Live and Local: Black and Brown Sounds at UTSA

“You have to educate yourself about the culture before you can make art about the culture,” said Easy Lee of Third Root toward the end of the Black and Brown Sounds panel last Wednesday. Speaking to the beginnings of Third Root, Lee told the audience that only after his cohort Mexican Stepgrandfather, aka Dr. Marco Cervantes, put him in contact with Afromestizaje (Afro-Mexican) culture could he create the hip-hop displayed later in the evening.

Education via culture seemed to be the theme of the evening, with Cervantes and UTSA’s Mexican American and African American programs curating the panel of musicians and scholars. On tap for discussion was the history and culture of Afromestizaje identity—the third root—and how music acts as a venue for identity expression.

Ph.D. candidate Savannah Carroll opened up with a rough history of Afromestizaje identity, speaking of the large, post-slavery populations of black Mexicans in the coastal states of Veracruz and Guerrero. After the revolution, in an effort to establish a national mestizo culture, there was an institutional sweeping under the rug of Afromestizaje identity, with effects of marginalization lingering today. Blackness is considered a foreign concept in Mexico, highly invisible in the Ralph Ellison sense of the word.

Music enters the equation to bring cultural roots to light, countering the closeting effect of homogeny. Son joracho musician Susana Ramirez spoke of the music’s roots in Veracruz and the direct African influence on the guitar music in the call and response and group percussive nature, an influence that can be felt on a foundational level in Mexican folk music.

DJ JJ Lopez spoke of the Chicano soul scene in San Antonio and how the stage and recording studio offered a cross-cultural creative space largely away from racial politics. UTSA Ph.D. candidate and former Tejano booking manager Gloria Gonzales expanded on the cultural exchange in the Tejano realm, citing legend Little Joe’s time as a field worker. Learning traditional African-American music, blues and R&B in the fields, Little Joe welded those styles with Norteño for his own brand of Tejano.

In performance, the cultural contact became immediately clear, and toe-tappingly so. Susana Ramirez brought out her son joracho collective SonAnto SonAndo to kick off the music of Black and Brown Sounds. It was the first time I’d heard the guitar assembly of son joracho as an evening’s focal point versus a slice of a festival’s entertainment, resulting in a blast of improvised social music. With no preparation, Ramirez and company charted their way through three numbers, churning out long, daydream guitar rhythms. The communal influence of African music was immediately present, like Spanish guitar music amplified on a dozen stringed instruments and given structure by call-and-response vocal interludes.

Blend Phonetics took the stage next, performing with a live band of guitar and djembe, rooted by the bass grooves of Pop Pistol’s George Garza. In a previous interview with the Current, emcee Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson described their approach as one of unification: “[People] are so different, all of us, but music is a beautiful bridge and a common ground.” That operative is on full display when Sanderson and Karim Zomar trade off on 16 bars of impeccably paced English and Spanish rhymes, merging on Sanderson’s beautifully sung hooks.

Alyson Alonzo then performed with the spare backing of her Gibson electric to complement her hellcat voice. Graced with a bitchin’ set of pipes and the work ethic to develop her style, Alonzo’s voice is the type that turns heads and drops jaws, swelling with emotion on each elongated syllable. Though her guitar playing could use some work, Alonzo’s powerful rendition of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” showcased the polished gem of her voice, contorting and cracking in the lower register and insanely nuanced on the high notes. The goddaughter of Oscar Lawson of Chicano soul outfit the Royal Jesters, Alonzo reps an updated take on the West Side sound—if the bands were fronted by Nina Simone.

To close the evening, Lee and Cervantes took to the front of the auditorium, backed on the one’s and two’s by Austin’s DJ Chicken George. As Third Root, the pair navigates around John Cage’s classic advice on art and analysis: “Do not create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” The language that occupies Third Root’s newest offering, Revolutionary Theme Music, is almost identical to that of Cervantes’ critical conversations, changing only in rhythm. “Drum beats hypnotize the colonies / overcome layers of society,” Cervantes spurts on “Unified.” With the power of sampling under fierce, informed language, Third Root offers a powerful take on the black and brown interface, bringing light to past projects in their sampled Greg G beats while repping their identity strong on top.

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