The Chamanas: Kickass Music and the American Dream

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The door entering the Chamanas studio.

The Chamanas, the band from Cd. Juarez and El Paso, TX, originally the product of Manuel Calderón, the band’s bass player, who looks like a Mexican Dave Grohl. After a few years and various successes, the Chamanas have become ambassadors of the borderland, without meaning to, during an era that has seen hostility against immigrants from U.S. politics.

“It’s impossible not to be a political act,” said Calderon. “We’re just people from the border, and we aren’t here to rebel but to work and support and set the example for other bands and people who come to work, which really is the American Dream – to have the opportunity to transcend as a person.“

The band ended 2017 with the release of their latest album, NEA, in August, and will start 2018 by opening up for Adán Jodorowsky on January 23. The Chamanas consists of Manuel Calderón, Paulina Reza, Alejandro Bustillos, and Héctor Carreón.

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Manuel Calderon playing at a private show of the Chamanas.

Antonio Villaseñor-Baca: How were the Chamanas created?

Alejandro Bustillos: The Chamanas started principally by Manuel Calderón, our bass player. He’s the founder of the project. He started it in Los Angeles and then he consolidated in Tornillo, TX, at Sonic Ranch studio. And it was there that he met the guitarist, Héctor, and between them they began to have ideas and put them together. And they began to get positive feedback from other artists there that would tell them to take it more seriously and to start formalizing the project.

AV: And all of you are from Juárez or El Paso?

AB: Well, we’re half and half.

Manuel Calderón: [Paulina] is from Milan. (Calderon said sarcastically and the group laughed at the tease.)

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Paulina Reza, left, and Alejandro Bustillo, right, playing at a private show of the Chamanas.

Paulina Reza: We’re half and half. The integral members are from the border. Really, we say we are from the border because Juárez and El Paso are basically the same city. But we take both cultures so you can say that we are from both Juárez and El Paso.

AV: Do you still live here, or where are you based out of?

AB: We’re based out of here on the border. We obviously travel when we have shows outside of the city, and we tour in the U.S. as well as in México, having played at festivals there. And we do believe that we should be here [on the border] for a while more. Maybe in the future we’ll analyze our situation and we’ll move. But for the moment, currently, we’re here on the border and we don’t want to move.

PR: In fact, we want to maintain our status here on the border so that in the future we can get closer to a really important music scene like the one in México, Guadalajara; Juárez and El Paso have potential, musically speaking – there’s so much talent. So we want to maintain ourselves here. We like to live here, but we also draw our inspiration as artists, being in the routine, being in the day-to-day, living among these two cultures and like Bustis said, we travel a lot but we love to live here and, so far, we do not have plans to live anywhere else.  

AV: And how is it that the border impacts your music?

MC: Well, the border impacts us with its totality; from the people to the artists. In other words, it impacts us everyday. We cross [the border] almost everyday, for those of us that work, or for all of the activities there are that we do, right? Myself in particular, apart from being in the band,  I work with other local bands and some from Mexico and from Texas, producing and mixing. So, I have to be crossing several times with bands from Juárez; and I live in El Paso and I can’t go one, two, or three days without crossing over to Juárez – whether its something for business, or for a mechanic, or to the veterinarian, or salsa classes. So it’s something that affects a lot, I think positively, although it can be tedious crossing through the line, sometimes being stuck two or three hours. But it’s beautiful growing up on the border because you have the best of both worlds, right? The best of the U.S. and the best of México, and you grow up with both cultures. And although El Paso is very similar to Juárez, it’s not the same city. You experience distinct things, and for example, us as kids, it was more relevant back then because the Internet didn’t exist and you didn’t have access to so much information, and so for us growing up with channels from México and the U.S. available, it wasn’t cable, it was the norm for us. And you would visit your cousins in Chihuahua and there were only channels in Spanish and you’d be like, ‘hey, where are the English channels?’ So, that’s what it’s like growing up on the border and I also think it affected us – because it’s one thing to watch everything on Netflix or Youtube, or something like that, but it’s another to live it, and we got to live both cultures.

AV: You were nominated for a Latin Grammy; you’re becoming more famous. Are there instances, artists, that have said something to you about being from Juárez? How do you feel being from a smaller scene compared to one like Los Angeles and being famous or haven’t you encountered any negative stigmas about the border?

MC: Actually, El Paso and Juarez aren’t that small like how it’s thought.  The truth is that since the rise of At the Drive-In, and eventually Mars Volta and Sparta, many projects have come up and lately there have been like Cigarettes After Sex or Khalid. The scene is maybe smaller, but there is a lot of talent and aside from that there is also one of the more important studios in the world, which is Sonic Ranch. The truth is that everybody in the industry in México and in the U.S. know about El Paso, about the music scene, and also thanks to Sonic Ranch that everybody comes to record at the studio. They all know the city, they know about the local talent. They know us. So really it’s not a surprise to them that bands are making it big here in El Paso. I think the scene here is really important. Like you said, it’s not as big as other ones like Los Angeles or Mexico City, but I think little by little we’re pushing ourselves. We try to support local bands and with our manager, which is Gera (Gerardo Alarcon) we try to help local bands.

AV: With the political climate of these times, you don’t see a special purpose or goal to represent the border when you travel?

MC: The truth is no. (To the rest of the band) No, right? It’s mostly just playing around? (The band laughed at the sarcastic jokes that are so characteristic of Calderón.)

AB: Well, apart from representing our music in various places, and that we love to eat in new places when we travel, obviously what we want to transmit is how the ones from [the border and Cd. Juarez and El Paso] are – because there’s still a misconception about the area because of the violence and those times a few years ago. So, we want to transmit a new image in a certain manner so that people look differently at Juárez and El Paso and so that they don’t think that something will happen to them, on the contrary, that we are people that are working, we’re active, and we want to help our community. There are certain things that we do in order to create a gravitas to what is the image of the city. People are surprised and I think we are surprised as well with the fact that people always say that we are so humble. People have told me several times, people who interview us in festivals, like ‘oh, people from the North are so cool.’ It’s cool that people stay with that image of the city and that they begin to lose those ideas that they only ask you about what has happened in the city. And it’s the same in the U.S., as it is in México, and to transmit the positive and for it t grow that way and that more people from here begin to want to do that too.

MC: And I think that our intention for this project has never been to get into politics, but it’s impossible not to be like a political act. Like when you start to generate an audience and people start to share you on different platforms, we’re conscientious that there is no escape, you start to get involved with the political, without meaning to. We, especially in the U.S., try to promote a little the unity and tolerance between all of the cultures and races that exist in the U.S., because the U.S. citizen will be redefined in this era. Before, one thought of a U.S. citizen as a blonde-haired with blue eyes, and not anymore. Now a U.S. citizen can be a Mexican, someone from India, an African, and we’re all here in this country trying to- well to create; not just art but to create different companies, different stores…

AB: Contribute.

MC: Contribute! Exactly. And, like now, he just contributed to my answer. And well, it’s what we are trying to promote in one way or another, that we are people from the border, and that we aren’t here to rebel but to support and put the example for other bands and other people who come to this country to work, which is really the American dream – having the opportunity to transcend as a person. So it doesn’t matter to us that we have a president that doesn’t appreciate us or if they’re passing laws, let’s organize the people, they have to go out and vote. And also we can’t be afraid of other cultures, get close to your friend or your neighbor that has other beliefs; between the two you can coexist.

AV: When you started this project, did you imagine coming this far? How does it feel to be where you are now?

MC: Well I thought we were going to get further, right? (Another joke the band broke out in laughter at.)

AB: I didn’t think so many cool things would happen to us in so little time. But we did have the ambition for them to keep happening. We want to grow more, but obviously we’re grateful for what has been happening to us in so little time, and we’ll always be aware of what we can do differently, how we can reach more people, how we can continue to grow as a project.

PR: One of the purposes of the band is to always do the things for the sake of love. When one does something for the sake of love, there’s a great result from it. Also being musicians, and to give a message through lyrics and the stories that are told in the songs, is something that you’ll be repaid for because you’re reaching out to people in a very positive way. You’re reaching out to their humanity, you’re waking up their sensibility with sentiments that maybe they’ve never experienced and I think all of that creates a positive energy, creates positive things. Now at this point, we’re maturing, musically speaking, and above all else, as a family. Like I tell you, the principal purpose is to continue doing this because we love it, and we love to make music for people and for them to continue receiving our message with such a great response. It’s something incredible for everybody.

AV: And you’ve now worked with various artists. With which other artist have you liked working with the most?

MC: The truth is it’s always been exciting working with all the artists with whom we’ve interacted with, famous or not. Interacting with artists that move in a world not so mainstream. But they’re incredible artists. One of those artists is David Garza. In fact, we consider him to be the godfather of the band. He was the one that inspired us, that motivated us to create something, a musical project. 

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The Chamanas in front of the painting David Garza gave them in their studio.

And David Garza is an artist, although not very famous, is I think one of the most important artists with which we’ve collaborated. We really have not collaborated with him on something official like where his music is featured, but we’ve collaborated with him in a more spiritual level. Like this mural behind us is his, he gave it to us. He’s worked with people like Fiona Apple, Scarlett Johansson, Blonde Redhead, and people like that, I could be here all day listing names. He’s been one of the most important artists and he’s inspired us. And this collaboration with ODESZA was a surprise because we didn’t really know them before they suggested the collaboration. Thanks to a friend we have in common, we met through Sonic Ranch we were able to do this collaboration. Our friend suggested us to them, to Harrison, one of the guys from ODESZA, and he sent us a message asking us if we wanted to work together. We didn’t know them but we thought it would be cool and we had no idea this collaboration would make it so far. Now the album was nominated for various Grammys and, in that album, there are the Chamanas and obviously we wish them the best, but we already know they always do well and they’re a band that is getting really famous. We also worked with Los Angeles Negros, which was really cool, we grew up with that band.

AB: I also think that what has impressed me the most, the people that have impressed me the most of those we’ve worked with and collaborated with – I’m referring to working with them and that we’ve seen and that shared stages with – is, and we know what makes them such a huge band is Portugal. The Man. We had a few shows with them a while back, we had like four tour days with them and it was very impressive to see what is really behind the five or six people who are always playing on stage. There’s a lot of logistics for everything. There’s a lot of professionalism and they’re very humble people. They know their objective, their goal, they complete it, they play, they close one door and then they play another show. So they manage a lot of equipment and visuals and they present themselves in huge places. So all of this has to be on schedule, and when we opened for them, we got to see all of that and you begin to permeate all of what you have to start to do to be such a big band. And they’ve barely exploded globally, so they aren’t on the largest stage yet. You realize all of the work that is required, all the people needed because it was fifteen or twenty people working and all of them focused. So you see the beauty in what you can get to when everybody stays on the same purpose.

MC: And recently, we also collaborated with Jay de la Cueva; a titan obviously, and Jay has been someone from whom we’ve learned a lot. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him on several projects at Sonic Ranch, and he’s someone that has always shown that he values the band. He’s liked a lot of our ventures from the beginning.   

– By Antonio Villaseñor-Baca

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