Anglo media is often a daunting and frustrating place for Spanish-speaking Latino artists who are trying to find a foothold for their work. Often, these musicians are forced to navigate marketing strategies and value systems that ignore the historical and social contexts in which much of Latin American art is born. This disconnect has led to the rise of myths such as the recurring “Latin explosion” narrative, which mischaracterizes Latino music and artists as an ephemeral wave, as opposed to something that has always existed, whether English-language media is aware of it or not. However, over at KEXP in Seattle, programs like El Sonido and Immigrant Songs are highlighting and empowering Latin American artists to tell their stories in their own words, regardless of language, country of origin, or musical genre.
DJ Chilly has been one of the driving forces behind KEXP’s Spanish-language music programming, joining the legendary radio station as a volunteer in the year 2000 and eventually building to his own show, El Sonido, in 2012. While climbing the ranks as an audio tech and overnight DJ, Chilly played a mix of hip-hop and soul that spoke to his love of U.S. roots music, a category that, for him, includes diasporic genres like cumbia and salsa. Then, when the host of an African music program retired from the station, the slot was offered to Chilly as an opportunity to spotlight Latino artists.
“My first thought was we could have an all-encompassing format,” Chilly tells Remezcla over Skype. “Old music, new music, traditional styles, and then I thought about how there are plenty of salsa and traditional music stations all over. Seattle even has a banda station. So I wanted it to be more like KEXP, more rock n’ roll, more hip-hop, traditional too, but fresh like KEXP’s usual content, just in Spanish and from Latin America.”
While El Sonido’s programming has helped acclimate listeners in the Pacific Northwest to Spanish-language music, KEXP’s prestigious and highly stylized live sessions are also influencing the careers of emerging artists, as well as the local music scene. The highly coveted opportunity to be featured in a KEXP live session has put Seattle on the tour radar for many Latin American artists who might not usually consider the Pacific Northwest a top priority, due to smaller audiences in comparison to other U.S. cities. This growing influx of Latino music, which Chilly says has spiked over the last five years, has also allowed local bands and artists like Tres Leches, Guayaba, and Terror Cactus to assert themselves in Seattle’s evergreen scene, making space for a plurality of sounds and perspectives.
With the magic and impact of KEXP’s live sessions in mind, we spoke to DJ Chilly about his experience sitting in on some truly spectacular shows. “It’s like being at a concert,” he says, “but you’re not even backstage or in the front row, you’re on the fucking stage.”
Editor’s note: The following interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
“Elia is a cool case because Seattle is not exactly a hot bed for [Latino indie] music. A friend of mine, who is a drummer in a band called Telekinesis, wrote to me saying, ‘Hey, I just started helping my friend Ignacio [Izquierdo] with his band.’ When I heard indie rock in Spanish happening right here in Seattle, I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’
Ignacio had been doing Elia back in Ecuador, but funny enough, he was writing songs in English. When he moved to Seattle and got a tech job, he started making music again, this time in Spanish. It was a great band to have and we featured them on a program called Immigrant Songs, where we talked with immigrant musicians about how that journey affected their music and life. It was really great putting those two things together.”
“Actually, I’ve had Helado Negro twice here at KEXP, and the first session was filmed back at our old studios. That’s probably the most famous session, the one where he had a bigger band and his tinsel [mammals]. He’s one of those artists who can mix English and Spanish through one sentence and make it sound [really] cool.
Then we had him here at the new studios, and that was a much more intimate session. It was very raw and standing right next to him the whole time was nuts. I’m a huge fan.”
“Balún is one of my favorites. I forget how I found them, but I think I heard them a long time ago on Club Fonograma. I got in contact with them and they started sending me tracks as they worked on Prisma Tropical and I would play them on the show. When the full album came out, if not my favorite album of the year, it was definitely in my top five.
I love their mix of dreamy pop with dembow. It’s unique and so well done. So when they came to town, of course I wanted to do a session. They’re super friendly and a tight live band. The stuff they do with teapots and other forms of unconventional percussion; it’s just really unique. Visually, it was such a cool KEXP session to do.”
“I’ve known Gepe for a long time. Great guy with great music, and he totally deserves to be a pop star. Though in Chile he’s probably going to play a huge show, in Seattle, even though people know him, he’s going to end up playing smaller venues for like, 200 people. So it’s cool to see artists who can play stadium shows also know the value in reaching other audiences with smaller performances.
Of course I was very excited to have him on the show since he’s a huge artist and I play his music all the time. And he wasn’t a superstar about it. He was totally down to Earth and very excited to come in to KEXP. And he brought the whole production – dancers and glitter included. That was a really fun one. The visuals and performance for the whole thing were just outstanding.”
“Our new KEXP home is at a big studio in the Seattle center, and though we have the live session room (the one with all the lights), we also have a stage in our big gathering space which houses a café and a record store open to the public every day. People can come and watch our studio sessions – the space is open to about 75 people, but if we put them out in the main room we can have a crowd of hundreds.
That session was actually [Café Tacvba’s] idea. We received an email saying they were coming to Seattle and how they really wanted to do KEXP, but also something special for the listeners. So we set them up on the bigger stage to be able to accommodate a larger audience and a longer performance. Usually, the in-studio sessions are four songs and an interview, lasting between 20 and 30 minutes. They played for about an hour and we had a full audience. It was really exciting, because how often do you get to see Café Tacvba with 200 people?”
“[Tei Shi] was interesting, because she doesn’t fit the usual format of El Sonido, like some of these other artists. I’m a big fan of her music and she has a few tracks in Spanish, so it was enough for the show that I wanted to bring her in.
People often ask how I decide what kind of music to play on my show. I usually break it down in a number of ways: It can be music in Spanish, it can feature Latin rhythms, or it can be from Latin America or Spain. So if you’re a band from Chile and you play rock n’ roll in English, if it’s good, I’ll play it on the show. Because I don’t want to just represent Spanish-language music. I want to highlight Latin America.
I was a big fan of that record [Crawl Space] and she was really sweet to work with. That’s one of the sessions where I was sitting in the room like, ‘Oh my God, she’s singing to me!’”
“I knew [Fran Straube’s] former band, Miss Garrison, and played them on the show a few times and even got to see them live in Chile on one of my trips. A little over a year ago, I was in Chile and saw Rubio perform at a festival called Fluvial, and her set was one of the most hyped of the weekend. She blew me away and I had the chance to see her three times while I was down there, so I definitely wanted to have her on the show.
The session was great. She was wonderful and it all sounded great in the intimate space. For the interview, even though her English is good, she wanted to answer the questions in Spanish. I could understand what she was saying, but I’m not proficient enough to interpret live on the radio, so that is the first video where we used subtitles. A dream of mine is to be able to have all these sessions bilingual for both our English- and Spanish-speaking listeners to understand our interviews. I would even love for our English interviews to have Spanish subtitles. One of my goals is to make [El Sonido] accessible to as many listeners as possible.”
“I’m lucky to have gotten in with those guys early. At that point [Chicano Batman] had made waves out in LA and even toured with Jack White, so they were getting some shine [in 2015]. I loved their sound, which is such a unique twist on soul and psych. I interviewed them for the Immigrant Songs program and they were very adamant about not being pigeonholed as a [Latino] band.
They were doing a small show in Seattle, so we got them in for a session. They were setting up and wearing their signature tux tops, with the frills and everything. I sat down and was just wearing a T-shirt and jeans, so I said, ‘Well, I’m underdressed for this.’ To which they responded, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got another outfit in the van.’ So we stopped the session and they ran outside, got the tux top and put it on me [laughs].”
Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí
“I knew Nidia Góngora from her work with Quantic and Ondatrópica. I’m a huge fan of her voice, but also of how she sticks to that traditional coastal Colombian sound with the marimbas, while [she’s] unafraid to work with electronics and be more modern. She works in schools teaching children about traditional sounds and keeping that heritage alive, but at the same time is open to new mixes and is an amazing spokesperson for Afro-Colombian music.
I don’t do as many traditional sessions, but I really wanted to feature [Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí]. They killed it and her words about the value of these traditions within the community were just amazing. I think she’s a superhero and the set sounded great.”
“A few years ago, I spoke at a conference in Bogotá, and while I was there, I made some friends who took me out to catch a few shows. I met these people who were in a duo named Ságan and went to their show, which happened in a space that looked like a driveway. There were maybe 12 people there and I was having a mind-blowing experience with their very unique electronic pop.
The band had no budget and they had barely played any shows, but we became friends so I was determined to get them to Seattle. My dad works for an airline so we were lucky enough to make tickets happen and we put them up at our house for a week and even got them on the bill for a show alongside Gepe and Elia.
They had a great session, but what’s even cooler is how they were able to use it as a tool to start touring and getting more notice and bookings. It was one of those instances where I felt like I helped put them in the eyes of a lot of people, which is an amazing feeling.”