Frontera Bugalú; Cumbia, the borderland and celebrating who you are

Talking about empowering oneself, fighting for one’s rights and defending one’s community, Frontera Bugalú’s songs bring a commentary of how it actually is to live in the U.S.-Mexican border. The band brings an upbeat sound reflective of the El Paso and Juárez scene, along with lyrics that speak to the listener about their roots and the base of their culture.

Frontera Bugalú is a cumbia, salsa and mambo band from El Paso, TX., formed by Kiko Rodriguez and Joel Osvaldo in 2011. Their name came from the genre of Latin music “boogaloo,” which mainly originated from Cuban and Puerto Rican communities from 1970’s New York.

With lyrics that speak louder than their music makes you want to dance, their music talks about immigrant oppression and being true to oneself. They highlight the idea that the Latino culture should not live by the standards that others imposed on them, especially when they don’t know what their culture truly is.

“Oye, chavo, ya no hagas tanto circo, que nadie te toma enserio y tú solo sufrirás. Chava, no hay droga que te componga, solo vidas que te cobran y tú solo pagarás. Mejor abre tu mente y deja el sol entrar. Encuentra buena gente y así avanzarás” (Hey, man, don’t make a show, because no one will take you seriously and you’ll be the only one to get hurt. Girl, there’s no drug that will fix you, only a life that you’ll be the only one to pay for. Instead open your mind and let the sun in. Find good people and that’s how you’ll be able to move forward.), Kiko Rodriguez signs in “Chavos” from Alma de Jaguar.

The band is getting ready to release their next untitled album in April of this year. Accordionist, vocalist and composer Kiko Rodriguez talks about how Frontera Bugalú formed, what it means for them, what it has become and what they hope to bring in the future.


Aimée Santillán: Do you guys tour a lot?

Kiko Rodriguez: It depends. Compared to some bands, yes, because we get out. We got our of town a lot last year, but we only travel, things that we can do on the weekends, cities that are six to eight hours away driving, so Arizona, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and we went to San Antonio last year. And we even went to Marfa. But, really we just started the Frontera thing again like last year barely, because it was kind of asleep. It was dormant. I was doing other stuff. And then we released the album and we started to perform a lot and tour again. I would say we do tour, we get out of town as much as we can. But mainly we’re in El Paso and Juárez.

AS: Is there a place you perform a lot in Juárez?

KR: It just depends, because it’s changing a lot over there. There’s a place called Anexo, and it’s where all the bands play, about 300 people can fit there. It’s a little bit like the Lowbrow [Palace], just a little smaller. And we play at private events, so that depends where it’s at, like we played for a benefit for the nursing school in Juárez, and that was on this big building off Avenida Juárez, I forgot what it’s called, but it’s a nursing program basically. They raise money every year, so they had like Jim Ward playing, some other people. But we don’t play often, because there has been some immigration problems, because we’ve got half mexicanos and half Mexican-American, so half of us have citizenship here and the other half are mexicanos, and the pianist is a resident, so he’s like in-between. So, depending on expiration of visas and things like that, we switch it up.

AS: The bio for Frontera Bugalú says that you guys had started this band just to have fun, since you were working on other bands, but then this one got serious, how did that happen?

KR: I started it to do weddings and quinceañeras, you know, just parties, sort of like a mariachi, but it was gonna be cumbias – cumbias live. So, we started doing covers and trying to get those kinds of gigs. And it was supposed to be just for fun, and just for my friends and family to have something to take to parties. But then we started getting hired all the time, so we had to we had to step it up, and I didn’t want to keep doing covers, so I started doing originals, and I kinda would sneak it in, like, “well, we don’t do the songs that you know, but we do the songs that sound similar; they’re originals, and if you don’t like it, don’t worry.”

AS: And what was that project that you were working on before?

KR: Umm, hijola, I don’t know. I’ve worked on a lot, a lot of projects. I was doing a soundtrack, I was also in Fuga, towards the end of, like, I was finishing up Fuga. And then I was gigging for another band that was touring nationally, and they do cumbias, they do like reggae, and stuff that influence cumbia, like more of a mix. So I was kind of everywhere, and Frontera was just like a project from here in El Paso that I would do when I was here. So then, when I moved back, it got more serious, and we got hired more, so we started just doing that.

AS: Are you the only one that writes the songs?

KR: Me and Joel [Osvaldo], the pianist. We write and arrange the songs. And he usually does most of the music and I do the lyrics and melodies and stuff. Sometimes I write- I used to write a lot of music too. I can write music too. But, he’s really skilled, so we just run with it, and I just sing with the melodies, so it’s like a little bit of a partnership. And then, like, other musicians who are helping us, they always have influence too. They end up putting in stuff, but not as much. We don’t have enough time writing, basically, to work writing with everybody, so usually they only have time to come to do the show. So, it’s a small crew for writing – me and Joel, basically.

AS: You guys write a lot about political stuff in your lyrics, right? What is it that you like singing about the most?

KR: Well, we like to tell the real story of what it’s like to live here, because we’ve seen people, not just romanticize it, but also saying negative things. So, it’s like too good or too bad, and nothing like the real stuff, you know, so we like to talk about real things. And, most of our songs have social and political commentary, and then we have, like some love songs, but most of our stuff is about, you know, empowering yourself, fighting for your rights, defending your community, defending your family. And, by empowering ourselves, we’re talking about learning, you know, getting information, starting new things, starting your own projects, like you guys, just trying to motivate people to create things and not just got to work and stuff. You know, this is a very working class town, so, you know, everyone’s at work, but we’re trying to motivate people to also do other stuff, so the culture here can grow, and it can be, I guess, our culture, and not imposed on us by somebody else who’s out of the city, you know, trying to get tourist to come here, we’re hoping that we can define our culture with the things that we like, our politics, for sure, what are the political ideas of El Paso, how do we feel about immigration, or the border wall, but for it to come from our perspective and our voice, instead of from somebody from New York, or Austin, who’s trying to figure out how we feel, you know what I mean? So, a lot of the songs have to do with that.

AS: And how do you see the region here? What is real for you? You’re saying that there’s positive and negative commentary all over the world, but what is real for you about here?

KR: About here, I mean, El Paso has a little bit of an identity crisis. We feel that El Paso should have embraced its Mexican heritage a long time ago, and that would have brought in a lot of people from all over the world. People want to come and see something different, not more Starbucks and movie theatres – something you can find anywhere. And, the one thing that makes El Paso unique is that we’re right next to Juárez, and we’re right next to México, but people have such a weird feeling, they have weird feelings about being Mexican, or being descendant; they have weird feelings about speaking Spanish, or the fact that they didn’t learn Spanish, and so there’s a lot of shame, and there’s a lot of- to us there’s a lot of, I don’t know ignorance about our culture and how powerful we are. And we feel that El Paso should, especially like the government here and the county and the education system, should get rid of its hang-ups about being so Mexican, and just embrace it, and embrace the fact that, I mean, we’re obviously Americans too, we speak English, you know, we’re not seeing we don’t like that, and it influences our music, American music, Rock & Roll, Hip Hop, influences our music, but why do we have to also deny where we come from, or ignore where we come from? And, we feel that we let people talk bad about Latinos, and, you know, being Mexican, and that discourages. So, we don’t want to fight, we just want to present positive role models, and positive practices, like music and art, all that stuff, so that they can see that being Mexican isn’t just one thing, it’s not wearing a sombrero and listening to mariachi music, being Mexican is very broad and huge, pretty international. And most people around the world know that. And people come from all over the world to visit México all the time, and we have some kind of weird thing with it, I guess because we’re right here. So, that’s what we talk about in our songs: remembering who you are, fighting for who you are, and celebrating. I think Frontera Bugalú is really about celebrating who you are, because we’re a cumbia, carnival type of dance band. We’re a dance band. People come to see us to come dance. So, all of that is about celebrating your culture.

AS: Why did you guys choose cumbia specifically, from all other genres?

KR: A lot of that came from me, because I got obsessed with Columbian cumbia, and I was violinist, and then I was a guitarist, and then I found the accordion and I just really liked the way it sounded, you know, so I had to start playing music that would use the accordion. So, I liked cumbia, but I didn’t like the cumbia that’s on the radio all the time, that’s kind of poppy, it’s about nothing basically, most of the time, or it’s about just partying, and we have those songs too, but the original cumbia was much broader, like the Columbian cumbias would talk about all kinds of stuff, of course love and heartbreak and all that, but they also would talk about like, when the African slaves got to Columbia, and what happened when they were enslaved, and what happened to all the women when they were attacked. Like, cumbia was a way for them to express truth, right? So I felt like, now a days, cumbia is international, it’s not Columbian anymore. México has its own cumbia, and then northern México has its own cumbia, you know, we have three of the biggest cumbia artists were all living and working in Texas, there was Fito Olivares, from Houston, even though he was out of Reynosa, [Mexico], but it’s Fito Olivares, like the biggest cumbia guy ever – in every wedding and every quinceañera; Celso Piña, who is in Monterrey, [México], that is, like, six hours from the border, you know, who also lives and works a lot in the U.S.; Rigo Tovar, who is in South Texas, in Brownsville and Raymondville and all those places, you know; Selena. I mean Texas is the big Mecca for modern the Mexican cumbia, but nobody kind of looks at it like that, because all these- people were famous in different ways, Selena was famous over here and got a Grammy, Fito never got a Grammy, but, I mean, his five songs we’ve known them for like four generations, like, he’s huge among us, you know, and then Rigo Tovar was pretty famous. So, that’s why I picked it, because I felt like it was very versatile, there’s like ten different ways to do cumbia, there’s, like, electric cumbia with just, like, psychedelic guitars from Peru, there’s, you know, Columbian cumbia with just a button accordion, and there’s Tex-Mex cumbia with a piano accordion, there’s Tropicalisimo Apache, that’s originally from this area too, and they’re more like Sonora [Skandalo], with horns and all of that, you have Sonora Dinamita, you have so many different ways to do it. So, I was like, I could do that and come up with our own way of doing it that would be from El Paso, like what would be the El Paso way to do it. So, I don’t know if it’s an El Paso way to do it, because it’s just the way I do it, but it’s a mix because it has button accordion, which I play both styles, I play like a Tex-Mex style and I play a Columbian style, and I always mix it, so it kind of gets lost, you can’t really tell what it is, but that’s good because we want to push the boundaries a little bit too. We use a lot of weird notes, a lot of minor keys, a lot of, like, sort of- we’re looking for different sounds that we could create for the cumbia, you know, we’re not just trying to copy somebody else. Cumbia, to me, feels like the people’s music, so, like, that’s why we wanted to use it.

AS: Where do you guys look for the sounds that you use?

KR: You know, we use different instruments, we use the synthesizer on the piano a lot, because Joel can bring up all kinds of sounds on the piano with the synthesizers. And then, when I play accordion, I do things that you’re really not supposed to be doing, but we like the way it sounds, so, like, we mess with that, you know, like we can put delay, we can do these weird triplet notes that we use, we can, like I said, we can mix the norteña with the southern cumbia, or we can just do ambience on the accordion, and make it kind of spooky or dark, they were used to be called, like, dark cumbia. I don’t know, Joel has a whole other- he comes more from- his parents were from Juárez and they listen to a lot of northern Mexican cumbia, so that’s a different way of playing the base, a different way of playing the notes, and he uses a lot of synthesizers and crazy sounds, whatever’s on the keyboard. It just depends.

AS: Do the sounds that you make feel like El Paso? If yes, how?

KR: It’s weird, because to me, I’m playing Columbian cumbia, but all my friends would be like – the ones that come to the shows – would be like “this is such an El Paso band,” it’s like, “every time I hear you guys, it reminds me of El Paso.” So I don’t know what it is, but I do think, I’m sure that any musician is really influenced by where they live. So, it might not be conscious, but it’s in the back of my brain, like it comes out. So, for example, Juan Gabriel’s influence on the border, which is massive, that sinks into our songwriting, the way we sign, how emotional we get with certain stanzas, you know, or the way that Juan Gabriel would arrange his songs, he wouldn’t follow a pattern, he would kind of do whatever he wanted. So, that influences us, and we didn’t think it did. And then you have sort of, like, the pachuco culture, and like, “my tíos and them,” and then the cholo culture is really big here, and that influences us. So, who knows, but I do think we have been developing some kind of El Paso and Juárez thing. In Juárez we’re pretty popular too, people really like it over there, and they take a whole other take too. They really analyze what we play and how we play. They ask us questions, because they’re more versed into the tradition of the music, they know the music really, really well. Whereas El Paso, people might only like one or two cumbias in their lives; it’s the one their mom would play for them – it’s like the closest they’ve got. They’ve never heard the Monterrey cumbia, the Mexico city cumbia, the Peruvian cumbia, so we’re trying to influence that, we’re trying to bring that to El Paso, and the fact that we’re also Latin Americans, a part of that culture, that that’s part of our roots. So, I don’t know, I think it is an El Paso thing- you know where it comes out more? It’s in the lyrics – the way I talk, the way I say something, the words I use in Spanish are all from here, so that’s definitely- and do people notice that, because we say shit that they don’t say in Mexico city, even in LA, you know, in LA they ask “what does that word mean?” because these are older words, you know, so El Paso has that old culture that we’re hoping to revive in some way or make people proud of, why would you get rid of that one thing that makes you so unique? And if you think about the Pachuco culture, it started in Juárez to us and then it went to Mexico city and went to LA, and how they embraced it so much, and how they loved it so much, but here, there was – I blame this a lot in the politics – there was a very real deliberate attempt to eliminate all of that culture, the way we talked, the way we danced, the music we listen to, you know, because my grandparents listen to mambo, and all that, all that Zoot suit stuff, you know, that’s what- Juárez and El Paso was into music from Cuba, music from Mexico city, you know, and the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s especially they just kind of stamped it out, you know, “we don’t want this to be part of modern El Paso,” which was dumb because now everybody is trying to figure out how do we sell El Paso? How do we make El Paso cool? How do get people to come here? It was already there, but there was this systemic racism that really, really made people ashamed, and I remember people in my own family, the older generation, would say “don’t talk Spanish, don’t say you’re Mexican,” and it took us a while to recover from that, you know, so I think we’re recovering from that, and bands like this, and muralists, and all these people that are happy to and are like, “well, we are who we are.” And it’s cool.

AS: Where you introduced to music very young?

KR: Yeah, I was lucky, I have a musical family, you know, my grandma was a pianist and she taught music all her life, but she didn’t get to do music professionally, but she was really, really amazing, and every, and every Sunday, sometimes Saturdays, we would get together five or seven musicians, and we would just play, we would play all night, there was mandolins, pianos, guitars, violins, whatever anybody had, and we would play all these Mexicans songs, we would play boleros, rancheras, danzón, mambo, marchas, all that stuff, polkas, and so, I grew up in that, and my grandma started teaching me piano. She really encouraged me to take it seriously and to try to study it. But, of course, I didn’t really listen too much, and so, I played music throughout all my school years – middle school, high school – I was always in music, but I never picked it up professionally until later on, like 24 years old, that’s when I started to really play. That’s when we started Fuga, we started recording, we started a lot of stuff, and since then.

AS: What is it that brought you to do music professionally later on?

KR: I don’t know. I think it would just come out, like it was just me. My sister was an awesome singer, too, so me and her started the band with Fuga, later on, and we did really well. We had a lot of fun and traveled everywhere, so after that, I was like, “I should just keep doing it and doing it,” but I never trained professionally, it just came through my family, through my own- through El Paso’s own culture of remnants of musicians that are left, you know, and now I embrace it because I see it as a way to talk about things, and for people to hear our voices, you know, I think this music is really important for that.

AS: The last album that you did was Alma de Jaguar, that was in 2016, have you guys been working on anything new?

K: Yeah, we have the new one ready, and it’ll be released this year, probably in April. So, right now- we already wrote it, and right now we’re just looking for- we’re gonna do a fundraiser to raise money, and we’re gonna go to the studio and put it together, but it’s already pretty much done. And we’ll be touring a lot more this year, performing a lot more. We toured- we did enough work last year that we have enough momentum this year to do a lot more, so this year could be really big for us, I think, because now we have people, like, in a lot of other cities, all the way to Chicago asking about us and wanting us to come out, you know. But all of us are very typical El Paso, we all work, you know, we have families here, we don’t necessarily live the “rock star life,” we’re more of a cultural band, and we’re very firmly based here, so we’ve had to turn down stuff in other cities, because we just can’t afford to go, we can’t get the days off, or whatever. We’re trying to balance a little.

AS: But you want to go touring more into the U.S.?

KR: Yeah, we trying to get out to at least maybe the east coast, or LA, get up to Oregon, go to Chicago, you know, get out to some of the bigger cities. What we’re still gonna do, we believe a lot in regional work, like Tucson, Albuquerque and San Antonio, those cities have people that are very similar to us, we listen to a lot of similar stuff, and we talk the same, so we feel like it’s important to have that as a base, and then, from there, branch out to other cities. So, we’re still gonna be doing a lot of that, as much as we can.

AS: You said you wanted El Paso to expand, and start creating more and start working less, what do you have in mind when you say that? What do you want El Paso to be?

KR: There has to be more investment and leadership into the arts here, because people here are very, very creative people, and very skilled, in all the art forms, whether is visual arts, cinematic arts, or literature, and definitely in music, and we’ve had them come out, but we need more. So, I don’t think El Paso is ever gonna stand on its own until it helps and invests in its own people, in its own artists, you know. We’ve seen companies and the city government here hire people from Berlin, from Portland, and pay tens of thousands of dollars for them to come and do an interpretation of who we are, instead of hiring the people that have been working here for like ten years, or 20 years, like me, I’ve had 20 years performing here, so like- and my skillsets extend- I’ve worked with all kinds of big people, big studios and big productions. I have the experience, but it’s like they have problems with their self-esteem and they don’t feel like the people here can do it and it’s not true. And I think that until that happens, we’re not gonna stand out, we’re just gonna be like another San Diego, another San Antonio, and what’s the point of that? Who wants to visit another Santa Fe? You know, and I think, I mean, just because you can just go to Santa Fe for that shit, you don’t have to- you know, why force stuff? And so, I think the more people pay attention and support writers and photographers, muralists and all that, and see what’s already here, I think the better off we’re gonna be.

By Aimée Santillán

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