Maneja Beto’s new album Escante Calling (A Rare Calling) should not just be noticed by Spanish speakers, but recognized by music industry at large. Not just because it’s great record, but because of the direction it’s pointing. Maneja Beto will probably never become a household name (although if I ruled the world it would be) but the concept of the band’s music will become as commonplace as reggae or hip-hop: “Indie en Español” is a genre we’re going to be hearing more.
I met singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Alex Chavez in a Cultural Anthropology seminar at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005 when we had both just started our Master’s degrees (he completed PhD just this year). Once I heard his band’s music, the genre “Indie en Español” made perfect sense. Maneja’s music lies in that nebulous “Indie” zone, a term that has lost it’s original meaning identifying a band’s separation from major record companies. These days it’s more of a category describing the fusion of styles, sounds and instruments. “Indie” is where experimental popular music lies.
If you like Radiohead, Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend and the Arcade Fire, you’ll probably like Maneja Beto. And if you’re a non-Spanish speaker, I guarantee the music is interesting enough that you might not mind so much that you can’t understand the words. Who can understand what Thom Yorke sings anyway?
With an ever-growing Spanish speaking population (currently just over 14% of the United States), bands like Maneja Beto are the future of American music. Music with Spanish lyrics and rhythms has been merging with every other American genre for decades (jazz, reggaeton, pop), now it’s indie rock’s turn and there’s a lot of really interesting music out there right now.
The best part about Maneja Beto is the combination of well-written songs that are fused together with great melodies, Latin rhythms and fun 80s inspired electronic riffs. It’s indie rock that is made to be danced to.
Escante Calling is a powerful and epic record that delightfully can’t decide where it belongs and doesn’t really care. “Panteon” has a sweeping, powerpop melody sung by multiple voices. Chavez sings opening track “El Abrigo” drenched in sweat and tears with his signature Mexican inspired vocal technique of flipping from chest to head voice. Then there are the hard-driving booty-shakin’ grooves of “Ubicate,” “Ofrendas” (watch the embedded video) and “Solo Quisierea” that are more like Maneja’s first two records with a twist. Percussionist Bobby Garza offers up gorgeous vocals on many of these tracks. There are also fascinating songs like Lugares Concurridos (Flu-Like Symptoms) that are somewhere between.
“Many of the things featured on the record I wrote in isolation in Mexico surrounded by Mexican folk and popular music,” says Chavez referring to his time finishing up fieldwork and writing his disseration on Mexican music. “However, none of it really translated onto this record [unlike some of our previous work]. Maybe I found a place to be creative that took me in a different direction, undetermined by my surroundings?” Chavez has been part of other projects in Austin playing traditonal Mexican music genres.
Even though the Mexican influence in Escante Calling is relatively less prominent than Maneja Beto’s first two albums, its presence is in no way diluted. This record documents the band’s movement toward something that has more of a produced element and is grander in scale. Chavez described engineer/producer Chico Jones as an “amazing musician, great friend, and someone who has finally been able to translate what we do onto tape.”
Maneja Beto is definitely one of the most interesting and innovative bands out there right now. And I’m hoping that even though the five members of the band are starting to scatter, that they continue to make music, as this is some of the most exciting and interesting stuff I’ve heard in the last 10 years.
December 18th – Beauty Bar, Austin, TX
January 5th – Emo’s, Austin, TX
Check Maneja Beto’s website for more potential dates in Denton, TX, and look for them during South by South West and a West Coast and Mexico tour next summer.
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