Tijuana native Omar Lizarraga and long-time resident Dardin Coria relocated to Mexico City a few years ago to get serious about their music. They had been honing their musical chops as Casa Wagner, a progressive rock/jazz duo pushing the boundaries of experimental instrumental music -- think keyboard/synth acid jazz with an occult edge. And they were pretty good, so good in fact that they made it to the finals of the 2006 Rockampeonato Telcel, a nation-wide music competition with a record-deal as the main prize, held at the legendary Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City.
Although they didn't win, the band encountered something in Mexico City that would lead to a drastic musical evolution and re-evolution of their work: sonideros. Sonideros are a musical and social staple in many working class neighborhoods in Mexico City, street-DJs who set up on streets to play a mix of cumbias and tropical music, giving shout-outs for crowds that gather to listen, dance and wait for the DJ to transmit messages and dedications to friends/family.
In the sonideros, Lizarraga and Coria saw something very distinct from their avant-garde aspirations -- they saw music tied to community, to interaction, to levity, to fun. "We didn't know what they were, it was something that was completely foreign to us, to our norteño (Northern Mexican culture) context, and it was very appealing", remembers Lizarraga. This appeal fueled a curiosity that began to change the direction of the band. Lizarraga adds: "We began rehearsing and practicing things that had nothing to do with what we were doing before: [things like] cumbias, salsas. And it was something strange really, it was disorienting, at least with friends and family who would ask us: 'why are you playing cumbias'?"
As the band began moving away from pure sonic abstract experimentation, they began dabbling in travesura: naughtiness, mischief, and playful deviance, inspired by the party-atmosphere of the sonideros they encountered in Mexico City. And so Sonidero Travesura was born. "[Casa Wagner] was pure search: instrumental music as full force experimentation. What happened with Sonidero Travesura is that we began to have a lot of fun with the music [creating] atmospheres of dance, of happiness, of parties, of a lot music, of inclusion", explains Coria.
The new sound was not meant to be an emulation of the type of music played by sonideros, but instead sought to take cumbia, salsa, and tropical as the point of departure, as a "window into a new universe that we would have never explored before," as Coria describes. In this new musical universe, Latin and middle-eastern sounds combine with syncopated beats, and filter through digital synthesizers with layered-over electronic effects, emerging as soundscapes that seem to have escaped from an 80s arcade game or sci-fi movie, found their way into a traditional Mexican Dance Hall, taken a detour to South America and then returned to make their home at the border.
Coria and Lizarraga describe this sound with the self-created genre moniker of "El Tigre Digital" the Digital Tiger. When I asked them how they arrived at the concept, Lizarraga responded: "It describes what we do, it is something completely ephemeral, [our music] isn't something that you can say 'Its this!' because we try to mutate constantly, changing and experimenting to achieve new things. In a way you can't give it a label because once you do it is fucked." Adopting a nonsensical label is for Sonidero Travesura a loophole that allows them to operate unconstrained by the weight of preordained formula or sounds associated with the genres they borrow from, while at the same time carving out new niches between genres like cumbia, krautrock, and synth-pop.
"Tigre Digital" can also be understood as a response to the dynamics of the city of Tijuana. Coria mentions that like artist Charles Glaubitz--who designed the cover of Sonidero Travesura's full length CD "Greatest Hits"--noted, "The Tigre Digital is like the stripped donkey [that you find on Avenida Revolución], something that is a product of Tijuana that makes no sense, but is born there precisely because the city itself makes no sense." He adds, "There are no tigers in America, there never have been. And Tijuana is not Japan, it is not an apex of the digital, on the contrary, it is oscillating between the modern and the obsolete."
These words resonate with how cultural theorist Nestor Garcia Canclini speaks of hybridity in the Latin American context. For Canclini, Latin America is defined by hybrid cultures that are oscillating between the modernity/postmodernity of the developed world, and the social, political and economic realities of the developing world--grappling with a cultural landscape that sits between the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional, the high and the low/popular. The border between Mexico and the United States provides rich terrain for analyzing this dynamic, so it is no wonder that Canclini was enchanted with the city of Tijuana as a potential "laboratory for postmodernism" in the 1990s.
And this is precisely how Sonidero Travesura see the city: "Tijuana is our laboratory, where we make our experiments... there is a high degree of liberty in Tijuana, and you can even say anarchism, more independence and more truth. At the border, mirrors run every which way", states Coria. And you can hear this in their music, you can hear it in the mixture of musical styles and sounds: an aural pastiche that compliments the saturation of media you find on the streets of the city, a city contending with the not always pretty reflection of itself.
But for Coria and Lizarraga the city and the region is more than just an incubator for theoretical ideas on culture, it is also their beloved and cherished home. The band leads a nomadic life between Tijuana, Ensenada, Tecate and Mexicali, taking in and trying to musically capture and express the tranquility of Baja's deserts, the tumultuous waves of its coasts, the spice of its cuisine, the frantic pace of its urban centers, the technological/digital cacophony of its mega-factories (maquiladoras), the sultry allure of its many vices, the kitschy excess of its tourist-targeted services and products, and the constant flux transforming its socio-cultural landscape.
Coria explains, "This is what defines you: it is the air that nurtures your lungs, and what you let out on the stage. And it's what you give [to the music]: a little bit of Rumurosa [the mountain range to the East of Tijuana] in this song, and a little of Chinola [the historically chinese neighborhood in Mexicali] in this one."
Their experiences across Baja are exorcised during Sonidero Travesura's live shows, festive jam sessions that are highly improvisational, often in collaboration with local musicians/artists. For their last performance in Mexicali, they performed with local Cachanilla percussionist Izai Hirales, who has joined Coria and Lizarraga for more than 40 shows.
You can listen to such collaborations on their most recent CD "Greatest Hits", a compilation of tracks that received the greatest response from audiences during their live shows in Baja California, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Mazamitla in the forest of the state of Jalisco. The 15 tracks on the album "made the people dance for the last three to four years" according to Coria. And all of this, the touring, the production of their disc, the merchandising, has been completely self-organized in collaboration with musicians and visual artists, without the help of labels or managers.
Their next adventure: performing in the United States for the first time at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego, on May 5th. For Coria this will be a culmination of their work so far: "We are taking to the gabacho (American side) all the Mexican audiences we have passed through, and there have been hundreds. We have been playing together for more than a decade and each of those audiences has left us something. All of that is part of our presence and with that energy we want to start flowing in the U.S. It's going to be very fun."
Very fun indeed.
For more information on upcoming shows, including their performance in San Diego, and their upcoming 5 year anniversary celebration in Tijuana, visit their page.
Sonidero Travesura is currently working on their forthcoming album "The Exotic Sounds of TJ", an homage to their laboratory and home. You can find their "Greatest Hits" on iTunes.