Los Nahuatlatos, who play Friday night at the D&W Lounge on Houston's near east side, are one of the key cogs in the roots-music renaissance happening these days in San Antonio. The band, part two of a San Antonio invasion that began Wednesday night with Los Texmaniacs at Under the Volcano, describes itself as “Chicano soul,” but that label is a bit narrow in the face of reality.
Drummer, composer and singer Joaquin Abrego and other members of the band have day jobs that have limited their ability to tour somewhat, but Abrego says the release of the band’s first full-length in May will likely be a watershed moment for the ensemble.
“Right now we have to turn down some out-of-town gig offers because of everyone’s schedules during the week, but we’ll see what happens after we release the album,” says Abrego from his car, stuck in five o’clock traffic in San Antonio.
The band just released its first single, “Saturn,” which was composed by Abrego, who describes the tune as an accidental tribute to his go-to favorite musician, Stevie Wonder.
“I started writing that with the intention of it being a ska thing, but that Stevie vibe just kept coming into the writing process and I thought, 'Why fight it?' Along with that, Saturn is my ruling planet and I’m all about knocking down borders and barriers. We all should be able to just go where we want. It’s also about the idea that the world never ends, that it is land without end if you look at it a certain way. That's why the album is titled Tierra Sin Fin.”
Abrego notes that the strategy is to release the album during the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, which runs May 11-15 at the Guadalupe Theater.
“That festival focuses on nothing but conjunto, and we play it every year,” says Abrego. “It just makes sense to release the album during that week here in front of our home fans.”
Abrego describes the band as liking “to mix things up.”
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“What we like to do is fuse different musical styles, so we borrow from early African music, the music that came through the Caribbean, and we mix that with cumbres and a little ska, a little reggae, anything with deep Latin roots," Abrego says. "I just think of it as Chicano fusion.”
Informed that fellow San Antonio roots outfit Los Texmaniacs recently told the Houston Press that they don’t have a large Chicano following, Abrego laughs.
“I never thought about it, but I can see that now that you mention it,” says Abrego. “We’re actually the opposite; the majority of our fans are Chicanos, and that goes back to our early days when we had a residency at a local club called Saluté. That’s an old-school Chicano club going back 30 or 40 years. Esteban Jordan had a residency there for years and after he passed away, Azaneth Dominguez, this legendary lady who ran the place, asked us to take over that slot. It was so mind-blowing to us. Back when we first started it, we were doing that psychedelic accordion stuff like Esteban did, and that was the beginning of our Chicano fan base. We’ve really built everything else up from around that residency at Saluté. That was invaluable in our development.” [Note: Saluté closed in September of 2012.]
With six highly trained musicians in the band, Abrego notes that the group has received all sorts of commissions for one-off projects, à la Houston's own Two Star Symphony.
“We’ve become sort of a go-to source for original music for other people’s projects,” he says. “We've done sound tracks; we’ve done musicals. We did one musical where we actually became part of one of the scenes in the play. There’s always something popping up outside our regular club shows, so it feels like something is always happening, some new opportunity is coming over the horizon.”
The band may be getting ahead of itself a bit, Abrego jests.
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“We actually have two more albums of music we are ready to record,” he says. “We just need to get some time and space to get in and record.”
While Houston hasn’t necessarily been a financial windfall for the band, Abrego notes Nahuatlatos are always up for a trip to the Bayou City.
“We’ve got good friends like Nick Gaitan over there, the guys from Los Skarnales, people like that in the Houston scene, and they’ve really made us welcome and taken care of us," he says. "Someone in Houston is always stepping up and offering us a place to stay or a good meal. We can’t wait until the next Houston gig comes along.”
Los Nahuatlatos perform with Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man Friday, February 12, at the D&W Lounge, 911 Milby.