found my place amongst a pale crowd of families and fans in an open field, while Chócala set up on the stage. “Okay, okay.” They checked their mics, and each other’s faces, while I scrolled through headlines on my phone. “Okay, yes, I think that’s it.” Cages, I read, shithole countries, barely human. I put my phone down and stared at congas and timbales, animals, rapists, and Latin faces like my own, good people too, about to sing on a North Carolina stage. “Here we go!”
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.”
After the Chócala show we sat at a table under an unrelenting summer sun. “Well,” Claudio said as he squinted at the July sky, “you never know what the crowd is going to be like.” People all around us drank pink lemonade and sorted their trash into recycling containers. “Just recently,” he said, turning back to his bandmates, “we played in this place, right? You guys remember. We drove into this town that was just covered in pro-Trump signs.” A pause as if drawing breath between verses. “You guys remember, right?”
“Mm-hm.” Michael and Davey nodded as I pictured a van full of musicians full of immigrant songs driving into a town full of anti-immigrant sentiment.
“Yeah,” they answered, “We remember.” I imagined a pulsing crowd growing around them and felt myself gripping my pen tighter and tighter as my mind conjured the image of people packed closely together, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, as they stepped on each other’s feet and crowded around a small band on a small stage. I imagined feeling the heat of stage lights, rallies, and rages.
“You wouldn’t think so,” Claudio said with a smile, “but they partied harder than anyone.”
In my mind the light was dim and the room hot, sweat ran down pale faces and someone spilled warm beer on a sticky bar floor. The lights came on, red, and blue, and blinding white. A stage like a raft on a sea of lawn signs, bumper stickers, and baseball caps. Breath was held in dive-bar silence, and a hand around a microphone, around a drumstick, around the neck of a bass guitar, until finally, finally, Liza’s voice split the darkness.
“Though,” I said to Helder, “there is salsa, right?” And I heard him chuckle on the other end.
Salsa, perhaps the best-known and most beloved of the Latin music genres. The sound that pays Helder’s bills, to which he tunes his trumpet, without which I cannot imagine Christmas or remember home, was made right here in the USA. Cobbled together in the bars of New York City in the 1960s, and as Helder tells it, “made by people like us.”
“Immigrants,” I said.
“And children of immigrants,” Helder replied as I imagined Celia Cruz upon a stage, in sequin red and copper curls. “It’s the magic of this country.” Helder spoke over the image in my head of Celia singing immigrant songs from her immigrant home in Nueva York. “It’s how it was made.”
“But, maybe,” Helder said, “we’re just playing for ourselves. We have a hunger for these countries we don’t always get a chance to go back to. Sometimes ever. Maybe that’s what los estadounidenses,” the U.S. audience, “connects to, you know?”
A pause. A deep breath and a Southern summer day. “Like . . .” I start, “not the longing for the countries sung about?”
“But . . . the longing itself?”
“This is a country founded by immigrants, right?”
“So maybe that part of the culture, being somewhere and missing somewhere else. Maybe?”
“Maybe,” Helder tried again, “that is what it is.”
But I keep pressing the matter. Asking why, and how, and Isn’t it just a bit contradictory, all this longing to long feeling finally like home? And Why North Carolina of all places? He simply says, “I don’t know. Maybe, maybe . . .” As if he were playing his trumpet around my question, improvising a melody, mixing jazz and Son Cubano, braiding stray strands of stubborn weeds. “Maybe it is a contradiction.”
“Salsa,” someone once told me, “couldn’t have been born anywhere else but here.” A beat in one direction, a tune in the other, fading, fusing, and flowing through the cracks in the rubble. “Where else could all those immigrants have met to make it?”
In a YouTube video of a Chócala show, the stage is bathed in red light with specks of cyanotic blue. The camera is set diagonally from the stage, meant to record the performance and nothing else, but as the band begins to play, it also captures a string of people passing by on their way to the front of the stage. Shoulders shimmying and hips swaying to the beat of Davey’s drums.
“Yeah, we get that question a lot,” Claudio said when I asked him to describe their sound. “It’s like . . .” Seeming almost to grit his teeth, almost to roll his eyes. “Well, I guess I have to use the word ‘fusion’ now, don’t I?”
“You don’t like that word?” I said and watched him shake his head.
“What it is, really,” he clarified, “is free. In our old band, we had to follow all these rules; it had to sound like these other things, invented by these other people. Now, there’s none of that. Now we’re free.”
At the close of the Chócala show, I made a note at the bottom of a page of my notebook about Claudio’s tropical shirt and how he smiled and danced around to the songs he’d asked his sister to write for their new band. It was a small stage, but the size of it didn’t seem to matter. Claudio bobbed his head and closed his eyes, Davey whaled on a pair of congas, Michael bent saxophone notes as if the heat of his fingers were melting the brass, and Liza’s voice filled every inch of the fenced-in field.
“We are almost out of time,” Claudio said, leaning in to his microphone. “I just want to say a couple of quick things before we go.” Tiger stripes and mermaid scales dripped down the faces of sunburnt children. “Thank you so much for coming to see us, and,” silence and cracks beginning to spread across conch-shell spirals, “immigration reform matters, so pay attention.” A second, maybe two, then, “Okay, let’s go!” A euphoric flock of sound like sleek birds coming to roost.
“See,” I heard Helder’s voice as if through radio static, “for most of them our music is a blank slate, it’s just sound.” An unknown language, a featureless face. “They can project anything onto it: if it sounds happy, then it’s happy, if it’s sad, then it’s sad.”
“That’s the contradiction?”
“It is whatever they bring to it, or don’t bring to it. But for us, we have less of a choice. We understand the words, we have to deal with that, with every memory attached. Those who understand sometimes won’t listen, and—”
“—those who listen sometimes don’t understand.”
Silence between cell towers. I tapped my fingers gently on the keyboard and imagined a trumpet player on the other end, tapping his fingers on a table. Then static turned to words. Helder telling me that sometimes he missed his country, his home, and his former sense of self. “Just the other day,” he said, “I heard a song in Spanish, and I—” he paused. “It can be hard sometimes.”
And I nodded, as if he could see me. As if all of this weren’t obvious. As if right then neither one of us knew what was happening at the border to people like us. It can be hard sometimes. As if we were walking barefoot over broken shells, as if we hadn’t listened to the reports of family members sent back and held back, of lost records and found recordings, of children crying in Spanish, in a cage, on a tape. So, “Helder,” I said, “do you ever wonder about how to keep at it in the midst of all this . . . this . . .?” I stuttered as if I’d run out of English, of Spanish, of language and ways to make sense. “While all this keeps happening?”
“Hm.” Helder muttered from the other end.
“What I mean is, do you ever ask yourself how to continue making art while everything that’s happening to ‘people like us’ keeps happening to ‘people like us’? Like, do you wonder how do you make your point, or what’s the point?”
I read the news in the morning, and before I start questioning myself, I press PLAY on the recording app on my phone. “Truth is, we don’t ask ourselves ‘what is the point of making art right here, right now?’” Helder’s voice rings in my ear, and I hum Liza’s song like an echo in a shell. “It’s what we do,” he says. “It’s where we live.” And I know what’s coming next, but I need to hear it again. “I’m not worried about it. People are listening; the music’s here to stay.”
“Ojos Bobolos” by Chócala is a North Carolina Music Issue bonus track.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.