(Story by Stephanie Hainsfurther / Photographs by Liz Lopez)
Baracutanga means “people dancing” and that’s what happened at the band’s first gig, 10 years ago. “We played for hours. They made the last call at the bar and people moved to dancing in the street, so we continued the party out in the street,” said Kilko Paz, one of Baracutanga’s founding members.
Their rhythm is Pan-Latin but later they found that the name comes from Afrikaans, not Spanish or Portuguese.
“We picked the name because of the sound. Ba-ra-cu-TANG-a—it sounds like our drums,” said Paz. Dancing to the drums—and the surdos, charango, Cuban tres, Peruvian cajón, and Brazilian percussion—can be a metaphor for revolutionary thought and action. In Latin American culture, a dance also can identify a specific region or community, like the samba (Brazil and Africa), tango (Argentina), or bachata (Dominican Republic).
This Latinx diversity is represented within Baracutanga itself and certainly in its music. Paz is from Bolivia; lead vocalist Jackie Zamora is from Peru; Nicholas Baker, Paul Gonzales, Micah Hood, and Joseph Altamirano are from the US; and Carlos Noboa comes from Ecuador. Normally one labels band members by their instruments, but each member of Baracutanga plays many instruments.
“Everybody in this band has more than one talent,” said Jackie Zamora. “Our drummer plays a crazy number of instruments; they’re constantly rotating. The only one that’s doing nothing is me. Yes, I am rocking the mic, saying things that are important, but really I can barely walk and talk at the same time.”
She’s being droll and terribly modest. Zamora’s vocal style is powerful as she articulates the lyrics to original songs like “Cuida Tus Espaldas (Watch Your Back),” about recent immigrant experiences in the US. The song has an urgent rhythm underlying fluent rock styling. Starring local actor Efrain Villa, the video shows a Latino navigating the streets of a hostile city. The video displays an immigrant’s alienation and loneliness, but the lyrics show the danger surrounding him. Like all of Baracutanga’s songs, “Cuida Tus Espaldas” is sung in Spanish:
Watch your back,
If they find you, they’ll put a price tag on you
Your dreams destroyed without any mercy
The game will be over and you’ll go to jail
Cuida tus espaldas
Si ella te ubica te pone precio
Sin piedad viene y destruye sueños
Se acaba el juego y te lleva preso
The band created “Cuida Tus Espaldas” as “a danceable anthem to denounce social injustice.”
“Every time we create something, it has to have some meaning. While you are moving your body and dancing, you can also move your mind. We need to say something every single day, with every opportunity we have,” said Paz. They are trying to put a few Latinx bands together for a concert shining a light on the immigrant camps at our borders.
“We wrote [“Cuida Tus Espaldas”] before the camps,” Zamora said. “Kilko has these ideas that are almost premonitions; within six months, it is happening. I am a mother and I am an immigrant. I can’t even imagine being separated from [my children]. To come here to find compassion and to find violence instead—you don’t have to be an immigrant to relate to that. It’s a human right to be able to stay close to your family and protect your family.”
Baracutanga’s first album, Importados, includes the rousing “Rumba de Burque.” Its video, filmed at The Railyards in Albuquerque, shows a crowd of people, dancing as one. Paz imagines the dance floor as common ground. “When we are playing, we are bringing this message to you: Just look around. You are dancing with people with different religions and skin color, but you are in the same room having fun together. A dance floor is a different world, where what really matters is being together as human beings,” he said.
Although diverse in background and dynamic in musical styles, Baracutanga consider themselves one community. They work on their music together, and individual backgrounds contribute to the stew. With so many cooks from so many cultures, how do they characterize their music?
“Our music is a juxtaposition of styles: that is the fun part,” said Paz. “You’re listening to a very rock-based sound, then it changes to reggae. I would call us an American Pan-Latin band; it’s not exactly that, but we have to go with something. [Most people] put all Latin music in one big bag, but that is so impossible.”
Zamora has a slightly different description of Baracutanga’s sound. “I always believed that we are South American Roots because everything rose from them. In South America we have rock, reggae, we have everything, we can grow into anything,” she said. “I consider myself to be a Latin singer but that is so broad—there’s reggaeton, folkloric, rock—and I can sing in Portuguese so I can cover more ground.”
Baracutanga also covers all ages; their enthusiastic fans bring the families to their shows. They make no effort to connect with any one demographic. “The more we are ourselves, the more we’ve been able to transcend every generation. If we’re making music that is honest and genuine, all age groups are going to be interested in it,” Zamora said. “In Latin America, at every party, every celebration, you’re made to dance with your tias and your tios. Now my oldest is 12 and she’s a dancer because she grew up with that.”
Young fans grow up and return to hear Baracutanga’s music with their own families, remembering their early experiences with the group. “Seeing people sing along to our lyrics is one of the most powerful feelings I get when performing,” said Zamora.
The band is writing original music to record a new collection this summer. Paz will visit his mother, activist and author Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, in Bolivia and do some filming for the new video. They have also proposed an evening of Pan-Latin music to the New Mexico Philharmonic and hope to schedule that concert in June. In the meantime, they hope to finish the new CD and tour throughout the Southwest in venues popular with the fans.
“Anywhere we play, there is room for people to dance,” said Zamora, “and if they don’t have room, we make room,” said Paz.