The Universal Ninjas, “Coming Up”

Savoir Faire Show | Oct 17 @ 500 W. Cermak | 5pm

Anika Trujillo and Ariel Rodgers make up the odd- ball comedy duo behind The Universal Ninjas unconventional sound. Neither stand up comedians nor flimsy musicians out to dabble in the arts, Anika and Ariel are ambitious and conscious performers. Supporting The Universal Ninja’s exuberance, their unparalleled genius and genuine love of music binds them and defines them as true pioneers. Their unified and unique approach to music propels TUN’s inventive sound.

Waiting for Ariel to arrive from her day job, a little late due to an overextended meeting, Anika sits quietly with me as we mill over the menu of delectable tortas and tacos. But Anika’s humble and seemingly shy personality flips instantly as Ariel arrives. Combing her fingers through her shaggy bush of a fro, Anika starts whipping out an infectious smile. Ariel is instantly engaging, interviewing me before we start eating and talking about The Universal Ninja’s unique origins in music.

Ariel of Evanston, IL via Boston and Anika from Athens, OH and transported to Evanston when she was 10, reminisce about how they first met in U.S. history class back in high school, years ago. They laugh and ride each other the way only old friends can. These two were born to make music together. Their “glam” or funk-pop, juke jams will take you back to those good old days, “when there was just plain good old music on the radios,” explains Ariel.

These two were born to work together. Their synergy as musicians and sly sense of humor (a teasing back-and-forth banter) makes their interaction irresistible to watch. On a surprisingly sunny October day in Chicago, in the middle of our introductions as the actual interview begins, The Universal Ninja’s are at there best. They start to make an impromptu juke tracks like they did when they were kids, banging on the table and bobbing their heads in the Pilsen restaurant we met up at for dinner,

Anika lays the beat down, repeating, “Class mmm, class. Class. Class.” Banging on the table rhythmically, Ariel joins in for the hook, “coming up.” They vibe like this for a few moments, “Class. Class. Class. Mmm. Coming up,” a youthful enthusiasm and whimsical unison blending with the sound of fire trucks and the Pink Line CTA train roaring outside. TUF’s essence shines through. Their sound: fresh and familiar, playfully sage, and whimsically wise. They vibe off my mutual musical appreciation of  alluringly and delightfully repetitious, yet deceptively simple juke track.

“We always had a bond.” Ariel explains how they first got together and started recording their initial tracks. With just one microphone and an A-track recorder (a task am, Anika adds). “A task am. Huyh huyh,” Ariel, teases, taking on a silly, nerd-like persona.  There were like rainbows flying over us, Anika continues, “We were just so geeked to be making music. It’s like my soul just oozed out. It was like, ‘oh my god, it’s everywhere.” Ariel marvels, “It was like speaking a language you didn’t even know you knew.”

The Universal Ninjas march to the beat of their own drum and their music speaks to a new invigorating of color indie up-rise. Listening to The Universal Ninja’s for the first time felt exactly like hearing and understanding a language I didn’t know I already knew. When I initially ran into these ladies, they were just slapping keys, running the beat box and making melodies in the grass, outdoors the Chicago Dyke March rally this past summer. The crowd was relaxed, tired yet content, grooving but motionless in their stunned appreciation and vibe with these genre-bending musical masters.

Their feel-good energy flows effortlessly. Standing in the shade of a tree, all I could envisioned watching The Universal Ninjas wowing a ready to two-step crowd of hip, artsy, queer-of-color and allied music aficionados in a dark and dance dizzied club existing only in my imagination. When describing their own style The Universal Ninjas aptly characterized their visionary cross genre approach and appeal as, “Glam,” which Anika explains, “is the official name of the genre, we’ve decided, because of the way it makes you feel.”

Ariel: It’s not even glamorous. It’s something different.

Anika: Glamorous makes me things about decadence. When I think of glam, I’m just walking down the street and everything’s just popping.

Ariel: It’s not about people loving me, It’s about loving the environment.

Anika: Glam is within and you exude out.

Ariel: That’s what it is! That’s how you get glamorous! Then people feel and see it. [Ariel notes with a high-five and faux-nerd enthusiasm] It was like giving birth to a very large baby before you even knew you were pregnant. It was so difficult, but we were in the middle of the process. It was uncharted territory we were in at that time. But were also thirsty, and sprightly and excited too.

Describing their very inaugural performance only months ago at Exidus Anika and Ariel share their humbling and tenuous first time on stage.

Anika: We went in there and we used a CD for the beat. It was this song called, “Around.” I played the guitar, and Ariel played the base. And the whole performance I blacked out. It was like an out of body experience. Lady Flipside, the host of Exodus, gave us a good jolt of confidence. It was this quiet after the performance. They had never seen anyone that looks like us together, she’s 6 feet tall, I’m 5 feet tall.

Ariel: We’re so unconventional. People are still wondering if it tasted good. It’s robust. It’s working its way. It’s marinated. We’ve got things moving though and that’s what matters.

Stopping in our interview to chat up our curious waiter, peppered with conversational Spanish classes, they try to explain their music as Funk, Pop… And it clicks. The waiter looks confused and asks me to translate funk into Spanish. I’m stumped. Trujillo conjures a literal translation, “dirt.” But dirt doesn’t get at the soul, though it does get at the grim and grit and guts of funk. But the word doesn’t quite convey the musicality, the theatrics and liveliness of Funk. But Glam-Funk and Funk-Pop comes to mind as we all interact. The Universal Ninjas and I knowingly laugh when the waiter innocently and inquisitively assumes the ladies might play reaggaeton, and I awkwardly sign to myself at his profuse compliments on Anika’s gravity defying fro. I had to shake my head when he even asked to touch it, and Anika, kindly permitted his petting hands.

As we continued our conversation, we geared towards The Universal Ninja’s take on the music infecting the radio waves today. Ariel’s insightful comments on the tragic state of our common communities’ limited access to quality productions. Rodgers states, “The energy that music has started to give off is poison, it’s self-deprecating. There’s nothing about it that says I love myself and I love everyone else. My inspiration right now is to put out good music again. Like back in the day, when there was just plain good music on the radios. Good music with good messages. We don’t have to always talk about garbage.”

It’s no wonder The Universal Ninja’s take inspiration from Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Santana, Prince and a James Brown. Their music, the modern manifestation of these pioneer artists remain on the tips of every true American music lovers tongues. Anika recalls fondly, “Aretha, man, my mom got me hooked on her,” savoring the memory of what might have been a warm moment of inter-generational communion through music.

Anika: We each play really whatever we want. There’s a drum machine, keyboard, a bass, guitar, a k-osilator [a synthesizer with a touch pad, I inquisitively inquired] and [last but not least, Ariel on] vocals. We usually pick our instruments based on our set time and location.

Ariel: We switch back and forth between instruments. Anika’s getting into the base, making it pop. Making it bounce. And then the beats. I’ve never heard beats like she creates. It merits an equally unique melody or cadence.

Anika: She usually does the melody. She [is] like the guitar and keys.

Ariel: We ying and yang. We balance each other out. I can reach the high stuff. And Anika keeps it down low.