Music therapy: Nosotros' Latin groove

Nosotros

Nosotros is a big band, with two lead singers, three percussionists, and a horn section. During the pandemic, it’s been tough for all 11 members to play together in one place. But the popular Latin group is performing live again, and everyone but the trumpet player made it to a series of gigs in California. On a Monday morning in early October, four members sit at a picnic table outside of Two Rivers Cider Company in Sacramento, where they’ll play that evening. By Friday, they’ll be back in New Mexico.

They play Meow Wolf on Saturday, Oct. 23.

“Once we were greenlighted, our calendar really filled up. [The California shows were] supposed to happen in October of last year. We’re thankful to be back at it,” says drummer Dennis Jasso, 45.

It’s sunny in California. The band members squint against the light. Next to Jasso sits Randy Sanchez, 46, who plays guitar and tres (a Cuban three-stringed guitar). One of the band’s three original members, Sanchez co-founded Nosotros in Las Cruces in 1994. Since then, Nosotros has expanded and contracted a few times. Jasso joined in 2000. Also at the table are bass player Gilbert Uribe, 41, who joined in 2002, and guitarist Shane Derk, 49, a member since 1996. He’s the quiet one. All four lean in to be seen by the webcam.

Everyone at the table grew up in Las Cruces and eventually moved to Northern New Mexico. Other band members come from elsewhere in the state, and the lead singers, Glenn Contreras and Carlos Fontana, are from Costa Rica. Nosotros has recorded six studio albums and won 12 New Mexico Music Awards. They perform primarily in Spanish and call themselves a Latin band, intentionally leaving off subgenres like salsa or cumbia, even though they play versions of both. Sometimes they call themselves “Latin groove.”

“We cover a lot of area,” Jasso says, “so we try not to say the kind of Latin music that we are.”

Sanchez says that they’re not interested in annoying audience members who thought they were coming to dance to a specific kind of music. “People who do salsa music, they can take offense to it [because Nosotros doesn’t play] what the genre really is. We want people to understand all the different styles, but we don’t want to be just a salsa band. We want to be a lot of different things.”

For most of Nosotros, music is their full-time job. They play live so often that they barely need to rehearse. But when the pandemic hit, and live music was canceled almost overnight, they had to quickly reconceive how they connect to their audience. “Pre-pandemic, we had reason every day to be posting things on our social media and keeping people engaged with what we were doing. We didn’t want to do nothing. We didn’t want people to forget about us. I ended up buying a bunch of video equipment,” Jasso says.

In December 2020 the band made a video, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with everyone playing solo in their homes. Jasso took the files and edited them together into a musical postcard from New Mexico.

In February, they started a video series, “Nosotros in the Park.” Shot in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the 12 performances take place under dramatic New Mexico skies, some a vibrant, wintry turquoise and some roiling with snow clouds. Playground equipment dots the background. Each video is curated by a different band member, with selections from outside of Nosotros’ usual repertoire.

“It was a way to highlight everybody’s influences, what makes the band so uniquely blended. Jazz, rock, hip-hop. It was a way to show everyone what makes us us,” Uribe says.

Occasionally an audience gathered. “People walking their dogs would stop and watch. It had been so long since we’d played in front of anyone, that five people there listening felt really special,” Jasso says.

Despite being known for singing in Spanish, not everyone in the band is fluent. But they all grew up with family speaking Spanish, and Spanish music was ever present in the culture of Las Cruces, which is about 40 miles from the Mexican border. When Jasso writes lyrics, he starts with what he calls his “Chicano Spanish” and then takes it to their saxophonist, Manuel Ramirez, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico.

“He’ll help me turn what I wrote into poetry. Manny has a nice way of saying things. Carlos, our lead singer, has also written lyrics for the band,” Jasso says.

Nosotros’ repertoire includes love songs, political songs, songs about birth, and songs about death. Jasso says they are inspired by anything and everything and “just the experiences you have by living life.” Many of the members come from musical families. Jasso’s parents played music in church, as well as at home, where his father’s piano took a central spot in the living room. Sanchez’s grandmother played mandolin and taught music. His mother bought him a guitar when he was 12, when neighborhood kids decided to start a band. “I was the only one who actually got an instrument, and nothing ever happened with the band, but it worked out good for me,” he says. He started out playing rock and later developed a love for flamenco music.

Uribe’s father was a drummer, his brother played bass, and his grandparents played piano, guitar, and accordion. “They would always sing together at parties. It pushed me away from playing Mexican music right away, because I grew up around it. I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. As I got older, I learned to appreciate Mexican music on a different level because of the family ties,” he says.

The only genre Nosotros doesn’t play is ranchera music because they grew up on it and find it overly familiar. But, Jasso says, never say never. One of the songs he’s working on now has a ranchera-type groove.

Nosotros’ Meow Wolf show is their seventh New Mexico gig in just three weeks. They’ve spent October zigzagging from Santa Fe to Silver City and Las Cruces to Albuquerque. Not every date features the full band because not every venue can accommodate 11 musicians on one stage. But everyone will be at Meow Wolf, where Nosotros is excited to share the night with Baracutanga, a seven-member Latin group based in Albuquerque, as well as Nohe & Sus Santos, a Latin band fronted by Honduran vocalist and songwriter Nohelia Sosa, with Sanchez on guitar and Jasso on drums. The Meow Wolf lineup is rounded out by a set from DJ Gabe Goza.

Since being back on tour, Nosotros has been relieved to see just how many people are willing to don masks to see their shows. “The crowds have been really great. You can tell that they’ve missed live music. We love getting people to dance and enjoy themselves,” Uribe says. “It’s therapeutic. When you’re on stage, the task at hand is just to entertain people.”

“I forget all the world things when I’m on stage,” Sanchez says. “My back or my feet could be hurting, and all of that just goes away. It’s hard to explain. It’s just a void of thought for the real world and what’s going on. In the pandemic time, things are kind of wild, and you’re faced with mortality on all kinds of fronts. Since we’ve come back, I want to take every gig as if it’s our last one.” 

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