Unlike most party bands, Los Nahuatlatos (nah-wah-TLAH-toes, meaning “speakers of nahuatl,” and a term wrongfully used by Spanish conquistadores to describe interpreters of different native tongues) is a socially conscious San Antonio-based alternative fusion band including four members of former SA band Xemilla. They want you to dance and think, but, honestly, it can be hard to think when the trombone and drums are so damn loud.
In the first of three sets, Joaquin Abregó’s drums (tightly adjusted to sound like timbales) and the trombone of Dan Cline (sitting at the bar, since the seven-piece band couldn’t fit on Saluté’s tiny stage) were annoyingly louder than the rest of the band, overshadowing Nicolas Valdez’s accordion, which was run through a delay pedal to give it a slight echo effect. Valdez is perhaps the most poetic, subtle accordion player in San Antonio, and the adventurous, extended grooves he and guitarist Pablo Mancías come up with are the band’s best feature, allowing members to shine individually while keeping the collective energy intact. In short: Valdez’s accordion deserved to be heard.
Musically, the band likes to structure their songs (mostly originals) in sections. While opener “La Migra” is a straight fast cumbia, “Tierra sin fin” (Never-ending Land) is a polka that puts Valdez toe-to-toe with the trombone first, the guitar later. The middle part jumps to a neo-huapango and a ska, before landing back in polkaland. “Otro mundo” (Another World) is a cumbia-reggae sung by Mancías in Spanish with a hip-hop middle in English by Itzli, who is a decent rapper but whose flow suffers when he switches to Spanish. Four of the band members sing, but none of the three who sang individually during the first set are real singers; the band’s vocals only worked during the four-part choruses.
“Para Elisa” is a cover in name only. Beethoven’s piano melody from “For Elise” is transferred to guitar by these musical translators, the song rushed into cumbia with Mancías’ solos going psychedelic for long enough to inspire some to start dancing (despite Abrego’s unbearably loud timbal solo). In “Querida” (Dear), the band rips from ranchera-banda to hip-hop to polka, and the ska in “La lechuza” (The Owl) goes Afro-Cuban with an uneventful bongo solo by Valdez.
To be fair, Los Nahuatlatos is actually a nine-piece band, but on this night artist (and Nico’s brother) Vincent Valdez had to play trumpet in a jazz gig elsewhere, and guitarist Cuauhtli Reyna was in Colombia. Even with a partial lineup, Los Nahuatlatos — tentatively releasing their CD debut in October — is a genuine, ambitious band with the heart and mind in the right place. However, on this night, they suffered from poor vocals and a failure to respect Valdez’s magic squeezebox.