Nemegata's Folkloric Futurism Boosts Austin's Budding Colombian Music Scene
Local trio powers up its magnetic roots fusion in new release Voces
It might get loud. Like, really loud. In a 15-by-15-foot acoustically padded and carpeted box at Space ATX in South Austin, Colombian trio Nemegata finally finishes loading in and faces off.
Fabián Rincón runs a drumstick up and down the scratcher on his cymbal stand as César Valencia picks up the bass and Víctor-Andrés Cruz stokes melody out of his Telecaster. The drummer beats the toms as the guitar thickens, deepens. Suddenly, the space fills with sound. Touch it, kiss it. Come taste the band, once beckoned the Seventies.
Rincón and Cruz grin broadly at each other then look up and around – as if searching for the elephantine resonance in the room. Valencia's bass shakes. Life inside a vintage stereo speaker bristles and buzzes.
For seven, eight minutes, Nemegata booms without transitioning the riff into song. Tone dialed in, however, they're itching.
"Click o no click?"
"Cocina lo." Cook it.
Electrifying South American folklore, amplifying West African tribalism, and broiling Caribbean rhythms, the local triumvirate powers up its magnetic roots fusion. Cruz sings, eyes closed, red sneakers resting on his wah pedal.
Outside on this hot, early August day, cicadas buzz. Inside, the practice space walls emit Western swing, Brazilian psych, New Orleans pianism, and Margaret Brown's Townes Van Zandt doc, Be Here to Love Me. Mugshots (MLK, Jerry Lee Lewis, Huey Newton), home altar talisman (AC/DC), a miles-an'-miles drum case (Meat Puppets), and an ancient Austin Aqua Fest poster join the Clash, Os Mutantes, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Roky Erickson iconography.
Behind door No. 3, Nemegata continues rehearsing sophomore full-length Voces, but don't let the decibels fool you. Unearthed earlier this month on Spaceflight Records, this isn't rock, post-punk, or even blues-derived. This is Abya Yala.
Cumbia on Mars
"The Guna, an Indigenous culture between Panama and Colombia, they call the whole continent Abya Yala," explains Cruz near the close of a three-hour summit in my office at UT's School of Journalism & Media. Every Nemegata rendezvous occurs entirely in Spanish. "It means 'fertile land' or 'fertile blood.' Years ago, Indigenous pueblos agreed to adopt that name – to decolonize. Because, of course, 'America' comes from Amerigo Vespucci.
"Many people, we've adopted it too. So, South America, America – no. This is Abya Yala."
"Ah-beeah yah-lah," pronounces Cruz later over text. As Chronicle'd by first-responding ethnomusicologist Thomas Fawcett some 10 weeks into the pandemic (revisit "Colombian Folkloric Post-Punks Nemegata Drop Four-Star Debut," July 3, 2020), Nemegata's maker originates from Cogua near Bogotá. Hector, his father, studied chemistry, played in bands, and ultimately bought an estate in the páramo, an Andean region sustaining a tropical ecosystem. Forests, thermal waters, boutique wildlife, and "mushrooms as big, red, and spotted as Alice in Wonderland" all bloomed.
"Like paradise," manages Cruz, finishing a taco.
Coupled with his father's collection of strummers – the 12-string Colombian tiple, bandola, requinto, cuatro – childhood for Cruz manifested idyllic until country and countryside devolved into a war zone between urban guerillas and paramilitary squads. Banks failing, the paterfamilias evacuated his family to Palm Bay, Florida, in 1999. B-o-r-i-n-g, but safe.
In 2005, Cruz lit out for Berklee College of Music, where he tore through a bachelor's degree in three years. Drummer since 8 and veteran on the gaita, a Spanish bagpipe, he now added saxophone and congas, jamming jazz between Boston and New York. The latter gifted him a triple crown in 2016: future spouse Beatriz Lopez from Pereira, Colombia; solo project Nemegata; and fellow gaitero Jaime Ospina, who moved from Bogotá to Austin that same year and today fronts homegrown Colombian funk powerhouse Superfónicos.
Cruz and his wife relocated here two years later. Today, Cruz's whole family lives locally, as do his in-laws. Arriving with 2020's Hycha Wy already composed, he recorded it with bandmates Rincón y Valencia only to see COVID take down the host of international festival bookings meant to promote it. Undeterred, the three wrote its follow-up during lockdown.
Where the first album coiled Afro-Latin psychedelia around Indigenous traditionalism, Voces unleashes a retro-futuristic tempest by tapping the Southern Hemisphere roots matrix.
"Cumbia en Marte," which kicked off their Space ATX practice, throbs a Wagnerian synth figure, machete riffs, and spirit possession percussion underlying a lyric poem about stardust denizens who seed cumbias throughout the universe: "Ellos caminaron por todas las tierras de Abya Yala/ Siguieron sembrando semilla, palabra y consciencia."
"They walked through all the lands of Abya Yala/ Continuing to plant seed, word, and consciousness."
Profound and spellbound, your abuela's cumbia just jumped time: 2075, 3025, 10,050.
Guitarist for the Grammy-winning Grupo Fantasma, Beto Martinez also co-leads spinoffs Brownout and Money Chicha, plus constitutes one-fourth of Latin supergroup Caramelo Haze alongside Cruz. At his Lechehouse Music studio in Buda, Martinez co-produced Voces with the band and Juan "El Mono" Alvarez. After a short break for the birth of Cruz and his wife's first child, the record wrapped in late 2021.
"I met Victor through Kiko Villamizar a few years back," Martinez emails back in an all-in-one burst. "I knew him as an amazing percussionist and gaitero in the Colombian tradition, but then I heard he had a band called Nemegata and I made it a point to see their first show in town at Hotel Vegas [in 2019].
"I left there completely blown away and wondering how I could convince them to let me join the band or at the very least record them. Turns out Victor was a big fan of the Tascam 388 8-track machine I have in my studio, so he agreed to come and record their last record, Hycha Wy, with me. For that one, I recorded and mixed, but did not explicitly produce. That is when I also met Mono, Vic's brother-in-law, who assisted on those sessions and recorded a lot of the vocals.
"Those sessions were exciting and raw. They had been playing those songs live and came in with energy, ferocity, and basically laid them down as is. The record reflects that and I'd call it primarily a rock record, even a punk record.
"Afterward, Victor and I decided to continue working together with the intention of being more spontaneous and less calculating with the whole process of creating music. We began meeting once a week in late 2019 and eventually laid down the tracks that would become [our duo] El Bigtoe y El Guambito, of which we've released a 45. Of course the pandemic eventually put a halt to that. However, sessions initiated by Alex Chavez in summer 2020, to which I invited Victor, became Caramelo Haze and proved extremely fruitful and almost effortless.
"He wanted to recapture that spirit for the next Nemegata effort.
"The process differed from the Hycha Wy sessions for all those reasons. We spent days and weeks, with me now on board as producer, writing and experimenting. Their ideas were more fleshed out than the Caramelo Haze sessions, but we refined and reworked the material and experimented with sounds and techniques with a free hand. Nothing was too weird or outside the scope. Because of this and because of the times, I feel [Voces] was a huge leap from the raw capture of Hycha Wy.
"There's growth and depth in the compositions, the lyrics, the sounds. It's a giant leap in all respects."
El Tambor te Liberó
Fabián Rincón reached the shores of Austin first – or rather, his older brother and mother did. Born, raised, and educated in Bogotá, the drummer waited seven years for paperwork to clear, but 2023 marks a decade here in the capital. He holds up an iPhone photo of his daughter in a quinceañera dress back in Colombia. Beat keeper also, she hopes to relocate here after high school. Per Hycha Wy banger "El Llamado," with its refrain "El tambor te liberó" ("The drum set you free"), drums bond Nemegata and even their families.
"My first instrument was the double bass in college, when the orchestra already had a drummer," offers Nemegata's sanguine stickman.
"I love playing bass, but now I'm also becoming a drummer," nods Valencia, who grew up sequestered inside of a culture-loving household in the infamous drug capital of Medellín. "Drummers in this city, I've never seen better. There's multitudes everywhere – in jazz, Colombia – but drummers fusing to their instrument like here in Austin, there aren't."
"Austin is home to a budding Colombian music scene," attests Superfónicos bandleading bassist Nicolas Sánchez Castro. "Superfónicos, Kiko Villamizar, Nemegata, and La Frenetika all have members from Colombia and perform music with heavy Colombian influence. Also Wache, focusing on traditional music from the Caribbean coast. Recent transplants including Edwin 'El Indio' Hernandez have enriched Colombian power within city limits."
"I was working with Kiko Villamizar, who's an important figure of Colombian music in Austin," confirms Superfónicos' Jaime Ospina. "We'd recorded an album in December  and he was thinking about touring. He needed a gaita player and someone who played maracas. I called Víctor.
"What I see in Víctor above all is dedication," continues the Bogotá native when prompted. "He understands music from many different angles."
Black Pumas tamer Adrian Quesada employs Cruz as a percussionist in his Jaguar Sound band.
"Beto Martinez put Nemegata on my radar," he emails. "What struck me most was not only did Victor come with deep knowledge of Latin rhythms, in particular Colombian styles, but he was so forward thinking musically as well. People that study traditions in music tend to get stuck there as it can be all-consuming, but he was as equally adventurous as he was traditional."
"At university, I had maestros," says Rincón. "They didn't just know about music. They showed you. They guided you. My maestro, who gave me drum lessons all along the way, his name is Urian Sarmiento. He's well-known there as an expert on traditional Colombian music. Víctor is like him, a maestro. He's a monster drummer, but when we talk about maestros, it's also how Víctor is with people."
"Humble," agrees Valencia.
When the tall, regal reggae bassist, who played South by Southwest in that intersection year 2016, sought outside drum instruction, Cruz connected him with maestro Emilsen Pacheco back home.
"So the dynamic of working with Víctor is that: LOTS of learning," says Valencia. "Go study, learn, practice. Sit down and master it. It's been a challenge for me as a musician to play in Nemegata."
Joder. Forgot my earplugs! Loudness ensues.
Labor Day notched, the corner of Dean Keeton & Guadalupe whirs students, traffic, and the G.B. Dealey Center for New Media, which houses KUT/KUTX, wherein Nemegata summons spirits on a stifling Thursday afternoon. Only two engineers and a pair of photographers (plus a writer) witness the live set. On Voces' A-side, "Fondo," "Quiero Llegar," and "Pasos" resound.
Riotous pandemic anthems "Ni Con Palo ni Con Bala" and "Aguantando," millennial Kid A jitters "El Brinco," and the ghost of Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" ("Volá Colibrí") – crowned by native incantation "Wa Chyzha" – Voces restarts what Hycha Wy plotted for 2020 on a far hotter bed of coals. Cruz waxes professorial about the musical DNA shot through the new material – stylings including bullerengue, champeta, Tuareg music, even John Coltrane – plus picking maestros who inspired him: Abelardo Carbonó, Pablo Flores, Atahualpa Yupanqui.
"Right now, there's a lot of youth learning traditional music, looking for other sounds – in all places: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela," ticks off Cruz. "Some on the jazz side, many on the hip-hop side. Indigenous people, generations now, make rap in those languages: Quechua, Aymara, Mayan. People talking about the territory, the community, ancestry. You can't detach from those things. I haven't heard anyone making music in Aymara or Quechua that aren't addressing that. Not all of it all the time, but they're not singing, 'Let's get drunk in the club and I'll kiss you, then we'll take drugs.'
"They're talking about resurrecting antiquity, heroes and heroines, leaders – things that happened. There are artists in Peru doing that. Recently, I heard a group from Bolivia who do rap in Quechua. In Mexico also, youngsters play jarana, while at the same time experimenting with synthesizers. In Puerto Rico too."
So we'll call Nemegata's synthesis of all those musics "Abya Yala"?
"No, we're not going to call it 'Abya Yala,'" laughs Cruz. "But maybe something like 'abyalismo.'"
Nemegata celebrates sophomore full-length Voces with a Waterloo Records in-store performance on Friday, Oct. 6, at 5pm. The trio then debuts at ACL Fest on Saturday, Oct. 14, at noon during Weekend Two, and Caramelo Haze plays Sunday, Oct. 15, at 3:15pm on the BMI stage.