San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Psychotropic’ Sonámbulo readies for US

From the print edition

“It’s great being home; Costa Rica is like our laboratory,” said Sonambulo keyboardist Manuel Dávila, canted over on elbows and knees, adjusting his wizened ball cap at the top of the stairwell. Eight or nine of the band members had slowly accumulated in the sort-of subterranean anteroom behind the stage at Jazz Café in Escazú, a well-to-do suburb of San José.

Sonámbulo, or Sleepwalker, had just returned from a well-received European tour, and the band is working on a second studio album. “We get to experiment more with this one, bring a bit more of everyone’s culture,” Dávila said. “It’s one thing to do that in concert, another to do so in the studio.”

If Sonámbulo’s variety in culture is the barometer for experimentation, that’s a lot of experimenting. The bandmates hail from Cuba, El Salvador and Costa Rica, and guest vocalists from Caribbean nations abound. On stage and obscured by trippy monochromatic projections, it is nearly impossible to make out exactly how many of them there are. The number in the crowd is also difficult to discern, but there are clearly hundreds in the small bar – mostly a flatbed full of U.S. expats, blissed-out Ticos and ardent followers of the psicotropical, or psychotropical genre – a style which credits Sonámbulo as its architect.

Upcoming Shows 

Sept. 21: Bar Observatorio, San José, 9 p.m.

Sept. 22: ExpoPococí (TBA)

Sept. 27: Jazz Café San Pedro, 9 p.m.

Oct. 10: The Flaming Cantina, Austin, TX (TBA)

Oct. 13: Austin City Limits, Austin, TX (TBA)

“It’s very reggae, very Afro-Caribbean-influenced, but with other elements. Jazz, funk,” Dávila said. It’s also very ska. The horns and walking baselines are nearly as important as the bongos and strings, as if James Brown had crashed a jam session with Sublime. 

“There’s a lot going on, we know,” laughed Daniel Cuenca, the voice behind the band. His multi-layered laugh is indicative of his ability to quickly shift his inflection during performance, which lends a haunting quality to the sound. “We ask a lot from the audience, which is why energy is so important to us. It’s like a dance between the crowd and us: When they go down, we come up, and vice versa.”

Sonámbulo’s touring schedule may ask as much of the group as it does of the audience. Recently returned from a first European tour, the band played 26 gigs in just eight weeks, in five different countries (Holland, France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland).

“We had a great reception in France, as well as in Spain.  We share the language, so I think that helps,” Cuenca said.

“In Spain, in Galicia, we finished one concert and were about to leave. We had played nearly three hours. They took a ladder and laid it over the crowd onto the stage. The crowd put a box of beers and liquor and food and passed it onto the stage using the ladder and begged us to keep playing. It was a great feeling.”

The support demonstrated by the Spanish is wholly unsurprising, considering that when the group first recorded its debut album, it received funding and production help from the Spanish Cultural Institute.

In the end, the first album sold only 3,000 copies. Sonámbulo offered music online to help grow presence, but the band was still waiting on a big break.

“But,” said Roberto “Cuba” Román, “we prefer selling physical albums because we think of the album itself as a work of art. Creating an album is a process, and the magic of the process is lost when you purchase music song by song.”

In fact, the group had many discussions about releasing different versions of the CD to capitalize on this principle, says Román. “The music we make is intended for a live audience, and it is played that way, too. When we play live, it is as much a work of art as an album. For this reason we thought about live versions of the CD.”

The second album currently underway is new territory for Sonámbulo, as the band will be producing it without the aid of the Spanish Cultural Institute.

“It’s a lot more of an experiment for us,” Cuenca said. “We all have different musical tastes and different backgrounds. One of us makes documentaries, another also works as a chef, an electrical engineer; there is a lot of give and take in our music because of this, this is what psychotropical is.”

When creating what has been billed as an entirely new genre, psychotropical, Sonámbulo’s idea was to gather the band members’ various quirks and foibles and insert them into the music.

Sonambulo 2

Lead singer Daniel Cuenca performs in his usual hat.

Alberto Font

“Costa Rica is very mixed itself,” Cuenca said. “Since we are in the middle of the continent, we get influences from both sides. So it lends itself naturally to the music.”

At Costa Rica’s largest music festival, Festival Imperial, the group eventually got the break they had been waiting on, and a first shot at recognition in the States.

“The producers of Imperial happened to be some of the producers for Austin City Limits,” said manager Carol Campos. “They got halfway through the set, and while they were still on stage, I was arranging for them to play in Austin.”  

“They heard us and that was it,” said Cuenca, laughing but somehow maintaining the humility that has made the band so popular with Ticos. The musicians are hoping these manners translate well this October when they take the stage in Texas to become the first Costa Rican musical group to play a major U.S. festival.

Asked whether the task of playing to tens of thousands was daunting, Cuenca replied, “When we were first playing, if people didn’t dance so much we would get a bit shy. But now we understand that it’s a paired dance between artist and audience, and we’ve just got to take the lead.”

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