Sam Villela: One of San Antonio's most gifted musicians is also a nine-year Army veteran. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Sexto Sol frontman prepares for a military stint in Iraq

The clock is ticking for Sam Villela.

As the end of November approaches, Villela's days are inevitably filled with a daunting series of tasks and and not nearly enough hours to accomplish them. By day, Villela fulfills his responsibilities as an active-duty member of the U.S. Army Reserves. By night, Villela, a gifted keyboardist/singer for the percussive Latin-funk band Sexto Sol, works to lay down all his parts for the band's projected second CD. In his spare moments, he handles paperwork snags with the Army, constructs a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet for his keyboard, and tries to steal a few quality minutes with his wife Beatrice, and their two children.

By nature, Villela, 27, tends to keep himself busy, but there is a special urgency to his schedule these days. On Sunday, December 7, he leaves for Iraq, where he will lead a crew of fellow reservists who will spend their days crushing rocks and making asphalt for road construction. He's not sure when he'll be back, but he expects his Iraqi stint to last at least 18 months.

As the musical mouthpiece for Sexto Sol, Villela projects a utopian soulfulness, a barrio-brotherhood sensibility that feels like a modern, Latino extension of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. As a nine-year Army veteran, however, Villela has learned to separate personal emotions from the demands of a military assignment.

"I feel that I wouldn't have anybody else in my position," Villela says. "Because I know the men and women in my section, and I would be failing them by not going with them. I'd be failing them by saying, 'Hey, have a good time, be careful.' I think that's chickenshit, and that's bullshit, but there's a lot of that going on right now."

Wiry and naturally athletic, with a bronze complexion, slicked-back hair, and a black mustache, Villela exudes a matter-of-fact confidence that never congeals into arrogance. While he's friendly and talkative, you sense that he has little use - or time - for frivolity.

Villela was conditioned at a young age to accept drastic change. The son of an ordained Assemblies of God minister frequently reassigned to different churches, Villela was born in East Los Angeles, but his family moved every three or four years, settling in places like Sacramento, California, and Washington state.

He started playing drums as a toddler, and quickly joined the church band, and was mesmerized by the highly charged Pentecostal atmosphere.

"I know the men and women in my section, and I would be failing them by not going with them."
— Sam Villela
"I spent six days out of the week in church, up to four hours a day," he recalls. "The music was what stood out for me. I was 4 years old when I was able to play accompaniment-level drumming. At 5, I was already drumming full-on in the church at every service. It was a full-size set, so I'd have trouble reaching the pedals. But church was too overwhelming to me for me not to be a part of it."

While still in junior high, Villela twice attended Lionel Hampton's summer jazz clinics, where he was able to match skills with high school players. "I was playing at a pretty high level for my age," he says. "But the support wasn't really there for me at home."

By age 17, Villela felt he had hit a creative plateau as a drummer and became intrigued by the piano. As with the drums, he swiftly taught himself to play, developing a sophisticated, rhythmic style informed by his experience as a musical timekeeper.

When he graduated from high school in Riverside, California, in 1994, Villela saw few options for himself. He couldn't afford to go to college, he didn't think he could make a living playing music, and he found himself clashing with his strict father. He needed to get out of the house, but he didn't know how. So when an Army recruiter came calling, he was highly receptive.

"I knew that I was kind of on a dead-end road," he says. "But I really needed to keep my mind busy. It was something solid. And I knew the paycheck was solid, if not much."

Villela served his basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, working as an artillery surveyor. As a preacher's kid, he had honed the ability to say all the right things, to respond to authority figures with artificial courtesy. But he had also been sheltered within the cocoon of the church, and the Army experience provided a seismic culture shock for him.

"I kind of developed a really bad attitude while I was there," Villela says. "This guy can wake up in the morning, think of whatever shit comes to the top of his head, feed it to you, and you've got to swallow it. I hated that, and that's the one thing I probably hate about the Army to this day. But my attitude back then was, 'To hell with it.'"

While in Oklahoma, Villela met his future wife, who lived in nearby Wichita Falls. In 1996, the Army sent him to South Korea, where he worked with a target acquisition battery. The following year, he and Beatrice married, and in February 1998, while she was six months pregnant, he was assigned to Kuwait.

Villela hated to be separated from his young family. In his four years of service, the Army had given his life a rudder, but it had also given him two concussions, three Humvee wrecks, and five non-judicial punishments for acts of misbehavior. "All of a sudden, I had this life," he says. "I started to feel like I could do something different with myself."

The Army's stretched kind of thin. I can feel worried, but I can't impress my people with that."
— Sam Villela
After completing his tour of duty in Kuwait, Villela joined his wife in San Antonio, and immediately fell in love with the city's warm, easygoing vibe. For the first time in his life, he joined a real group, playing keyboards for a cover band called Latin Spice. But after committing so much of his life to the Army, he found that he couldn't let go of the military. He enlisted in the Army Reserves, and in 2001, became a full-time, active-duty reservist. For the first time, he says, he understood the true meaning of leadership and military commitment.

Along the way, he left Latin Spice for Sexto Sol, because the latter band offered him an outlet for his budding composing skills. In 2000, Sexto Sol - which had begun as an all-instrumental band - began incorporating vocals, and Villela found himself singing onstage for the first time in his adult life.

Early this year, the band released a polished, eponymously titled debut CD, which they recorded over a period of two years, during off-hours at Tejano mecca Blue Cat Recording. While the album showcased the band's percussive grooves, Villela believes studio nervousness prevented the band from fully capturing the energy of their explosive live performances. Now, as they work feverishly to cut basic tracks for a sophomore effort, Villela brims with enthusiasm about the possibilities.

"Not to say we're trying to create something vintage, but we're trying to create something authentic, and just plain sincere. We come out and display a large amount of passion and energy in our show, and I don't think that came through on the first album - mainly because it was our first serious piece of work that we did as a band. I don't think any of us has ever made a sound like this. Now we want to bring it up a notch."

Sexto Sol bassist Greg Goodman says he initially worried that recording a new CD would put too great a strain on Villela, in his final weeks before heading off to Iraq. "I asked him, 'Do you have time to do this?,'" Goodman says. "But it's really important to him."

You get the sense that Villela's excitement about Sexto Sol's new music is one of the things helping him deal with the uncertain world awaiting him in the Persian Gulf.

Villela says: "As service members, we sit there and look and say, 'What role do I have? How can I give?' I look at that big thing going on in the desert as my Super Bowl, and it would be my honor to be chosen to go over there. If we don't look at it that way, our minds won't be on the ballgame.

"It's hard for reservists. They're getting the shit end of the shaft out there. From living conditions on down. From some of the reports we've been getting, the support is very minimal out there. The Army's stretched kind of thin. I can feel worried, but I can't impress my people with that." •