Colombian Folkloric Post-Punks Nemegata Drop Four-Star Debut
Local trio finds the fire of the jaguar
On the last Friday in February, one week before the city of Austin canceled South by Southwest in the face of COVID-19, Victor-Andres Cruz stepped onto the ramshackle stage at East Austin outpost Sahara Lounge draped in a shawl and peering through round-rimmed glasses.
"Welcome to the imaginary world of Nemegata," he intoned mysteriously.
That introduction to the local Colombian power trio nods subtly to both the magical realism of fellow countryman Gabriel García Márquez and a dream of new realities. Months later, amidst sustained uprisings in the streets and a pandemic with no expiration date, society imagines a better life. A world where people don't cram into cubicles, where municipalities defund police departments, and where Black lives matter.
"It comes from conversations we used to have about the future," explains Cruz, the group's bandleader, singer, and guitarist who moved to Austin from New York in 2018. "When I was in New York, I would have these conversations with my friends, Colombian musicians who were part of Combo Chimbita, M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, Bulla en el Barrio. That's where I come from, that group of musicians. They championed the idea of tropical futurism.
"What's the Latin American future? What do we imagine as the future on our own terms, based on our own roots, our own cosmologies, traditions, and culture? They were big fans of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, which has sort of this same philosophy."
That ideology manifested as the band launched the swirling psychedelic cumbia of "Si Landero Fuera a Marte," a woozy madcap track casting Colombian cumbia icon and accordion master Andrés Landero (1931-2000) as a galactic space traveler visiting Mars. In Spanish, the song imagines his arrival fulfilling a Martian prophecy. The cosmos-crossing campesino needs no spacesuit, relying instead on "la ciencia del Indio," Indigenous knowledge.
Nemegata joins a thriving local Latin scene with a growing Colombian contingent that includes tropical funk ensemble Superfónicos, troubadour Kiko Villamizar, and roots revivalists Wache. Drummer Fabian Rincón touched down here seven years ago from Bogotá, while bassist César Valencia hails from Medellín and relocated to Austin after playing SXSW in 2016. Cruz spent his childhood in the small town of Cogua outside of Bogotá before moving to the States with his family as a pre-teen.
"Memories of my childhood are of crystal clear waters in the mountains and I hadn't seen anything like that in the States until I got to Austin," he says. "This is the closest I've felt to Colombia."
The band draws its name from the rural mountain neighborhood where Cruz's great-grandparents lived.
"In the countryside, all the farms are divided like neighborhoods called veredas," he explains. "The coldest part of the town up in the mountains was called Nemegata but was later changed to San Francisco. I would always hear that name as a kid, Nemegata. Later, I began studying the Indigenous language of the region [Muisca] and discovered it meant 'fire of the jaguar.'
"Every time I went back, I realized there was so much Indigenous tradition that I didn't realize I was part of. It's that spirit, that ancestral memory, reaching out to you, calling you. It's been there the whole time, but you didn't realize it because you hadn't cracked the code yet."
This month, Nemegata released debut album Hycha Wy, another Muisca phrase meaning "I am," either in the past or present tense depending on the context. The LP mines the tension between past and present, deeply rooted in tradition without ever being tethered to it. Hypnotic chants and traditional Colombian rhythms conjure ancestors as searing psych rock guitar and explosive percussion propel the project forward.
"I'm interested in psychedelia from the Sixties and Seventies," says Cruz, "but the way South Americans and people in the Caribbean and Africa interpreted that concept: Peruvian chicha, Brazilian Tropicália, Kompa from Haiti, sounds from Nigeria, Pop Makossa from Cameroon, desert blues from the Sahara. Those sounds have been filtered through these cultures and there's a language that's been created from the results of that."
The bulk of Hycha Wy grew out of sessions at Lechehouse, home studio of Beto Martinez, guitarist for local scene stalwarts Grupo Fantasma, Brownout, and Money Chicha.
"I met Victor playing with Kiko [Villamizar] and he had such a full vocabulary with folkloric music," remembers Martinez. "After he moved here and formed the band, I saw their first gig with Superfónicos at Hotel Vegas and was blown away. I knew right away I wanted to work with them."
Cruz concurred when he learned Lechehouse boasted a Tascam 388, a warm-sounding analog tape recorder and mixer he used in NYC with members of Combo Chimbita. Martinez notes that Cruz's encyclopedic knowledge of traditional music, Valencia's reggae background on bass, and Rincón's aggressive drumming style make for a particularly potent elixir:
"They have such a unique voice," adds Martinez. "They're all so fluent in folkloric music, but they also have this hard rock edge that makes it distinct. There's something trance-like in their music, a spiritual vibe. They have these extended hypnotic build-ups, but then they come in with all that power.
"They're a real power trio, like the Nirvana of Colombian rock folklórico."
For Valencia, Nemegata honors the music they grew up with and propels it forward.
"We just want to bring glory to those masters," he affirms. "Like Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, they're an institution. People don't know this music, even in Colombia. We're just reinventing what we listened to every day in bars, in trucks, in parties, and with our families."
"I love that music with all my heart, so when I play with Nemegata it's like I'm home."
Let Hycha Wy maul you at www.nemegata.com.