El Paso's Scene Embraces the Border City's Layered Identities

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El Paso's Scene Embraces the Border City's Layered Identities

El Paso is embracing its border identity and building a new sense of community with festivals and more inclusive booking.
September 19, 2016, 6:11pm

Neon Desert Music Festival 2016. Wristbands hang on the arms of children, teens and adults as they enter the downtown festival grounds. From there they separate: Some run to the nearest stage to catch a local band; some set up shop at another stage to be front and center for the evening's headlining performer; and others purchase a tall boy of Bud Light or Tecate, sprinkling a little lime into their beers and basking in El Paso's beautiful, sunny skies

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The scene feels like a revelation in El Paso, which hasn't always had a clear musical identity of its own. For years, the city's music scene revolved largely around the exploits of its most famous band, At the Drive-In, and spinoff groups The Mars Volta and Sparta. As it found its footing in earlier years, Neon Desert struggled to stake out its El Paso flavor as well. However, now in its sixth year, its best yet, the festival has come to embody the energy and identity of the Texas border town, with local art, luchadors, and skaters filling its grounds. The festival also marked the grand reopening of San Jacinto Plaza, giving not just the event but the city itself a sense of revitalization.

"Why doesn't El Paso have its own music festival? That's the question that started it all," Zachariah Paul, one of the festival's producers said. Paul, as well as many of the festival's other producers, reside in Austin but are from El Paso. After seeing the many music festivals that city hosts throughout the year, Paul and the rest of the team began working on a festival for their hometown. "None of us came from a producer background" Patrick McNeil, Splendid Sun's Creative Director, said. "We had to evolve on the spot."

But the team successfully pulled off their first year and continued on, bringing the festival back each year with more days and larger lineups. This year, along with headliners Tiesto, Daddy Yankee, Deftones, Ludacris, and Natalia Lafourcade, there were over 40 local bands and artists that participated, too, including Carlos Aguirre, a rapper commonly known as Mr. Crazy.

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"El Paso has more history than most cities, but the world doesn't know about it," Mr. Crazy said. "I want to change that, which is why I concentrate on the city so much in my rapping." He believes that the local music scene has grown so much, and offers a musical identity that's different and diverse from most places because of the border town influence. To Amalia Maldragon, former lead singer of The Chamanas, the musical identity of El Paso, Juarez and other nearby cities is comparable to capirotada, which is Mexican bread pudding. "There's just a mix of everything here—layers and layers of different music."

Artists like Leo Lara, who grew up just across the Mexican border in Ciudad Juarez and is now a drummer for Nalgadas, who channel the spirit of border-straddling classic rock fandom, would agree. Lara serves as a bartender and booker at local venue Monarch, where he's had CFM, Cigarettes After Sex, Death Valley Girls, and Peach Kelli Pop perform. He also created the Exit 19 Music Festival this year, alongside fellow El Pasoans Alfredo Campos (owner of Monarch) and Hector Saenz (owner of the bar Boomtown and the venue Warszawa). The 12-day event featured over 76 local, regional and national artists, spread across the three venues.

There's just a mix of everything here—layers and layers of different music.

"Exit 19 served as a sampling of the new and diverse roster of local artists and bands that have popped up in recent years," Saenz said. "Everybody's doing something different now."

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"Back in the day the music scene used to be really competitive," said Christian Yanez, a member of Splendid Sun who books acts for The Lowbrow Palace, one of El Paso's main music venues. "Bands, fans, venues—everyone was looking out for themselves instead of trying to collaborate for the betterment of the city. Now it's gotten better which is why more people are enthusiastic about contributing to this scene."

"I recently read this interview where Cedric Bixler-Zavala [of At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta] talked about the difficulties of booking and promoting shows in El Paso back in the day, and he eventually became disillusioned by it all," added fellow Splendid Sun member and Lowbrow booker Caroline Vazquez. "Music identity isn't just defined by the bands but the bookers, promoters and fans, too. Now, the scene feels more cohesive and supportive—you can go to Lowbrow or Monarch on a Monday and find yourself shoulder to shoulder with locals, watching a band from here, Juarez or Las Cruces, New Mexico. From an outsider's perspective whenever they think of El Paso music they think of At The Drive-In, which is great. But we need to appreciate and cultivate the artists and bands that are currently a part of this scene, in hopes that they'll become the next big thing people talk about."

With events like Neon Desert connected to so many people within the city's music scene, hopefully El Paso will only become a more collaborative and supportive space for current and future artists and bands. "This scene is in new hands and we're all working towards the same goal," Yanez said. "We're trying to build a music community that this city never had, but absolutely deserves." That community includes, among others, these notable acts:

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Mr. Crazy

Carlos Aguirre started rapping after being released from prison in 2007, forming Lower Valley Tres with fellow local rappers Fabian "Payaso" Primera and Hector "Problemas" Rodriguez. The trio first gained attention with their song "Barrios," which references different neighborhoods in El Paso. But they became a regional sensation in 2010 with "I Love My City," a celebration of the city's Chicano and Pachuco roots.

"I love my city / Chuco Town OG" raps Mr. Crazy as lowriders bounce behind him at Lincoln Park, an El Paso landmark that's referred to as "El Paso's Chicano Park."


Krystall Poppin

Fellow rapper Krystall Poppin adds to the city's musical diversity. Although she spends her time in both El Paso and Las Vegas, she was born in the former. At the age of six, she lost her father during an altercation in which he was protecting his brother. Her catharsis was poetry, which she then transformed into raps, performing throughout the city and ultimately joining local rap collective Live From Da Corner (LFDC).

The group performed on one of the main stages at Neon this year, but it was Poppin who stole the show. Using the set to play songs from her recently released debut album Star Struck, the rapper immediately won over the crowd with her charisma and energy, finishing her set with Star Struck standout "Miss Poppin."

Poppin released a music video for "Miss Poppin" earlier this year. Shot in El Paso the visuals show her and a group of friends partying in a U-Haul Truck in the middle of the desert. "My mama calls me mija" the rapper proudly proclaims while sitting on a velvet crimson chair, as scenes shift back and forth from her and a group of young El Pasoans. Whether it be a music festival or rented truck Poppin can turn up anywhere.

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K/S

On the opposite end of this musical spectrum is K//S, formerly known as Triumph Over Shipwreck. The band's primary members, Joseph James (drums) and Eric Vasquez (guitar), have been a part of El Paso's heavy music scene since the early 2000s, performing in a number of bands together before becoming K//S, where they're rounded out by bassist and vocalist Larry Gonzales.

They're also huge fans of Lil B.


Nalgadas

Formed in 2012, garage rock band Nalgadas (which is Spanish for spanking) was inspired by frontman Edgar Delfin's and drummer Leo Lara's childhood in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

"Our dads and our uncles would get together and open up some Coronas and Tecates and pregame for the Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Dokken bill at the El Paso County Coliseum," Lara said. "Scorpions, Dio, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Whitesnake—we grew up on this. That, plus the energy and rawness of Juarez, is what Nalgadas is all about."

The band, which also includes guitarist David Meza and bassist Albert Bagundo, released their debut album Quiubo through Burger Records late last year. The four-piece also filmed a music video for their single "What A Waste" that depicted a quinceañera (the celebration of a girl turning 15) gone terribly wrong.

"We wanted an 80s quinceañera where the girl throws up on the cake, and this hand that represents Nalgadas, comes out and starts attacking everybody," Delfin said. "It's sweet and tender, but has this B movie silliness, too—like a novela and B movie all in one."

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The Chamanas

The Chamanas is a self-described "Musical Fronterizo" band that blends indie pop and rock with traditional Mexican folk music. "A fronterizo is anyone that lives on the border, and by using the word we're trying to deconstruct the idea of fronterizo music," said Amalia Maldragon, at the time the band's lead singer. "It's not just corridos or cumbias or rancheros—it's anyone making music on either side of the border."

All of the members of The Chamanas travel back and forth from El Paso to Juarez to visit family and play shows. Because of this the band refers to themselves as a metaphorical bridge between the two cities, using their music to highlight the duality of these places they call home. Such is the case on "Dulce Mal," a song that shows people going about their day on both sides of the border. The visuals are even more important when taking into consideration the violence that plagued Juarez up until last year.

"We all went to Juarez during the violence—I was in bands in Juarez and I refused to stop going because there were people there that needed support," Maldragon said. "Now, we try not to focus on that because there's positive change happening in both El Paso and Juarez."


Kikimora

Kikimora is an embodiment of Maldragon's idea of musical layers. Combining funk, jazz and soul, the four-piece often gets compared to fellow groove experimenters Hiatus Kaiyote. The band recently released their Cosmic Control EP, a three track project that showcases the group's love for intricate chord progressions and groove, with frontwoman Hayley Lynch offering vocals that are a cross between Kaiyote's Naomi Saalfield and Amy Winehouse circa Frank. However, it's live where Kikimora is experienced best, transforming their songs into extended improvisational jams that turn into a big dance party.

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Sluur

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Photo by Alex Durán​, courtesy of Sluur

Sluur's sonic template is built on darkness: lush, reverberated guitars reminiscent of dark wave and postpunk bands such as Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Sisters of Mercy. The melancholic melodies of guitarists Jorge Montelongo and D.B. Salas (they also share vocal duties) take center stage, as bassist Danny Alcantar and drummer Miggs Valdez provide a driving pulse through the wall of sound.

In May, the band dropped their EP Choice, which starts off with the menacing "Necktie," and ends in a haze with the dreamy "Razorblades." The band recently opened up for former El Paso band Cigarettes After Sex, alongside fellow locals Miss Gulch (both are a part of Mother of Pearl Records, an imprint of local record store Mother of Pearl Vinyl, which also host its own annual music festival).


Khalid

Khalid, an 18-year-old R&B singer who just graduated from high school, has seemingly popped up out of nowhere, having gained a notable following on social media in recent months. Part of this is thanks to Kylie Jenner: The model and TV personality featured the singer's song "Location" in a Snapchat story back in late May. Since then the track has been played over 2 million times on Khalid's Soundcloud account.

Raised a military child, Khalid's travels took him to El Paso, which is the home of the United States Army's second largest post, Fort Bliss. The aspiring artist not only represents a part of the military transplant culture of El Paso, but the day and age in which one can find success through the internet. Just this past month Khalid came to New York to perform alongside Tunji Ige (who coproduced "Location") for the latter's tour with Michael Christmas.

"At times I wonder why I fool with you / But this is new to me, this is new to you," Khalid begins the first verse of "Location," the song exploring the challenge of finding and maintaining a genuine love. You can tell that artists such as Frank Ocean, James Fauntleroy, and Gallant are influences on Khalid's sound, but he's definitely trying to craft his own distinguishable voice. His latest song "Let's Go" shows a shift from the laidback and slow groove of "Location," displaying his versatility on a much more pop-friendly and upbeat track.

All photos by Quinton Boudwin. Follow him on Instagram.

Elijah Watson is a writer from El Paso. Follow him on Twitter.