People Who Are Addicted To Music
“Don’t let biology determine who you are,” exclaims David Sandoval, the songwriter and musician behind alt.Cuban-American band, Del Exilio (“From Exile”). “Latin, Cuban, or American identity is not some scientifically determined thing. If you feel it, that’s what you are. You have a choice.”
On PANAMERICANO, Sandoval and his band offer creative, catchy proof to back this joyful claim of self-determination. The indie-inspired, Latin-hearted group chronicles the journey of a young Latino turning toward his roots, wandering through strange cities and remote mountains, across two continents, in search of himself and social justice. The songs follow his progress, thanks in part to the lush but funky touch of producer José Luis Pardo of Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles, moving from funkified anthems (“200%”) to alt.tangos (“Santa Maria del BuenAire”) to earthy Andean explorations (“Peruvian Groovin”).
PANAMERICANO is powered by a strong narrative that runs through the album. It’s the story of boy meets girl, loses girl, loses himself in a new land, then finds the will to spark a revolution back home in the U.S., bringing about the advent of a long-awaited immigration reform (the upbeat and punky “L.A. Revolution”). “I wanted to create a composite character,” Sandoval explains, “a protagonist who could put a human face to the experiences of so many young Latinos, and take what I wanted to say beyond slogans, into something more personal and emotional.”
Each song is a new chapter in the story, and this narrative approach lets Sandoval get at aspects that resonate with his own past—the double consciousness of Cuban-American life, the complexities of cultural identity—and at more universal issues of love, hope, and migration. It has also sparked a “videonovela” version of the same tale, with a different, locally produced music video/short film set in each country represented in PANAMERICANO, adding another dimension to Del Exilio’s storytelling (follow the series via delexilio.com). All set to a vibrant, multifaceted, multilingual, and danceable soundtrack.
Sandoval grew up squarely in the Cuban exile community—the language, music, and vibrant family life—near Union City, NJ (the biggest U.S. hub of Cuban life outside of Miami). As a boy, he was urged to dance and savor music by his piano-playing mother and urged to think outside the box by his artist/philosopher father. Like many second-generation teens, however, Sandoval turned away from the Latin music of his childhood, raging on his guitar with bands in high school and college, or hitting the New York clubs and diving into dancefloor sounds.
Yet one day, Sandoval heard the old-school Cuban superstars of The Buena Vista Social Club and knew he was missing something. He asked his mother to lend him some music—and she handed over her entire library of vintage Cuban classics and hot Fania favorites. “My friends and college roommates were like, ‘Why are you listening to the cha-cha? Are we in a retirement home?’” Sandoval laughs. “But I was in heaven, so I didn’t care.”
True heaven came when Sandoval realized he could combine his two musical passions—Cuban and Latin sounds, and indie and club tracks—while speaking his mind. He found bands like Latin Grammy-winning Los Amigos Invisibles, who shook up the Latin music world and helped launch the Latin indie craze. “I first heard Los Amigos when I was living in New York for the first time, and the club scene and the dance scene were big in my mind. When I heard their mix of rock plus Latin plus dance, it felt like the perfect intersection, this seamless synthesis of all those directions coming together,” recalls Sandoval. “I couldn’t believe it, that that kind of music was possible.”
Little did Sandoval suspect that he’d one day be working with Pardo of the Amigos. After opening for savvy Mexican pop darling Natalia Lafourcade, Sandoval approached Pardo, who had just collaborated with the female singer. Sandoval asked humbly if the Venezuelan star would consider mixing his next album. Pardo declined—but only because he insisted on producing the project, not merely mixing it. Adding a layer of sparkling pop sheen and witty, funky sonics, Pardo brings his signature hip, grooving vibe to Sandoval and bassist Justin Goldner’s thoughtful, dynamic songwriting and to the Latin beats and flourishes of Havana-born conga master Igor Arias.
This mix is a reflection of Sandoval’s vision for a new Latin identity, one that allows you to be 200%–completely American, yet completely committed to your heritage. Sandoval sees, and creates through the album’s hero, a cultural future that allows us to be both, not either/or. “You can identify with something in music, regardless of your genetics,” explains Sandoval. “No matter what your background, you can just have a love and passion for Latin culture. It’s something that can be learned, and that speaks to my 200% concept: Culture is a choice.” And not a zero-sum game.
Choices—cultural and otherwise—echo throughout PANAMERICANO: The protagonist, prompted by an upsetting accusation that he is not “Latin” enough, changes his name back to its Spanish form (Fernando) and sets off on a journey to discover his own dormant culture, a rebuttal of sorts to Guevara’s motorcycle tour. Fernando winds up in Caracas, where he meets and falls for a Cuban diplomat, a young woman playing the political game while secretly fighting for free speech. (Their romance is reflected on “I Got a Mobile heart,” a high-energy duet with Del Exilio female vocalist Sarah Gaffey.)
Yet their ways part, and though she beckons Fernando to follow her as she’s transferred to Buenos Aires, she stands him up. Wandering around at loose ends, Fernando falls in love once again, this time with the city itself. A chance meeting leads him out into the countryside, to speak with a traditional healer (whose role is reflected in the Andean traditional sounds and Quechua lyrics of “Peruvian Groovin”). Fernando eventually finds his fire, a passion for activism (audible on the wry, sarcastic “Tacos”). He returns to the States, sparking a global movement to reform immigration, and finds a haven at last, in South Florida’s perfect balance of Latin and Anglo America (the sunny “Vida Florida”).
The level of detail—and its reflection in the music that propels the tale—evolved as Sandoval worked on his songs and discovered their common thread, with help from writer and playwright friends. Though a complicated concept album of sorts, “A lot of it just flowed naturally, over the course of a year,” muses Sandoval. “I wanted people to connect and identify with the characters so that the message will resonate.”
Del Exilio has long worked to connect with people, to promote this message of cultural openness and better immigration policy, by writing singles to protest Arizona’s draconian immigration law, working with Amnesty International and Voto Latino, and sending cell phones to encourage free expression in Cuban youth, as part of the empowerment initiative of the non-profit Raices de Esperanza. Much like the album’s hopeful conclusion—the happy ending comes for the hero, but for his reformed, more just country—Sandoval and Del Exilio want to speak proudly and joyfully across imagined boundaries. “That’s why it’s pan-American,” Sandoval notes. “There’s a new generation of English-speaking, 20- and 30-somethings who share the experiences I deal with in my music, and that, in part, is who I’m trying to connect with.”MPZ ROCZ