On ‘Once Once,’ Juárez and El Paso’s The Chamanas Tell a Tale of a City Split in Two

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One of the first things you learn when encountering the music of The Chamanas is that they are from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the towns in Texas and Chihuahua that are practically two sides of the same coin. One is riddled with violence, and the other is a sleepy gateway to a country full of contradictions and unrest. The band says they are trying to build a “metaphorical bridge” between the two cities and the countries they are located in. From a cultural perspective, they’re doing just that in the grandest way possible.

The band plays a style of music that could not have come out of any other place. They mix and match traditional folk music from Mexico; the melodies, rhythms, and arrangements sometimes recall huapangos and folk songs such as “La Sandunga” and “La Llorona.” Sometimes their blueprints are not just rooted in ancestral grounds, since on occasion, they recall styles from the 60s and 70s, especially Spanish pop singers like Jeanette and OTI-worthy epic ballads. The Chamanas are not a throwback outfit at all, though; their instrumentation and production tend to be very electronic and contemporary, which makes for an exciting combination all around.

Once Once, their debut album, begins with one of the songs that has brought them some well-deserved attention: their cover of Portugal. The Man’s “Purple, Yellow, Red, and Blue.” It’s sung in Spanish, propelled by a Mexican style waltz, and features synths playing a harp-like arpeggio. Just from this song, you know what the album has in store for you. Their seamless fusion of genres works like a charm, a more tech-friendly take on the style of old Carla Morrison or recent Natalia Lafourcade, or perhaps like Centavrvs blending their extremes into a melting pot instead of contrasting them. They are probably everything in between these examples, which might help you get an idea of what to expect.

While their sound is original, and that alone is worthy of your attention, their songs are also well-written. “Maldad” is a perfect example of a haunted folk song that could have been passed down for centuries by word of mouth if it wasn’t for the lush digital arrangements. “Alas De Hierro,” on the other hand, has lushness to spare, but the melody and delivery are so dramatic that it could have been a hit for José José in the 70s. The title track treads similar territory. “El Cuaca” is another number that benefits from dramatic melodies, but does so in a more folky manner. Their songs are all packed with so much ambition that even though they barely last more than four minutes apiece, it feels like there’s so much more. If there’s one flaw to be found here, it’s that sometimes their songs drag on. Luckily, that’s not the case with every tune here, and all of them are winners to begin with.

Some of the highest points of Once Once come along late in the game. “Neblina” is definitely a contender for the album’s best song; it’s a tender ballad that encapsulates the feeling of the whole record. Even though the track has unusual arrangement and instrumentation, it remains twee, poppy, playful, and easily relatable. The closer “Desde Ayer” is also a highlight, an epic loungey number that reminds me of a less brainy, more accessible and emotional Stereolab.

The way that the Chamanas blend musical languages from many places and traditions – both old and new – makes them interesting, but their connection ultimately comes from their songwriting talents and heart. At the core of their music, there’s a will to connect two cities. Coming from a border town split in two, they’re products of a polyglot atmosphere, but their songwriting skills and raw emotion make them the perfect emissaries of reason and acceptance. At the very least, they show that adopting the best part of their surrounding cultures – no matter how contradictory – can only bring good things.

Update 9/4/2015 at 4:50pm: A previous version of this article stated that Ciudad Juárez was located in the Mexican state of Nuevo León. Ciudad Juárez is located in Chihuahua.