Liza Ortiz remembers having second thoughts about the demon masks.
"We had planned to wear the masks for two songs," the Patabamba keyboardist says, but the band kept them on for their entire Halloween show at Snug Harbor. Ortiz struggled to sing through the mask's teeth, she recalls while laughing. "It was a mess, but it was also amazing."
Since their first gig in July 2015, Latin fusion band Patabamba has traveled far. Last January, they launched Latin Night at Snug Harbor, where they shared a bill with Rock En Español outfit UltimaNota. The event brought together two audiences that seldom mix — the indie rock crowd and a Latin music following. On April 29th, they'll share the Neighborhood Theatre stage with established Spanish language performers Orquesta Mayor, Jahlistic and Reinaldo Brahn as part of The New Latino Sound, a musical adjunct to The Levine Museum of the New South's ¡NUEVOlution! Exhibit.
But when speaking with Ortiz, her older brother and percussionist Claudio, guitarist Patrick O'Boyle and drummer Davey Blackburn in their garage rehearsal space in east Charlotte, the topic revolves around those weird and colorful masks. Claudio had suggested them, because he remembered Vejigantes, masked demons that walk around whacking people with inflated bladders during Carnivale, from his childhood in Puerto Rico. When Patabamba marched onstage at Snug wearing them, Claudio recalls the crowd going wild, so why not leave them on all night?
Like many things with Patabamba, the Vejigantes sprang from the group's willingness to run with a sudden inspiration. Even the band's name — it means "of the pampas" in Quechuan, the native language of the Andes — was spur of the moment. On the eve of their first show, the band learned that a Texas blues-rock outfit had already claimed their chosen moniker, Travesura (Spanish for "mischief").
"We went online, down a Wikipedia wormhole," O'Boyle says. Claudio found "Patabamba," a Peruvian place name on a map. "It's an homage to the region that inspired the project," he says.
He decided to form an "indie rock/Latin band" on a 2010 backpacking trip to Peru. "While I was there I heard huayno music, these beautiful Andean folk songs," he says. But it was the Peruvian hybrid called chicha that became the catalyst for Patabamba's sound. Chicha, popular in Peru since the 1970s, "takes huayno's folk melodies and mixes them with tropical percussion from the Caribbean, cumbia beats from Colombia and psychedelic guitars from American rock 'n roll."
Flash forward to early 2015, when O'Boyle and Claudio Ortiz started playing music together after a chance encounter at Tommy's Pub in Plaza Midwood. Ortiz, whose father and mother hail from Venezuela and Puerto Rico respectively, brought the influences of Caribbean salsa, merengue and bachata to the table. Patabamba's sound deepened when Ortiz's sister Liza, a veteran of indie rock outfits Members of the Sea and Lost in a World of Color, joined on Korg synthesizer and Farfisa organ. The trio tried out several percussionists, but the band kicked into a higher gear when Davey Blackburn came on board. Blackburn has played with Charlotte combos including Calabi Yau and Moenda, and is also a practitioner of Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. Blackburn, who also performs in Charlotte Capoeira, added the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of the martial art to Patabamba's musical mélange.
Drawing on his extensive studio background, Blackburn recorded and engineered Patabamba's self-titled debut, which has its CD release at The New Latino Sound show. Propulsive, melodic, joyous and mysterious, the album was recorded in the group's garage headquarters, using techniques that Blackburn calls "old school."
"We recorded most of it live," Blackburn says. On one of the album's few overdubs, Liza's twin vocals entwine over a snake rattle of percussion on the spacious "Rompecabezas." Here and elsewhere, Blackburn took a cue from Motown. "All their early stuff was recorded with one mic, so we did that too," says Blackburn. "Liza is singing upfront, closest to the mic. Patrick and Claudio on backing vocals are staggered behind her."
Boosted by Blackburn's techniques, the songs on the album are organic and urgent. Ranging from the huayno-derived melody cradled by O'Boyle's coiling guitar on "Sali a Buscar/Bosque Oscuro" ("I Left to Search/Dark Forest") to the clarion call for social justice set to a canter across the pampas on "Refugio" ("Refugee"), they pulse with vitality.
With their multi-cultural make-up — Liza and Claudio are Latino, while native North Carolinians O'Boyle and Blackburn are not — Patabamba are in the unique position to make Latin music popular with non-Latinos, while bringing Latin audiences to the Anglo enclaves of Charlotte's rock clubs.
"Our sound is authentic enough to reach the Latin crowd, but it's funky enough to appeal to other people," Liza says.
When Patabamba's music achieves lift-off velocity, all genre boundaries and racial barriers fall away. "There's an energy that's put out by the band, received by the audience and given back to us," Claudio says. "That's magic, and I love being a part of it."