A Conversation with Dos Santos: Exploring History, Politics and Dialogue Through Music

Dos Santos will be performing with La Misa Negra at The Cedar this Friday, July 19th. Both bands create cutting edge music reflecting their Afro-Latinx roots and surrounding local communities by fusing cumbia influences with psychedelic, Latin jazz, and punk threads. We recently interviewed Alex Chávez who is the lead singer (vocals, guitar and keys) of Dos Santos. Joining him on the stage will be Jaime Garza (bass), Peter Vale (congas and percussion), Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo (drums), and Nathan Karagianis (guitar and vocals).  They draw from their diverse musical and cultural backgrounds to create music that reflects history, politics, community, and our internal and external dialogue. 

Members of the group Dos Santos
We’re students of all these types of music and we have been for a long time, but we do away with any kind of expectation of what tradition should be.
— Alex Chávez

MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, interviewed Alex Chávez through Skype from The Cedar’s Green Room as he talked from his home in Chicago.  Alex is an ethnographer, author, composer, performer, academic, and musician, among other things. Alex talked with The Cedar about the meaning behind Dos Santos’ new album Logos, his strong connection with his community in Chicago, the history of Latin American music, politics, and more.

Dos Santos performing “LOGOS,” courtesy of International Anthem’s YouTube channel.

MJ Gilmore: What is the meaning behind your latest album Logos?

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Alex Chávez: The Greek word “logos,” literally means “reason,” but what it signifies is this larger sense of dialogue, or conversation, or staking claims.  One thing that was really different with respect to our album Logos, unlike what we’d done before, was that we were pretty intentional about the songs we created. With this album, the context was a little different, because we were working with our new label International Anthem in Chicago, which opened up a space for us to incubate ideas and experiment. We spent seven months on this album, which is not what we've done in the past. And if you have the privilege of time, you're able to really develop concepts, ideas, and sounds a little more deeply in the moment.  A lot of the material you hear on Logos didn't exist before we stepped into recording it, which is not typical for us. 

Any artistic statement that we make is going to be politicized no matter what. Knowing that this is the context in which this record was going to be heard, read, judged, or filtered, the more and more the concept of logos/reason continues to emerge for us.
— Alex Chávez

Currently, there seems to be really damaging forms of broader political public talk and discourse around the realities of race, class, gender, and all the rest. Most of this is super toxic and most of it is not, quite frankly, rooted in reality, or even fact.  We are at a moment in time where we are debating what the facts are. I think this is weighing heavily on our society and creating a larger social anxiety, in particular, how the current regime is managing everyday conversations around what is real and what is believable.  If we consider that, then there's the belief that particularly us, as folks of color, particularly folks that are situated in a place like Chicago, that any artistic statement that we make is going to be politicized no matter what. And knowing that this is the context in which this record was going to be heard, read, judged, or filtered, the more and more the concept of logos/reason continues to emerge for us.

We were super meta as we were writing and thinking about all of this, because most of the songs on this album are lyrically about internal and external dialogue. These songs have multiple layers of meaning and we went down the rabbit hole on this concept of reason and conversation, and I think it was because we had the ability to have the time to do this during our seven-month recording process. This was the kind of intentionality behind Logos.

MJ: What is at the heart of your songs in Logos

I’d say a few of our songs on this album are conceptually about how to break through the tone-deafness of the political context we are in. And one way to break through is to take seriously this notion of intimacy. How do you connect with somebody.
— Alex Chávez

Alex: I'd say a few of our songs on this album are conceptually about how to break through the tone-deafness of the political context we are in. And one way to break through is to take seriously this notion of intimacy. How do you connect with somebody and say, "Hey, look at me," or “Listen to me as a person, not as some sort of abstraction?” As an example, right now there is this really horrible moment when it comes to issues about immigration: locking children in cages, immigrant raids, and this whole debate about questioning citizenship. I think one of the things that makes this possible, is the ability to dehumanize an entire group of people.

If you don’t think of people as a mirror/reflection of you, then it’s easy to inflict these kinds of violence on them.
— Alex Chávez

If you don't think of people as a mirror/reflection of you, then it's easy to inflict these kinds of violence on them. A number of the songs on Logos are a way to understand that this is the moment that we're embedded in now. How can we break through this? It's also about having a very personal connection with somebody and trying to invoke some sense of intimacy, to include the first track “Acábame/Finish Me” and another track “Manos Ajenas/Touch You Every Day.”  All of these songs are very intimate. They're about talking to somebody and trying to reason with them. In particular about listening to you, about being vulnerable with one another, even something really tactile about touch. “Logos” is about invoking listening to somebody as they're trying to speak to you. I think if you really dig down into some of our lyrics, you can read the perspective of a lot of intimacy or vulnerability being invoked in each of the songs.

MJ: I watched your 2018 live Red Bull Music Session at Audiotree video and really enjoyed all of your songs!  I especially felt your dramatic intensity on the songs “Caminante” and “Purísima.”  Will you share with us the meaning behind these two songs?

I appreciate this sense of musical drama and it pushes me to try to do interesting things to keep the listener’s attention.
— Alex Chávez

Alex: Our songs “Caminante/the walker” and “Purísima/purity” are the only two songs that we actually already had written and performed prior to recording them.   “Caminante” is an example where lyrically there's this sense of having a conversation. This song harkens back to more soulful music by Latin American artists and crooners from the 1970s.  Both lyrically and thematically, I am a fan of some of the musicians from that moment of time, because there always seemed to be a twist in the plot of whatever story they're telling you. I'm a fan of the drama in this kind of music.  It's definitely a source of inspiration for me both consciously and subconsciously. I appreciate this sense of musical drama and it pushes me to try to do interesting things to keep the listener's attention.

“Caminante” means “the walker.” The whole song is about a person having a conversation with a sage and asking the sage advice.  The person thinks the sage is a wise person and asks, “Have I done good in life?” “Have I been a good person?” This person is asking these moralizing questions. The twist is that this person who's asking these questions is actually talking to themselves. The sage/walker is them. The idea is that you can't ask anybody these questions, they're not going to have the answers for you.  You have to figure out these answers as you walk. So, the dramatic pause in that song is the answer to that question. “I'm” actually the one who is walking. This is an example of us trying to reason something out and we recognize that it's a mirror. This is the logos idea embodied in this song.

Dos Santos performing “Caminante” and “Purísima” Live, courtesy of Red Bull Music’s YouTube channel.

There’s an inner dialogue of struggle around personal boundaries and desire.
— Alex Chávez

“Purísima” is about unrequited love. It picks up this thread of dialogue from the third person, where someone is asking or pleading to be with somebody and the other person has shut the door on this possibility, and as they shut the door on this possibility, they can't help but continue to think about what's on the other side of that door.  On the other side of the door could be nostalgia, or desire, or whatever it may be. There's an inner dialogue of struggle around personal boundaries and desire, here. It was really fun sequencing our Logos vinyl, because the songs “Purísima” and “Caminante” go together.  So “Caminante” is on side A and we have our dramatic stop and vocal response at the end of the song, and then you have to turn the record over to Side B and you get the beginning of “Purísima.”

MJ: How did you record Logos?

Alex: By virtue of being on the International Anthem record label, a lot of our labelmates are great Chicago jazz players. For instance, the arrangements for the larger horn section on Logos was written by a friend of ours, Nick Mazzarella, who is also an amazing alto saxophone player. The trumpet player on this album is Ben LaMar Gay. He is also on the International Anthem label. He's an amazing trumpet player and is a good friend of ours. We asked him if he would blow on our record. It's funny, we were tracking in this big art space called Co-Prosperity Sphere in the Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago. This was the middle of summer and Ben showed up exhausted from biking to meet us. He came in and we played him the track a couple of times and then he ripped this awesome trumpet solo and left! Only he could do something cool like that!

A lot of the International Anthem recording has been done in unconventional spaces.  Their in-house engineers can set up anywhere. And so we recorded in three places along the same block in Bridgeport which was great, because it really felt like we worked organically. We had friends coming in and out during the recording process. This was nice, because recording studios are often pretty isolating, and sometimes you need that, but our approach on this album was different. It was interesting to have this larger sense that we were making this record, but in the middle of our neighborhood and community. It was fascinating having all these different people, friends and otherwise, through the course of this recording experience witnessing our project. I have never done anything like this before, for sure.  

We are fortunate to be a part of this really cool, interesting and progressive community.  We’re very proud of the fact that it’s coming out of Chicago. It also means that our music has a certain timbre to it.
— Alex Chávez

We're very proud to represent Chicago. We are fortunate to be a part of this really cool, interesting and progressive community.  We're very proud of the fact that it's coming out of Chicago. It also means that our music has a certain timbre to it. We've gotten the comment from friends of ours, who also do music all over the country, they say in this funny and affectionate way, "You guys sound like you're from Chicago!" I always say, "Good!" There's a kind of moodiness to what we do, which we fully embrace. I think that's a thread that runs with other people in this musical community. I think they're touched by that too.

MJ: Will you share with us the multi-layered meaning behind the music you create? 

I think to us it is not just having what we do get appreciated, or taken seriously, but that it gets positioned in the appropriate context.  
— Alex Chávez

Alex: Logos is an artistic statement that is done with a lot of purpose and care and the hope is that it translates into something that people will take seriously and understand its integrity. Our band has had a lot of conversations about this.  At least for me, if I looked at the word integrity, it means a lot of things, but among them is that it is important to be part of a much broader conversation around art more broadly, and Latin Alternative or Latinx music in The United States perhaps more specifically. I think to us it is not just having what we do get appreciated, or taken seriously, but that it gets positioned in the appropriate context.  

Take our music on its own term.
— Alex Chávez

What does that mean? We play music that is ultimately both Latin American and American. We want to continue to push people and our listeners to really challenge themselves to rethink what the Latin American and American categories really mean or even if the categories are useful. In a way, it’s to take our music on its own term.

To us, the appropriate context and this notion of a sense of integrity and really having listeners push themselves is to really recognize that the United States is part of Latin America.
— Alex Chávez

Anecdotally, it shouldn't really matter that our music is in Spanish and we shouldn't be seen as inauthentic cultural producers, because we are based in the United States. I think a lot of people think legit or authentic Latin American music has to come from south of the border. So, if you are a U.S. based band playing this music, you're immediately suspect from cultural critics. All this does is continue to double down on all these cultural and creative borders.  To us, the appropriate context and this notion of a sense of integrity and really having listeners push themselves is to really recognize that the United States is part of Latin America. If there's one constant, in terms of this relationship between The United States and Latin America, it is that there has always been migration and this cultural connectivity. An example is two of the most important forms of global music hip hop and salsa coming out of New York. These genres are not possible if we don't understand that New York is in some ways part of the Circum-Caribbean, because it's young Puerto Rican kids who were at the genesis of hip hop, along with African-Americans.

How do you understand salsa as a global phenomenon? Well, you have to understand this larger migration between musicians from the Caribbean going up to New York and creating it.  If you understand this, then it really messes with your taking for granted our cultural atlas about where music is coming from and what it's doing.  People still refuse to understand/acknowledge this today. Even something like hip hop, and I think this has a lot to do with America’s own racial politics of authenticity—Latinos get written out of the history of hip hop. We tend to think about it as a Black vernacular music, but it's not just that. If you look at the history of hip hop, in particular the first DJs experimenting with sampling music, for instance, what were they sampling? They were sampling Puerto Rican funk Boogaloo records.  And so in some ways I always say our band is not doing anything new. This whole sense of hybridizing and taking from different sounds and music and traditions, people have always done this. I think what shifts is sometimes cultural context, or it curiously repeats itself. This is what our band does, we're students of all these types of music and we have been for a long time, but we do away with any kind of expectation of what tradition should be.

Oftentimes the artists that people love the most are the ones who were the most progressive--who pushed the art in ways that nobody else did. You can't have it both ways, you can't appreciate progressive music and be the arbiter, "Oh but this is how this music should be."  No. Our band fully embraces always wanting to push things, because that's just what we do. We want things to be taken on their own terms.  This is our intention.

Let’s just say this music is the present. This is the moment we are all in.
— Alex Chávez

In terms of authenticity, it's always a challenge, but we try to get people to a point where they don't exoticize, or marginalize music. Sometimes when music gets exoticized, it means that someone is locating the music from somewhere else/ from another time. "Oh, that music is coming from Latin America."  When not understanding that Latin America is here/present moment. People may think music is super progressive and located in the future--this music is what is to come. Whereas, let's just say this music is the present. This is the moment we are all in.

In comparison, all of the current politics that are going on, particularly as it relates to Latin American migrant communities, is this fear and refusal to understand and accept. This is the present demographic. So, “Making America Great Again,” is referencing some past, and a refusal to accept communities that are here and their long-standing traditions, and histories that continue to be relevant in the present. Sometimes it's cast in this language, "Oh there's a future, right?"  No, it's all here right now. I think that people can listen with that kind of an ear to what we're doing and a lot of other artists that we really are fans of and appreciate and are our contemporaries. I think that's a challenge, but I think it's something important that people should be doing.

Dos Santos performing “Manos Ajenas (Touch You Every Day),” courtesy of Dos Santos - Topic’s YouTube channel.

MJ: One of your new songs, “Manos Ajenas/ Touch You Every Day,” explores forgiveness.  Do you think it is possible to forgive? 

Alex: Oh, I don't know. I can't claim to be an optimist in that way. If anything, I think art definitely has the capacity to bridge some sense of understanding.

The twist is that this person who’s asking these questions is actually talking to themselves. The sage/walker is them. The idea is that you can’t ask anybody these questions, they’re not going to have the answers for you.  You have to figure out these answers as you walk.
— Alex Chávez

Catch Dos Santos with La Misa Negra at The Cedar this Friday, July 19th. Tickets are still available here.