It Takes a Village
Austin's Own Earth, Wind & Fire, La Tribu
You try interviewing more than a dozen band members simultaneously. Impossible. Way too much going on to make any sense of it all. Even if you wanted to put yourself through the three-ring-circus of interviewing the entire cast of Austin Latin orchestra La Tribu, it would be unprecedented.
When asked if they have ever done an interview with all 14 members present, both saxophonist Carlos Sosa and guitarist David Pulkingham give the same response.
Not only does the duo deliver their answer in unison, they give their monosyllabic response in the same pitch, surely a sign of a cohesive musical outfit. Sosa chuckles.
"We don't do much all together except play," he says.
"It's hard to get everyone there for rehearsal," Pulkingham chimes in.
Somehow, they get together, members of the Groove Line Horns, Blue Construct, Mingo Fishtrap, Lonelyland, Son y No Son, the Scabs, Son Yuma, and Ta Mere performing as La Tribu each Wednesday evening at the venerable (mostly) blues club Antone's.
Instead of attempting the impossible, Pulkingham and founder Sosa have agreed to speak for the rest of the group. But just so no one thinks that these two members are speaking as their own faction, they have a system of providing equal time for equal opinions.
"The way Carlos and I generally do interviews is he says something and then I immediately contradict him," smirks Pulkingham.
How do so many different musicians come together to create this new aural assemblage? It was the crazy dream of Sosa, a saxophonist who also does time as a Groove Line Horn. Sosa dreamt of a very tight, large-as-it-needs-to-be Latin dance orchestra, but one that mixes genres via original music. From day one, it was more about gestalt than size.
"I never really cared about how big the band was," Sosa recalls. "I faced the fact that if I was ever going to be in a band, it was going to be a big one, because I play in a horn section. My favorite bands -- P-Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players -- were huge. I never really cared about size."
One obvious advantage of a large band is the ability to perform more complex and intertwining parts, more harmonizing, more volume, and notes Sosa, more eye candy.
"Whenever I go hear huge bands, visually it's really cool because there's always something to see," he explains. "You never get bored."
La Tribu began as an idea last year between Sosa's Groove Line bandmates and the band Vallejo, who wanted to form a new type of salsa ensemble. Things didn't exactly go as planned. Vallejo got a big Epic deal and had to invest a significant amount of time traveling, giving alms to the gods of touring and promotion.
Austin being the musical magnet it is, other artists were more than willing to jump in the dream pool with the Paraguayan-born Sosa, a crucial one being percussionist Mike Duffy of Denton's Mingo Fishtrap. Shortly after Duffy moved to the River City and hooked up with Sosa, he began seeking other beat-keepers for the band. Soon a full-fledged chain reaction was in effect.
"I picked a couple of people," recalls Sosa, "and those people picked a few other people."
Before you could say tromboner, La Tribu was 14 members strong. For the record, the current lineup is: vocalist/frontman Rey Arteaga, vocalist/guiro player Tito Duffus, guitarist/vocalists Pulkingham and Christian Fernandez, bassist/vocalist Luis Guerra, percussionists Duffy, Carmelo Torres, and Jose Galeano, saxophonists Sosa and Scott McIntosh, trombone players Raul Vallejo and Mark Gonzales, and trumpeters Fernando Castillo and Paul Armstrong.
Naturally, a band this size is bound to experience personnel changes, and La Tribu has had their share, with the piano stool becoming their proverbial Spinal Tap seat.
"The piano players aren't spontaneously combusting," jokes Pulkingham, "but for one reason or another, they don't work out."
Last year, once La Tribu's basic lineup was established, the group started working on its repertoire via practices in Sosa's living room. The spirited Sosa describes how their influences came together.
"We knew we wanted to do Latin stuff, but I come from the funkier part of things," he says. "Some of the other guys are really into other Latin styles like Cuban timba, and some guys are really into big band."
All told, each member brings their influences, chops, and attitudes to the band, a fact made plain when listening to the band's self-produced and -recorded new album, Ataca!, due for release March 3. With the exception of the popular Scabs tune "Tarantula," all the material is original.
Any product from a musical outfit this size has to be a group effort, and Ataca! is no exception. Two members in particular, however, contributed their special talents. Much of the author, co-author, and arranging credits go to saxophonist Scott McIntosh, who created powerfully melodic horn arrangements, "Sylvia" being a fine example. Likewise, gadgetman and studio owner Sosa is largely responsible for the album's breathy, polished sonic wrapping.
That said, La Tribu's live show and recorded work are group efforts. Pulkingham draws a comparison to the solidarity found in team sports like soccer, and adds that the band has "a lot of influences, a lot of diversity, and a lot of strength to draw on." Sosa describes this amalgam's end game.
"If you're going to do anything musically, at least attempt something new, or else you're not going to break any new ground at all."
La Tribu doesn't want to make a name for themselves by being better than everyone else at the game. They want to play the game by their own rules. And neither are stylistic influences all that separates the group from the army of other Latin dance bands.
In many ways, La Tribu has become the prototypical 21st-century band: They book their own shows, write and arrange their own material, record their own albums, handle their own promotion themselves via the Internet and other noncorporate mediums, book their own tours, etc. Given that this DiY cooperative handles nearly all components of the musical process, why would they even want to bother dealing with record companies? They don't really.
"'What can you do for us?'" is what Sosa says is their basic response to record company offers, which unsurprisingly, have already come their way.
Of course, the band can't do every single thing in-house, so La Tribu is open to offers for record distribution and similar tasks Sosa dubs "stuff we can't do for ourselves." If La Tribu doesn't really need a record deal, then why even bother with South by Southwest? As any SXSW-experienced band knows, participation -- short sets, seat-of-the-pants sound checks, little pay -- is often more pain in ass than check in the pocket. What's the point?
"I don't know," answers Sosa matter-of-factly. "There's opportunities. You can meet some cool people, and the Awards Show is a good chance to see people you've haven't seen in a while."
Of course, SXSW isn't all hassle, for as Pulkingham remarks, it's valuable exposure.
"It's nice to play for people who'd never get to see you because they're not from Austin," he says
For many musicians who lend their talent to SXSW, one of the best parts of the whole event is the opportunity to be in the audience. Given La Tribu's myriad influences, there should be plenty to keep them busy when they're not onstage. Two bands they're eager to hear are the acts with whom they'll share the Thursday night showcase at Azucar: Caetano Veloso progeny Moreno Veloso, and the much talked-about Brazilian guitarist now living in New York, Vinicius Cantuária.
"The bill we're sharing is awesome!" enthuses Pulkingham.
And what lies in store after SXSW? They'll need to tour to support Ataca!, and to do so the band has a monthly gig set up at Houston's Satellite Lounge, with other possibilities for a short European jaunt. Sosa plans a dance remix of Ataca!, as well, and there are already plans to start a new album in the summer.
Regardless of what the future may hold for this musical brigade, you can bet your expense account they'll do it on their own terms. Not only is there strength in numbers, there's success. Especially when a band, of any size, is as cohesive as La Tribu. You can tell by the way they describe themselves.
"It's a tribe, a family," says Sosa, referring to their name.
Pulkingham goes him one better.
"It's a whole damn village up there!"
La Tribu's SXSW showcase is Thursday, March 15, at Azucar. Time TBA.