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One Latino and One Anglo Create a Musical Fusion in Plaza Midwood

Bridge Builders

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Inside a home studio on North Davidson Street just a few blocks down from NoDa's busy main intersection, Tony Arreaza and Davey Blackburn are lounging around talking Latino music: salsa, bachata, merengue, samba, bossa nova, son. The two Charlotte musicians are surrounded by guitars, drums, keyboards, and row upon row of posters promoting past Latin American Coalition concerts.

There's Julieta Venegas, the adventurous Mexican singer-songwriter who performed a jaw-dropping set at the 2013 Latin American Festival in Symphony Park. There's the experimental Colombian alt-rock band Aterciopelados, which performed at the annual festival two years earlier. And there's La Santa Cecilia, the bilingual Los Angeles-based Latin-folk-rock combo that played the Charlotte fest just last summer.

Before Arreaza began booking bands for the Latin American Festival in 2005, you wouldn't find so many critically acclaimed, button-pushing international acts that merge experimental rock with Latin rhythms at this popular family event. Arreaza has almost single-handedly helped bring a sense of adventure to the Latin music scene in Charlotte, while maintaining a respect for the purity of traditional Latin genres.

La Rua in 2005. Arreaza is at right.
  • La Rua in 2005. Arreaza is at right.

Ever since his local Latin alt-rock band of the early 2000s, La Rua, began dipping its musical toes into traditionally Anglo venues like the Evening Muse, Arreaza has been on a mission to push these now-deeply rooted American musical genres to Anglo and African-American audiences. And he's succeeded spectacularly.

But all that was years ago. Today, Arreaza and Blackburn are building new bridges with their Latin Night in Plaza Midwood events. The two have brought an eclectic array of local and regional acts that mix Latin, African and Anglo styles with experimental touches to a neighborhood club known mostly for its mix of punk and indie rock: Snug Harbor. They launched their first Latin Night event on January 9, 2015, and held five more over the subsequent two years.

Beginning this week, the series will be running on a monthly schedule. Arreaza's band UltimaNota will perform at the first one on June 3, along with Latin-music DJ Minuche and the dance group Bongó Bembé.

"As a Latin band, it's great to be able to play in a place like Snug Harbor," Arreaza says. "It's a chance to play for a new audience that doesn't go to the Latino festivals or venues where we usually play. And it's a chance for our fans to discover a new venue, where they don't typically go and see music. The times we've played there in the past, we've seen the most diverse crowds of any of our shows."

Bringing diverse audiences and musicians together for both traditional and experimental approaches to Latin music is what's most inspiring about the event, says Blackburn, who plays in the Latino alternativo (or Latin alternative) band Chócala. Blackburn's background includes stints with highly experimental rock bands such as the noisy math-rock act Calabi Yau, where his dynamic personality behind the drums was a highlight of the group's mid-'00s club and house concerts at places like the legendary Yauhaus.

Calabi Yau in 2007. Blackburn is at center.
  • Calabi Yau in 2007. Blackburn is at center.

Coming from an underground rock background, Blackburn was the perfect match for Arreaza, who was steeped in the Latin alternative scene during that same period. "Tony and I come from one or the other of these perspectives, and we kind of meet in the middle with this, and it's a great combination," Blackburn says.

In the decade since Calabi Yau and La Rua played on parallel paths, both musicians have taken lead roles in bridging cultural gaps.

Blackburn went on to form the Latin-tinged bands Moenda, Patabamba and Chócala, and has also brought the Brazilian art of capoeira — a practice that incorporates dance, acrobatics and music — to Anglo audiences through his work with capoeira Mestre Esquilo (Bruno Antonio de Araujo Melo) of the International Capoeira School on Central Avenue. Blackburn also works with the North Carolina Brazilian Arts Project.

Arreaza, in addition to booking the bands for the Latin American fest, has also lured internationally popular Latin alt-rock groups such as Cafe Tacuba to local clubs. But he is equally dedicated to keeping traditional Latin musical styles alive and well in Charlotte.

"Tony is phenomenal in a lot of ways. He knows how to put all those kinds of things together in ways that respect tradition and also push boundaries," Blackburn says. "He's totally passionate and totally professional. For example, he wanted to bring Patabamba and now Chócala into these bigger events to serve as a local band that's somewhat like the bands he brings that are a little edgier and out there, like Bomba Estéreo or Systema Solar.

Chocala is Michael Anderson (from left), Liza Ortiz, Claudio Ortiz and Davy Blackburn. (Photo by Temo Tobon)
  • Chocala is Michael Anderson (from left), Liza Ortiz, Claudio Ortiz and Davy Blackburn. (Photo by Temo Tobon)

"I feel like Tony and I have a lot in common in that way," Blackburn continues. "We had the same ideas about what Latin Night in Plaza Midwood should be, as far as bringing all those things together in a rock 'n' roll club that's in our neighborhood."

Arreaza agrees. "We are finally getting to a point where Latin music is becoming like a general market, like it is normal to be listening in a shopping mall or on the radio to a song in Spanish," he says. "We are not there yet, but for sure we are getting close to it."

Zachary Reader, the Snug Harbor talent scout who's responsible for bringing so much adventurous music to Plaza Midwood, has been pleased with the growth he's seen during earlier Latin Night in Plaza Midwood events.

"Snug Harbor has been the perfect platform for this to happen," Reader says. "I've just seen this wide-eyed curiosity from people who were fans of some of these bands but had never been to Snug Harbor before, and I've seen the same wide-eyed curiosity from a lot of regulars who may have never heard this kind of music before. I saw lots of bridges forming, and I'm all about bridging gaps — musically, socially and culturally."

Bongó Bembé are Andrea, Ana, Paola and Lizbeth. The group will perform at the June 3 'Latin Night in Plaza Midwood.' (Photo courtesy of Paola Montoya)
  • Bong√≥ Bemb√© are Andrea, Ana, Paola and Lizbeth. The group will perform at the June 3 'Latin Night in Plaza Midwood.' (Photo courtesy of Paola Montoya)

So far, Blackburn and Arreaza have booked acts for the next two months. For the July 7 Latin Music night, the Dominican band Sharey & su grupo Klave will team with Charlotte's La Nueva Sensacion. Both play a variety of music from Latin America including bachata and merengue. On Saturday, Aug. 5, Latin Night will present "A Samba Social! A benefit for the N.C. Brazilian Arts Project and the International Capoeira School." Blackburn's Chócala will perform at that event. And on Saturday, Nov. 4, both Chócala and Arreaza's UltimaNota will perform on a bill together.

The two are still working out the details for September and October. Arreaza says the idea is "to invite different Latin bands with different styles and create an atmosphere that is completely a melting pot."

Blackburn echoes Readers' thoughts on the bridging cultural gaps. "I've talked before about the meaningful adjacencies among all these things," Blackburn says. "I saw it early on when I was constantly playing in bands at Snug Harbor, and then I started to bring in the capoeira group and then other Brazilian groups that would do stuff ranging from capoeira to samba to batucada and the full span of Brazilian culture. It was awesome and people started liking this stuff and I saw that.

"Tony and I are absolutely in this thing together to build a bridge between cultures and different kinds of music," Blackburn adds.

Sometimes it takes a spoonful of the familiar to make the music and traditions of other cultures go down more easily for American-born Anglo and African-American audiences. With their Latin Night series now going monthly, Arreaza and Blackburn seem to have gotten the recipe down to a fine art.

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