson early on — that whatever sound I want to make, it doesn't necessarily matter what instrument I'm playing it on," he says. "So when I'm playing bass with Chócala, I don't really think of just having to hold it down on the lower registers. I can go all over the place, rhythmically and register-wise."
- Chócala chilling: (l to r) Anderson, Blackburn and the Ortiz siblings. (Photo by Mark Kemp)
It's that sort of exploration of both the old and the new that distinguishes Chócala's sound. On "Reina de Mi" (Queen of My), one of three tracks on the band's debut EP en[demo]niá, released in late 2017, Liza Ortiz sings "Soy la reina de mis dolores" over music that comes off like a Latin version of the dark minimalist jazz-rock of the '90s band Morphine. "Reina de Mi," she says, is the followup to the first song she ever wrote, "Tinieblas," which will appear on the band's debut full-length, due in late 2018.
She had written "Tinieblas" at the tail-end of the siblings' earlier band Patabamba, which was fronted by the singer and guitarist Patrick O'Boyle. Last year, the band decided to restructure itself as Chócala, with Liza writing and singing the band's material in Spanish. It was a daunting task for the English major who had never written a song in any language, let alone Spanish. Though fluent in her native language, Liza Ortiz is more comfortable with English and was initially apprehensive about whether or not she could use proper Spanish grammar.
"I got really frustrated. I didn't know where to start," she remembers. "But within an hour I had written 'Tinieblas' and I loved it and it resonated with the others." The song, which translates in English as "darkness," details her lifelong battle with depression. "I've always struggled with depression and anxiety, and I think there's a biological element to it," she says. "But there's components to depression that we can control. And that's where 'Reina de mi' is coming from. 'Tinieblas' was about the acceptance of the dark side of myself, and 'Reina de mi' is about the control aspect of it. It's about what I have control over."______________________________________________________________________________________________ Listen to "Reina de Mi" ______________________________________________________________________________________________
After completing both songs, Liza no longer worries so much about being grammatically correct. "I had to just let go of that and understand that if I don't say something 100-percent grammatically correct, it's OK, as long as my message gets across," she says.
The Ortiz siblings — whose mother is Puerto Rican and father Venezuelan — grew up all over the American map, from Puerto Rico (where Claudio was born) to Gainesville, Florida (where Liza was born), to Venezuela and eventually to Charlotte, where the two came of age in the 2000s. Their parents, both orthodox Jews, played the music of their various cultural traditions around the house, and Liza, in particular, absorbed it all.
"Liza and I listened to a lot of the same stuff, but she was always a lot more sonically adventurous than I was," Claudio says.
In addition to her childhood fascination with boy bands and later punk and ska, Liza would dance to the rhythms of her Latino heritage, and sing along to the snaky melodies of Middle Eastern music.
"Growing up, we had this crazy mix of your typical salsa and merengue, but then my parents also listened to a lot of Israeli music," she says. "I was pulled in all sorts of directions, musically, and I've always loved that kind of Middle Eastern sound. I think that resonates into what I do in Chócala."
As children, the Ortiz siblings were close, but they began to grow apart when Claudio went into the military. "Before Patabamba, I hadn't really thought about my sister as an adult," Claudio says. "So playing in Patabamba and now Chócala has been a really amazing way for us to interact with each other and create stuff together as adults, and also to create with our friends."
- Blackburn keeps the polyrhythms in Chócala.
One of those friends is Blackburn, whom O'Boyle brought into Patabamba. Blackburn had played with the experimental Charlotte post-punk bands Short Round and Calabi Yau, but in more recent years developed an obsession with Latin rhythms.
"I always loved Latin music, but I didn't know how to incorporate it into my own music," says Blackburn, 41, who grew up in the tiny Iron Station and Denver communities northwest of Charlotte. He gravitated to punk early on. "I knew how to connect the dots with punk and hardcore labels, which was how you found new bands," he says. "You'd be like, 'I love this band — I should try out this other band on that label.'"
He began doing the same with Latin music. "I found that I liked a lot of the stuff on Fania Records, so I started exploring that," he says. "I realized I liked some of the stuff, like Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, better than others, not just because of how their songs sounded, but also because of the busy drumming in the music."
In the math rock of Calabi Yau, Blackburn had played around with polyrhythms, but he wanted to go deeper. He formed the experimental noise-rock band Moenda in the early 2010s, and incorporated Latin and Brazilian percussion into the squall. Then he discovered capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music, and recorded an album, Toque O Tambor, with capoeira mestre Esquilo (Bruno Antonio de Araujo Melo), who heads up Charlotte's International Capoeira School.
When Patabamba began evolving into the more adventurous Chócala, Blackburn and the others decided they wanted to add some brass instrumentation. At a coffee shop one day, Blackburn ran into an old friend, Michael Anderson, who had played saxophone in the Charlotte band Snagglepuss. Anderson, 45, had put down his sax for about four years, but was itching to pick it up again.
"Davey asked what I was doing, and I said, 'I think it'd be fun to do something Latin-y or beach-y,'" Anderson says, with a laugh. "Davey said, 'Well then, why don't you come to one of our practices and check us out?'"
He was a perfect fit. But with such a dramatic shift in musical focus, Patabamba needed a name change. Liza came up with Chócala, the Spanish term for "high five."
"I had been hanging out with one of my friends on the way to band practice, and I said chócala! to get a high five from them," she remembers. "I'm not sure what prompted me to do that, because my friend didn't speak Spanish, but it just came out. So when I was at practice later that evening, we were going over names we liked and I mentioned that I hadn't thought of the word chócala or used it in forever. The second I said it, it clicked, and we just went with it."
The name suits the band's sound, which is playfully free of any prescribed genre restrictions. When writing their material, the band members will toy around with grooves that eventually become songs.
- Chócala gets fuzzy onstage: Anderson (from left), Claudio Ortiz, Blackburn and Liza Ortiz.
"Creatively, we just wanted to give this band more musical space than we had in Patabamba," says Claudio. He's squashed together with Blackburn and Anderson on a leather couch in the living room of his home off of Eastway Drive. All three are wearing "beach-y," loose-fit pants and collar shirts, either short-sleeved or rolled-up long sleeves. As Claudio talks, Liza drops by for a quick photo shoot and chat, then leaves her bandmates to continue discussing the creative evolution of the band's sound.
Patabamba had been more directly influenced by the Colombian dance-music style cumbia, which Claudio says "drove the songwriting." For Chócala, they wanted a blank canvas. "We wanted an open box for us to explore sonically and find different ways to blend music," he says. "We wanted to be 100-percent open to wherever we decided to go musically. No rules."
"Instrumentally, all of our songs are spontaneous," Blackburn adds. "There are some songs Liza's already been working on, lyric-wise, that she'll bring to the table fresh for us to work into something we've roughly sketched out instrumentally. For others, she'll already have a melody and just kind of sing it and we'll jam it out to a certain point and then eventually stop" — he pauses and laughs — "or we'll try to stop and make a song out of it. We have a hard time stopping.
"But that's the magic of it," he continues. "Riding that chemistry between the four of us — that moment of creation."
Any specific influences are implicit, Claudio says: "That's not a conversation we have verbally. The awesome thing about Chócala is that we bring all our influences to the table, and then however that mixes itself up is the music we end up making."
The wide-open, free-flowing nature of Chócala's creative process is clear, not only in the memorizing music on the group's EP, but also in the choices of acts they'll share the stage with during their Snug residency.
- New York's Combo Chimbita will appear with Chócala at Snug Harbor.
After this week's performance with Brother Aten and Combo Chimbita, later Wednesdays will include the electronic sounds of the Charlotte duo Astrea Corp. and the Southern rock, funk, blues and Latin music of the South Carolina band Phat Lip (March 14); the African sounds of Charlotte DJ Kato and the West African band Tal National (March 21), and the gritty rock of Charlotte's It's Snakes along with the noisy experimental funk of GASP and the weird jazz of the local trio Brut Beat (March 28).
If there's one thing that connects the music on each of those nights, according to Claudio Ortiz, it's a giant dose of estrogen. "You'll find a pretty big motif of badass women leads in a lot of these bands," he says, referring to Combo Chimbita's front woman Carolina Oliveros, Phat Lip's Kelly Jo Ramirez and It's Snakes' Hope Nicholls — not to mention Ortiz' own little sister, Liza.
"This project is our truest form," Liza Ortiz says of Chócala. "We're putting our truth out there without considering how it's going to be received. I mean, you want to make something that's going to be enjoyable for people, but I think this is the first time we're really challenging ourselves. I know I'm doing that."