Pistolera: From the border to Brooklyn and beyond

“I grew up rebelling against my cultural roots, but then as usually happens, you get older and you’re like, hey Ma, can I borrow that record?”, says Sandra Velasquez, laughing, speaking by phone from her New York City base. The singer/songwriter, guitarrist and founder of indie latino band Pistolera, continues to describe what it was like growing up Mexican-American in San Diego: “You listen to all the rock and roll and new wave and alternative that is part of your American culture, but then at home, you can´t escape your parents music.”

Indeed, Velasquez founded Pistolera in 2005 in part because she wanted to create a musical space that would remind her of home, she says: “When I first got to New York, I was like, where are all the Mexicanos? In New York, there was a lot of bachata and mofongo – everything was very Puerto Rican and Dominican. Starting Pistolera was a way of bringing the border to Brooklyn.”

In the beginning, Pistolera’s musical mission was focused on reviving the rhythms and melodic structures Velasquez had heard growing up in San Diego. These were basically classic cumbias and Latin pop, she reminisces: This was the soundtrack of my youth…My parents had carne asadas and when I hear a cumbia, it means I am outside, someone’s cooking, and I am surrounded by family and friends speaking Spanglish, flowing between the two languages.”

Velasquez chose the name ‘Pistolera’ because she wanted a word that would communicate both strength and femininity. In the early years the band gained a solid reputation as a Latin band infused with a rock energy, playing original songs whose lyrics focused on contemporary issues  – an almost inevitable development – as Velasquez’ own mom is a lawyer and an immigration activist. Their first two records followed comfortably along these lines, says Velasquez: When people thought of the band, they thought ‘dance party’.”

However, Pistolera’s most recent album, “El Desierto y la Ciudad”,  released earlier this year, is as she puts it, “a sonic departure for the band.” The beautifully presented CD, with a black cover that has etched in relief, on one side, the New York skyline and a desert landscape with cactus and tumbleweed on the other, is designed as a concept album, Velasquez explains: It is meant to be listened to from beginning to end, enjoying the experience – the lyrics, the artwork – it has an arc and a story line.” The quieter, reflective desert side came from a series of trips the songwriter took to Baja California and the Mojabi Desert, and those spaces’ dead quiet and open spaces and skies. The other is an ode in juxtaposition to the clamor and bustle of the city, and includes instrumentation new to Pistolera including a horn section courtesy of the fine Nuyorican/Colombian salsa dura band “La Excelencia.”

On the one hand, it marks a search for balance, says Velasquez: “It’s about going between these two worlds – I love them both – but at times there’s a part of me wants to be in the middle of nowhere, like in chanclas.“

But mostly it’s about being true to your art, taking risks that might or might not please fans who have come to expect a certain sound from an artist. Happily, Pistolera’s new direction has won the band even wider acclaim, and Velasquez concludes: “I have responsibilities, I have to pay bills, pick up my daughter. But at the end of the day, I am a songwriter – that’s what I feel like I am the most. And in my art I want to be free”.

Pistolera will play at Latino Arts in Milwaukee on Nov. 4
Moona Luna (the musicians of Pistolera in their children’s band version) will present two concerts in Milwaukee, Nov. 3 and Nov. 4
Pistolera will be at the Mayne Stage in Chicago on Nov. 6