Interview with Radio La Chusma, a popular world fusion band from El Paso.
QuePasoElPaso: How old are you?
Selina: I'm 28.
Ernesto: I'm 35, going on 36.
QuePasoElPaso: You look so young.
Selina: Music keeps you young.
QuePasoElPaso: How many people are there in the band?
Ernesto: For the last few years there have been 6 of us. But recently our guitar player, Scoop, left to serve in Afghanistan and we started adding new players. So we are trying different musicians to fill it in.
Selina: We have a lot of very talented friends who come whenever they can. And they are always welcome. It is nice to see people with different styles. But the main core has been the same for a long time. There is a core of 5 members right now.
QuePasoElPaso: How long have you been together?
Selina: In this group we've been together for about 4 years. But Ernie had been with Radio La Chusma for a while. It's his baby.
Ernesto: Radio La Chusma started in 2002. Its early album where I recorded songs that I'd written back then can be found on iTunes. It is called Sonido de La Gente (Sound of the People). It is probably not the best sound and it's a little off-key, but I began performing from there.
It all started in San Diego. But I didn't get the right feel with the musicians there, so I decided to come back home and has been doing this ever since with my friends.
QuePasoElPaso: Are you all friends or related?
Selina: Charlie, the bass player, Scott, the drummer and Ernesto have all known each other since they were young. They went to school together. I was introduced to them a few years ago. I have my own solo stuff that I'd been working on and I did some shows. They saw me performing one day and asked me if I wanted to sing with them. I jumped in. And after that we got the violin player, David, and the electric guitar player, Scoop. This is evolution of Radio La Chusma.
QuePasoElPaso: Do you still do the solo work?
Selina: I do. I have an album I have been working on, which is going to be finished soon. I perform by myself every now and then, at UTEP or whenever someone asks me.
QuePasoElPaso: Is playing with the band your full-time job?
Selina: Yes, it is. But it takes a lot of time to promote ourselves and it can be hard sometimes.
Ernesto: It's hard, but I think it actually better when you live off what you earn playing in a band. I had several regular jobs, but it is not the same. You sacrifice some nice things in life, like insurance, or going to the dentist. But we can live this way. I am confident that our way of life is going to improve and we'll enjoy it now, from the start.
Selina: We are happy with what we're doing. We have so much fun. I had a job before this and I was making good money. But I was totally miserable because I had no music in my life. I wasn't performing. When I started with Radio La Chusma, everything changed and it is getting better and better every day. We are lucky to know each other, lucky to be from El Paso, lucky to be able to perform, and we have a lot of fun doing what we like. We're very blessed.
QuePasoElPaso: How many albums do you have?
Selina: We are working on the third one right now. There was the first album from San Diego. It's called “Sonido de la Gente”. The second one was called “91.5”, which was before the violin player or I joined the band. So this third album, that's coming out soon, includes a lot of new songs and collaboration from all of us.
Ernesto: We did a little live album too. But it wasn't to the extent of our live shows. It was an experiment. It was cool though. We got to capture the lineup with all members of the band. We have songs that haven't been released on it, and songs from the very first album that I did by myself.
QuePasoElPaso: Where can I buy your albums?
Selina: At shows. Or you can always buy them online at iTunes, or at Cdbaby.com
Ernesto: I think iTunes has more of our songs though.
QuePasoElPaso: How much of your material is original?
Ernesto: I'd say it's 100% original. But sometimes at shows at the very beginning we can do a cover song just to check the sound, because you don't want to start with a song you really care about. So sometimes we can play some oldies, Bob Marley or Steve Miller covers.
Selina: But every single show is different. We don't have a set order. We have about 30 songs to choose from our own original repertoire, and about 15-20 covers.
QuePasoElPaso: How do you communicate on the scene within the band if you don't have a set order? How do you all know which song to play?
Ernesto: Sometimes you play a certain song, and you know which one to play after it. For example, if we play “Adelante”, we always follow it by “Get Lively”. Or it can be just a matter of filling in time. If we have 5 minutes left, we make a medley of songs that we love.
QuePasoElPaso: Are you all from El Paso?
Selina: Yes, born, raised and proud.
Ernesto: That's part of our charm. We are from here. Even if the question about moving out of town comes up, we'll still be from El Paso.
Selina: People ask: “Don't you think you'd be better if you went to Austin, or to LA?” We're from El Paso and we're very proud. A lot of bands leave and they say that they are from wherever they are now, not from El Paso. But we're from El Paso, and we don't deny it.
QuePasoElPaso: Do you think that the fact that you are from El Paso makes it more difficult for you to become successful as musicians?
Ernesto: Yes. Even though we are successful here, we get paid well and can take care of 6 members, when it comes to buying a house or supporting our parents, we cannot afford it yet. Sometimes it is due to the national or worldwide presence of the band. We need to tour the world to make the name. And I think this is our goal: to stay here, but travel, get out and get known.
It's just not that easy. We've asked local businesses for support. But right now the economy is rough. So we are working on it and trying to get on a tour to the east coast. We applied and we think that they like us. If it works, we'll travel from Florida to New York.
Usually when you go to a new place for the first time, it's risky because they haven't heard about you. So you may not get the audience you expect.
Selina: Yes, being from El Paso may influence our success. And El Paso may have a bad reputation for that. A lot of people don't even know where El Paso is, in terms of entertainment. But you cannot use it as an excuse.
Ernesto: El Paso is not where agents and promoters come and say: “I like you, come with me”. So we haven't met those people. But it's just the matter of time.
QuePasoElPaso: How did you come up with the name of the band?
Ernesto: There is a popular Mexican show with adults dressed like kids, which is called “Chava del Ocho”. “Chusma” is one of the terms a lady in the show uses all the time. It basically means poor kids, people or the masses. When I was working with a guitarist in San Diego, he wanted to use this name. It was used as “those people” - la chusma. There was also an acting troop in LA, called “La Chusma”, and they didn't want us to use it. So we changed it to “Radio La Chusma”.
Actually I wanted to call our band “Chuco”, which means El Paso. But the guitarist didn't want to use that name because he wasn't from here. Later when I had a chance to change the name, I kept it because I didn't want to confuse people.
QuePasoElPaso: How do you define your musical style?
Ernesto: It is world fusion. If I wanted to give it my own name, it would sound like...
Ernesto: Right. But as a genre it would probably be more like world fusion because we take from different parts of the world and mix it all together.
Selina: It's hard to define. We take from a lot of different cultures. There are African and Latin rythms, there is rock and jazz. And it is pretty much the part of our culture here in El Paso. We have Mexico and the U.S. But there is also Fort Bliss, which brings people from everywhere in the world. People forget about Fort Bliss, which is a huge part of El Paso.
Ernesto: And there are also many African-Americans here who have been in El Paso for a long time. Buffalo soldiers are buried here. That's part of our culture too. I like to point out such things too. That's why in one of our songs we sing about a Blaxican.
QuePasoElPaso: Who writes songs in your band?
Ernesto: The majority of songs have been mine. At one point it was a collection of songs I already had. Then I had a inspiration and a lot of songs came. But now it is getting to the point when I can let go of this control and let others do some parts. Selina is working on some songs now too.
Selina: Everybody fills in their parts very easily. Someone has a melody, they start off with it, and everybody just ads their parts. It works out. No one tells anyone what to do.
QuePasoElPaso: I've heard about your tour to California. Have you been on tours before?
Ernesto: Yes. It's the third time we're going to California. Throughout the years we've done trips to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Durango. We'd also do a Texas tour to San Antonio and Corpus Christi, but we'd drop in at Laredo, and Alpine on our way. The key is to get out.
QuePasoElPaso: Are you currently providing a soundtrack for a movie?
Ernesto: Yes, the movie is called “Illegales” - “Illegals”. It is going to be showing at the film festival at the Plaza. They actually took songs we already have. We did it for the credits.
They play our songs in a radio station in Santa Fe. In Corpus Christi they have an online radio where they play our songs too. I think they also play us in Marfa, Texas.
QuePasoElPaso: What are your major musical influences?
Ernesto: I think the cool thing about us is that everyone has their own influences, starting from classical and show tunes to death metal. That's what gives the band its uniqueness.
I like listening to tribal music, African and Native American songs. My main influences are reggae, Bob Marley, mariachi music, and cumbias.
Selina: I like jazz, theater, and Broadway play songs.
QuePasoElPaso: Do you study?
Selina: I study music theater at UTEP. I should be done in May, next year. I've been in and out because I work with the band. But it's not a bad way to get a degree, singing, dancing and acting. I would like to be able to have the time to tour more. But because of my school we can't be on the road a lot. Though if I have to drop it, it's OK, there is always school and I can always come back.
Ernesto: I used to study. But the best schooling I've got is with musicians. There is nothing like learning Cuban pattern from a Cuban who's played it since he was little and whose grandfathers played it. Musicians I play with are the ones that inspire me, like David, the violin player, or Scott, the drummer. Those are highlights of my education – things that I've experienced.
Even thought I'd like to go back to school some day, I just decided to continue doing what I'm doing now. I couldn't find myself doing anything else. When I was 24, I tried myself in physical therapy. I also was going to be the light designer, working on theater lights. But I want to be on stage and there is no degree for that. You don't get the experience of how to do it unless you just go and do it.
QuePasoElPaso: How did you become musicians?
Ernesto: My dad picked up a guitar when he was about 30 years old. That's when they had me. He would play old Mexican songs, then he'd play at church. After a while everyone in our family began playing music. My brothers started their own band. So I picked it up too, and I never took any private lessons.
Selina: I've always sung, ever since I could. My mom has recordings of me singing when I was 2 years old. It is all I ever wanted to do. I had records of all the Disney songs. I started singing at the church choir, school choir, and then I was singing the National Anthem at the football game. Then people asked me to sing more, and I was always willing. It's been fun. It feels good at that moment when all people are enjoying the music.
You know we don't like to feel like we are at the zoo during our shows, when everyone is staring at us. It means so much more when everybody is willing to be part of it. Since the beginning of time music has been a way to pray, to achieve some spiritual level, and to connect souls. That is what music is about. Maybe that is why it feels so good to do it, because we feel vibration in us and it connects us to something else. And if we are able to do that to other people, it is really amazing.
QuePasoElPaso: How does it feel to be the only girl in the band?
Selina: You know, I don't really think about it. We get along well. We respect each other. They are my brothers and I love them. We are a family. The guys tell me: “I've never had a sister before. You're my sister”. It's nice to be able to count on them. They watch out for me, and don't let me wander off alone. I feel like I'm lucky because you never know where you can end up in a band with men. But they have always been good to me. Respectful, good gentleman these boys are.
QuePasoElPaso: What makes you successful as a band?
Selina: We mean what we do and it is enjoyable. If you get someone to have fun, why wouldn't they like it? If I'm giving you some positive energy, why wouldn't you enjoy it?
Ernesto: Some of our songs are made very simple musically, so that everyone can feel it. That's the key to it all – enjoy it and have a good time.
QuePasoElPaso: Tell me about other band members?
Ernesto: Well, I saw Scott, the drummer, playing in another band before I even considered playing in a band myself. I am a big fan of his. He was a real inspiration for me. So having him play with us is amazing. He is funny and lighthearted guy.
Selina: In all our pictures he is the one with personality. We're all boring and he is the one standing out.
Ernesto: Charlie, the bass player, is the one who's been working hard to get us shows. He takes care of the money and he is an active manager of the band right now.
Selina: In the Radio La Chusma family he is our Grandpa Charlie. Ernesto is our Dad. David and I are like the little brother and sister. And there is Uncle Scott, the cool uncle.
Ernesto: Charlie loves heavy metal and hard rock. I grew up with him. During high school I got him to play and he's been playing ever since.
David, the violin player, just showed up out of nowhere. He'd heard about the band and wanted to be part of it. At the time another member quit the band. So I asked David what instrument he played. He could play a violin. One of the elders in his family is a well-known classical violinist. They are a famous Angerstein violin family here, in El Paso.
Selina: It turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened – his amazing, classical violin.
Ernesto: Another member of the band, Scoop is in Afghanistan right now, in the reserves. He is our guitar player. And he is like our big brother too.
QuePasoElPaso: As far as I know, you also invite artists from other bands, don't you?
Ernesto: Yes, right now we have Adrian Esparza, an amazing guitarist. He was amazing when he was 14 years old. He was playing in a band with my brother, when I was 3-4. So the fact that he plays my music is a dream come true for me.
There are other people who help us play. We have Mario Ramirez, who plays keyboard. I don't know if he is just playing with us for now or he is going to stick with us forever. There are always new people we meet. Just last night at our show a guy from Puerto Rico came up to us and said: “I play percussion, give me a call”. So maybe we'll have a Puerto Rican playing with us soon.
QuePasoElPaso: Do you play for any events?
Selina: Yes, we did some weddings and political events.
Ernesto: We are about to play at the Taos Mountain Music Festival in September.
Selina: We'll also take part in the Chicano March, which is an important thing in Los Angeles.
Ernesto: It's an honor to do that. It is going to be a huge national conversion for Chicanos, which will start up with a march and a fund raiser. We are one of the bands playing for that.
Selina: We got to play at The House of Blues in Los Angeles once. That was a special event for me.
Ernesto: We opened for Steel Pulse, which is a pretty well-known reggae band. They made their break when Bob Marley took them on his tour. We also did some events in Alamogordo, and the Downtown Musical Festival here in El Paso for 3 years.
QuePasoElPaso: What is your advice to young bands in El Paso?
Selina: Just keep on playing and if something doesn't work don't stop. There is always something else to try. You may not have found the right niche, or the right group, but you will.
Ernesto: I think that musicians should also go to shows and study. See what other bands do, what you like and don't like. That's how you learn.
I also have friends that have their own bands, but they don't play a show because they don't think they are ready. I think they should go and play a show and they'll find out if they sound good or not.
Selina: I also think that success has a lot to do about working together, and not hating each other. A lot of people who tried playing in a band end up breaking up with bad feelings, but it shouldn't be that way. Competition is good. There shouldn't be any bitter feelings about competition, because you are always pushing each other to do more. But band members should work with each other as well.
Ernesto: In other towns there is more networking within the bands. In El Paso it's not that easy. We don't have a good musician's union. We need to get more support from each other. We can't hate each other, and we've got to be happy for everyone's success. If some band gets a record deal, we have to support it because all that means is that people will start looking at the musical scene in El Paso. But I think it's a matter of time that people from other cities will notice musicians from El Paso, because there are a lot of talented musicians here. When we go out of town to play with bands from other cities, I realize that here in El Paso we do really well compared to those bands since we have to work a lot harder. We have a lot of hidden talent.
El Paso actually had a great influence on music. There are a lot of innovators from here, but no one knows that they are from here because they became famous somewhere else. That's why many friends tell us that we should move. But my idea is to stay here and travel.
QuePasoElPaso: What if you do move to another city, will you still be “a band from El Paso”?
Ernesto: Yes, we will.
Selina: I'm pretty sure we will. That's an important part of who we are. We are always promoting El Paso. I cannot imaging saying that we are from somewhere else.
QuePasoElPaso: Does your music have a special message in it?
Selina: I think there is a message of peace, unity and awareness.
Ernesto: The message in our music is: we're all the same. In our society we define things so much and see too many differences between each other. That was someone's plan to divide and conquer everyone mentally. They say: If you are a republican, you are not one of them. We've done that with God and with a lot of things. They call people a different name and they want to kill each other for that. But this is not how it is. We are all humans and we're all the same.
Selina: I think that it's one of the reasons why they like our music so much. It is positive and it is unifying. All of a sudden you don't know why you like this but you want to move. And we fully encourage that. Let's have fun right now. We are blessed to be able to bring 3-year-olds and 80-year-olds together on one dance floor, just because there are good vibrations and positive energy in our music.
Ernesto: I think right now when there is such bad news from Juarez all the time, part of our work is to show that there is still beauty, dancing and love.