Managing Influences

Austin's Maneja Beto puts the verse in versatility

Accidentes de Longitud y Latitud, Maneja Beto's second release, starts out with what sounds like someone tap dancing on a garage door. Almost magically, the crashing turns into hand claps, and then, a ukulele begins. The hand claps disappear as quickly as they came in; the percussion picks up the beat; a guitar melody steps in and steps out; and as the violin and glockenspiel turn the song toward American folk, another voice comes in, belting an echo of the second verse, Mexican-ballad style.

The lyrics may be in Spanish, the rhythms Latin, but Maneja Beto refuses to be pinned down as just another band playing rock en Español or cumbia.

Maneja Beto began about four years ago, and from the beginning, they knew they wanted to somehow mix their favorite things about rock in English, the traditional music of their youth, and more contemporary rock en Español. And they knew they wanted to sing in Spanish.

"A lot of the songs are about longing or love lost, things like that, and I think for me, expressing myself in Spanish, those emotions in Spanish, I can better articulate them," said guitarist and native Spanish speaker Nelson Valente. "It comes across, I think, in a more meaningful way. For example, if I say 'te quiero,' to me, it just sounds way more powerful than 'I love you.'"

Even if you can't understand the exact words of Maneja Beto's songs, though, the music expresses the emotion, and it's clear that these songs sung in English just wouldn't be the same. All the same, the Austin, Texas-based quintet has encountered people who don't understand why they don't just sing in English so that their more American audiences can understand them.

"A language barrier is a language barrier; (people) might be turned off by it, but we're not going to change to increase our audience or please certain people," said Valente. "It's not a matter of pride--it's just the way we write."

But, added Valente, "I have found people who have said, 'You know, man, I don't know what the hell you're saying, but, man, I'm dancing to it; it's great.'"

On Accidentes de Longitud y Latitud, they cram quite a lot of their influences in--everything from electronica to Tejano--but it's packed in smoothly and subtly. The result is a natural-sounding blend of musical heritages.

"We don't sit down and discuss, 'OK, today I want to write a Middle Eastern-influenced tune, or I want to write a ranchera today'--it's nothing like that," said Valente. "It usually comes from listening to something from home, listening to our record collections and bringing that in.

"If I take a look at your iPod, I'm sure I would find all styles of music on there," he continued. "It's the same for most of us, and so it's natural for us to produce that kind of music, the music we love, and try to cram it in there in one song or 30 songs."

Accidentes de Longitud y Latitud may only be 14 songs, but it's all there: "Buenaventura" dances norteño, but then the guitar solo on "Oye Amigo" turns modern rock. "Cumbia de las Bombas" lives up to its name, and there's electronica influences all over "Adios Lula." "Canto Fúnebre" sounds more Texas country than Tejano, and "Los Cerros" could be the indie rock flavor of the month. Which is why Maneja Beto calls their music "indie en Español."

"We're not necessarily just a traditional cumbia band," explained Valente. "We don't sound like Malitia; we don't sound like Mano Negra. Great artists, and I respect them all; I have some of their records, but I don't want the Español tag, because for one thing, we're not from Mexico; we're Mexican-Americans--we're Texans, man. We don't want to be labeled a rock en Español band or a Tejano band, you know--we'd rather have indie in Español."

The only formula for Maneja Beto is to keep things interesting. "It was just for us, a matter of, OK, we like all these styles of music, from the Cure to Rigo Tovar to Frank Sinatra--how can we combine them and make them work in the context of a pop song, if you will?" said Valente. "So that's kind of how we went into this, and we've had some pretty cool results, and everybody's pretty happy.

"After four years of being together, we still haven't done our work; there's a lot more work to do, you know, as far as producing good music."

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