By Ashley Zimmerman
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By John Hood
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By Sayre Berman
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After ten years in the business, two years of heavy touring, and a fourth baby to rock and burp through the night, members of Miami's premier Latin urban orchestra could be forgiven for being exhausted. But on the contrary, this Grammy-nominated unit appears to be hitting its prime. Only two weeks ago, it was skanking the pants off more than 1,000 people at Tobacco Road's 96th-anniversary party, and it's sure to give an energetic class of ska-aerobics this weekend at the Dive Bar in Fort Lauderdale. Spend any amount of time at a Locos show and you'll get the message loud and clear: This band's mission is to entertain audiences. No question.
"We want to do a very audiovisual show where people are sitting down, then standing up and going through all these emotions, because something is happening and the energy is incredible," the band's Colombian frontman, Itagui Correa, said recently.
The eight-piece ensemble's vision has been a long time in the making, and with a sound that could gel properly only in South Florida, it's starting to see serious dividends.
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During the first five years, the Locos worked on forging a homegrown mix of ska, reggae, cumbia, hip-hop, and other rhythmic genres brought together by the group's diverse North and South American roots. The second five have been about getting people outside South Florida to bend an ear, and the results have been phenomenal.
In 2003, BBC America named Locos por Juana its Best New Latin Rock Band. By 2004, the group's self-titled debut, released two years prior, was hitting record stores and airwaves in London and Amsterdam. In 2005, Locos was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the category of Best Album by a Group for its energetic Música P'al Pueblo.
Between touring and writing music inspired by the transcontinental stages it's played, the band was finally able to secure a distribution and marketing deal with Universal Music that would allow it to maintain the underground sound it's created on its own Juana Discos imprint.
"We've sold hundreds of CDs on the road," guitarist Mark Kondrat says, "but last week, we went to Key West and found that our music is now available at any record store." And most recently, they got to record some tracks for their forthcoming album, La Verdad, in Mexico City with renowned producer and DJ Toy Selecta, known for bringing hard-core Latin hip-hop acts such as Mexico's Control Machete into the limelight.
These experiences, combined with the hatching of four Locos babies now ranging in age from 1 to 4, has helped the band evolve, says Venezuelan bassist and MC Guillermo "Chamo" Cabral. "Being on the road, sharing with people, becoming parents — these things have made us mature, and that influences the music that we perform and write," he explained. "It's Locos por Juana in 2008. It's reloaded."
This reloaded version often features more pensive lyrics laid over the hyperactive-style tracks that made previous albums so popular. For example, Correa wrote "No te Preocupes" ("Don't Worry") with his 1-year-old daughter, Salome, and the other Loquitos in mind. Using drums and accordion to tease out Correa's folkloric cumbia upbringing, the whimsical number assures the musicians' offspring that they're loved and appreciated, however far the band strays from the nest for its musical aspirations.
In the hard-driving ska/surf rock/cumbia number "De Donde Es?" ("Where Are You From?"), Correa recalls the time he was held by police during a routine traffic stop on a road trip through the Southwest because he didn't have his residency papers. The song, he says, is a show of solidarity with all of those who have struggled to obtain the legal documents for fulfilling the American dream. "I was an illegal immigrant for 15 years, so I know," Correa notes. "I lived that in cold blood." Luckily for him, the cops let him go when they saw his official invitation to the Latin Grammys.
But the Locos say Gringolandia has also given them many a positive vibe. Take, for example, the time a woman stopped Venezuelan percussionist Alan Reyna after a show in Madison, Wisconsin, to say she came in place of her daughter who couldn't make it. "When you're an immigrant, you come to a country with dreams but very little expectations," Reyna says. "So when you're doing your art with passion and people from that other culture open their arms for you, there's just an amazing warmth that you feel in your heart."
"I always felt that we were, like, back in the '50s when rock 'n' roll was started," Cabral says. "Even before the Beatles, when African-Americans were doing this music and white America was shocked, you know?"
Still, the Locos are content with the way their reggae/ska/dancehall/hip-hop blend has rocked so steadily across the nation. "We fit anywhere," Kondrat says. "We could be on the West Coast with the surfers and they love it. We could be with the Mexican-American community and they love it. There's something universal about our sound." The band's new album, La Verdad, is just that: the truth of a new multicultural, cosmopolitan generation, played out in the music that represents their cross-cultural connections.