I heard the man behind me turn to the woman beside him and ask, “What’s this now?” On the stage the unusual setup was immediately striking. The guitar was missing, there were too many drums, and there was no recognizable hierarchy. The musicians stood in line and on par with one another, nothing alike and yet almost interchangeable as the man playing the saxophone picked up the bass, the man formerly playing the bass took up the keyboards, and the woman once at the keyboards belted out lyrics from behind a set of timbales. “That’s how we write, too,” Michael Anderson, a gifted saxophonist, explained later while drummer Davey Blackburn, vocalist Liza Ortiz, and her bass player brother Claudio nodded their heads. “No one on their own, all of us together in a room and then we keep going until we find the song, and then we stop.”
On the stage Claudio began plucking the strings of the bass guitar and bobbing his head. Then, sound burst out of Liza’s throat like a sleek flock of multicolored birds, while Davey and Michael built nests for them out of bent notes and tamed beats. And the man behind me whispered, “Wow.” The band members looked at one another, smiling and playing as they spoke in a cross-wire of language and sound until the song came to a close with a ruffle of feathers and a round of applause. Then, again, “Ready?” Claudio asked Liza. “Yeah,” she replied, and, “Dios,” she sang atop a synthesized melody and a bare-hand conga beat, “No le dijo a Adán que se subiera al altar.” English, spoken and whispered, and then Spanish, hummed, chanted, and sung.
During a brief moment of silence between songs, I jotted down a few notes and looked over my shoulder to find the man and the blond woman accompanying him still standing there, holding hands and staring at the stage as Liza wrapped her hand around the microphone, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Soy la,” she sang in a lone, spiraling, a cappella verse, “Reina-a-a-a . . .” like opening floodgates, like bending the bars of a cage. “De mis . . .” No bass, no drums, no sax. Just the snaking stem of curling sound sprouting like ringlets of ivy through cracks in the rubble, “Dolo-o-e-res.”
Later, I asked them if they ever worried whether choosing to sing in Spanish would limit their audience, and there was no pause, no brief moment, no glance, and no hesitation. Just one word, instant and in unison, “No.”
“Reina de mis . . . Reina de mis . . .” And it struck me suddenly, as I stared down at my notebook at my messy handwriting, how without having given it any thought, I’d automatically jotted down Spanish lyrics in English words. “Queen of my . . . Queen of my . . .” A force of habit in a country where I am sometimes discouraged from speaking in my native tongue.
“Really?” I had to ask again. “You never worry?”
“Well, what can I tell you?” said Helder Serralde, the leader of Orquesta Mayor, one of the first and best-established bands in the Charlotte Latin music scene. “There aren’t that many of us.”
I’d called him because I wanted to understand why Samuel K. Byrd, in his book The Sounds of Latinidad, had called Charlotte a “thriving music scene . . . notable for the diversity of the musical styles being performed.” I wanted to understand how, after having lived in five different cities across the western and midwestern United States, it was finally in the South that I found a sound that felt like home. And I wanted to ask, “Why in North Carolina of all places?”
And while I listened to Helder, I thought I could hear Mexico in his accent like the distant echo of a conch-shell ocean. Which made me listen closely to Claudio’s and Liza’s own accents, try to pin them down to a corkboard map like butterflies still beating their wings. And though I could not identify their accents right away, it was also obvious that their Spanish was not my own. Not the flat accent of the Colombian capital, not the hurried mumble of my Bogotá vernacular. Theirs has a rounder edge, a twinge of the Caribbean and the soft infusion of very early exposure to the English language that I sometimes lack. But when I first heard them speak, it felt like the record-scratch skip of a missed heartbeat.
“We’ve all had to work very hard to make it what it is,” Helder said. And as I heard his voice over cellular static, I scrolled through headlines on my phone wondering how a new band like Chócala would fare against old prejudices. Then Helder’s voice pulled me back, “La Musica Latina,” he said, “en Ch-Ahr-Loht, is here to stay.”
“It’s hard to say why,” Helder said when I pressed him on the reason. “Sometimes . . .” He took his time, considered the question. “I think sometimes we don’t appreciate our own music as much, you know? Maybe, it’s a little bit how we’ve been trained to think anything we make must always be worse than anything made in the USA. You know?”
And I nodded. “I do.”