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Doctor Nativo Brings Irresistible Cumbia Grooves and Potent Global Relevance to Lincoln Center

It took Doctor Nativo about fifteen seconds this past evening to fill up the dancefloor at the album release show for his new one, Guatemaya, at Lincoln Center. That’s what a catchy cumbia like Ay Morena can do. But Doctor Nativo’s music is about more than just a good dance groove. Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Leigh spoke of how her programming seeks to reflect the multicultural beauty of New York communities, and that Doctor Nativo’s music and message dovetail with that.

Doctor Nativo, otherwise known as Juan Martinez, is the son of a Guatemalan restaurateur and freedom fighter murdered by an anti-democracy death squad. The defiance in the group’s lyrics reflects a corrosive cynicism toward political corruption, but also an equally defiant sense of hope. Their guiro player opened the show solo with a Quecha-language rap. Behind the band, video of native Guatemalan village life – weaving, cooking, protesting, playing indigenous instruments, parading in costumes that seemed straight out of Chinese New Year, and visiting the graveyard – panned on a screen above the stage.

Andrae Murchison’s incisive trombone licks lent a dubwise edge to the spicy, slinky Sabrosura: the sound engineer’s decision to crank the bass paid off, filling out the music’s otherwise relatively sparse arrangements. The next number on the bill had a clever anti-globalist reggaeton rap over a bouncy, vampy backdrop that was part roots reggae and part psychedelic cumbia. They kept the reggae-inspired party for the right to fight going with Zion, another insistent track from the new album, then added a touch of mariachi with the mythically-inspired El Mero Mero.

Doctor Nativo dedicated the number after that, La Voz Popular, to Guatemala’s only radio station that dared play “rebel music,” as he put it, during the genocidal thirty-year civil war there. Once again, the guiro player took centerstage, this time with a jubilant on-air tag to kick off more of the unstoppable cumbia pulse that they’d keep going for the rest of the set. There were also slight detours toward roots reggae (the album’s title track) and hip-hop (a grateful salute to a youthful breakdancer who spent his formative years in the band).

The bandleader took time to explain the Mayan mysticism behind El 20, the night’s most epic cumbia: it’s a matter of energy. The symbolism of Kandela turned out to be more reggae-inspired: bun down Babylon! 

The next event at Lincoln Center’s wildly popular atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thurs, Sept 20, a panel discussion on the devastating effects of gentrification and real estate bubble madness featuring Jeremiah Moss of the indispensable blog Vanishing New York, plus Ensemble Connect playing avant garde and indie classical chamber works by Julius Eastman and others. Admission is free; if you want a seat, get there early.

Doctor Nativo Brings His Catchy, Psychedelic Guatemalan Freedom Fighter Anthems to Lincoln Center

Guatemala’s Doctor Nativo, a.k.a. Juan Martinez, plays a mix of psychedelic tropical styles, from cumbia to roots reggae. His fearlessly political new album Guatemaya, which often brings to mind Chicha Libre covering the Clash, is streaming at Bandcamp. His Spanish-language lyrics address issues from immigration, to cultural clashes and the ongoing struggle for freedom against CIA-sponsored anti-democracy factions who’ve plagued Latin American for decades.

Doctor Nativo’s dad Arturo Martinez was a Guatemalan freedom fighter murdered by an anti-democracy death squad after they discovered that his restaurant was being used for secret meetings. The younger Martinez is bringing that defiant legacy along with his catchy, anthemic tropical band to the Lincoln Center atrium this Thurs, Sept 13 at 7:30 PM. Get there early if you want a seat, and keep in mind that the almost-weekly series of free shows there routinely sells out.

The opening track on the new album is a biting minor-key roots reggae tune lit up by the horn section of trombonist Danilo Rodriguez – who also plays marimba, bass, cuatro, charango and harp here – alongside Sous Sebas Sax. It appears that Ivan Duran is on guitar here – Honduran surf music legend Guayo Cedeno also plays lead guitar on the album.

The second track, Ay Morena, is a slinky chicha party groove, which the band takes to further psychedelic heights with the next track, Sabrosura, the hypnotically rustic, strummy charango contrasting with Cedeno’s snaky wah-wah riffs.

You might think that Zion would be a reggae tune, but instead it’s chicha, speaking truth to power against the kind of oppressors that the Martinez family knew as the grimmest kind of reality. Likewise, the bandleader keeps the theme going on a personal level in B-Boy, a rapidfire, lyrical mashup of reggaeton and psychedelic cumbia, and then in El Mero Mero with its surreal contrast of electric chicha instrumentation and otherworldly chirimilla, the ancient Mayan oboe.

The mix of looming salsa horns, electric and acoustic textures in El 20 is just as strangely kaleidoscopic, anchoring its insistent message of global unity…or else. La Voz Popular also has a brief reggaeton cameo and a snaky cumbia vamp.

The horns get a little spicier in Kandela; the album’s last track is the anti-corruption protest anthem Pa’Que Se Levanten, which ought to get everybody up on their feet at the Lincoln Center gig. If Doctor Nativo is bringing Cedeno on this tour, the shows will be a lot wilder than this tight, smartly produced album suggests.