Global Beat: Making Movies
photo credit: Felipe Rubilar
Making Movies has only played one gig thus far on their 2022 tour, but the rush they’re experiencing from being out on the road again is already palpable. “It’s such a good feeling; it’s hard to describe,” founding singer, guitarist and songwriter Enrique Chi says the day after the show. “The thrill of playing feels kind of childlike again. Like, ‘I have a gig! Oh, my God!’”
That upbeat emotion extends to the decade-old Kansas City quartet’s new album, XOPA. It’s their fourth full-length release, the first featuring new drummer Duncan Burnett—who joins Enrique, his bassist brother Diego Chi and percussionist Juan-Carlos Chaurand—and the first sung entirely in Spanish. The band has often been described as Afro-Latino—although they also incorporate everything from psychedelic influences to straight-up Americana—and for the new effort, the musicians and producer Ben Yonas decided it was time to deliver their songs in a language that is very much a part of their collective heritage. The Chi family came to the United States from Panama, Chaurand— whose brother Andres was their previous drummer—is of Mexican descent and Burnett brings a Black gospel sensibility to the music.
“It was important to do that,” Enrique says. “Spanish was the first language that I spoke. It felt like I had arrived at a sense of home and I needed to say that in Spanish. I don’t think it’s that we’re destined to only make music in Spanish—obviously, a huge chunk of my life is communicating in English— but this was the moment to make the statement as to where we come from. I needed to write from this place.”
The lyrics to the songs on XOPA—the title translates to soup, a reference to the band’s mix of influences and to Spanish slang for “What’s up?”—may not be in English, but the band trusts its audience enough to absorb the vibe. The opening line of the title track— “Soy el que soy Semejante brebaje”—translates to “I am who I am/ What a strange brew,” and other new tunes feature deeply personal, often autobiographical storylines. In “Calor,” one of the album’s highlights, a key lyric translates to “I had no premonition of what would change in me/ Ten years and I survived,” while in “Mamá”—which Chi considers one of the most important songs on XOPA—he relates a dream he had in which his late grandmother comes back to life and conveys to him meaningful truths.
In a press release for the album, Chi states that he felt that Making Movies “has arrived” with this album. When asked to elaborate, he says, “We arrived at a sense of self, an understanding of who we are. We come from multicultural backgrounds. My last name is Chinese because my grandpa was a Chinese immigrant from Panama. I have coarse hair and thick lips because any Panamanian has a bunch of Afro-descendant blood. And I took a DNA test and realized I’m 20 percent Native American—being Latino means you’re really a Native American. So we have this melting pot of stuff inside of us and we’re building rhythms out from that, from this ancestral place. We had to be on this journey to really speak to those ideas and those rhythms that are really old. We had to wear them like they’re ours, not like we’re tourists trying to understand a different thing.”
Despite feeling that they’ve only now arrived at this place, the band’s evolution didn’t emerge without precedent. Chi says that Making Movies, from the start, knew they were on to something. “It was there from the first album,” he says of the band’s collective vision. “One of my teachers said, ‘Oh, you’re building a Frankenstein.’ And when you build a Frankenstein, you gotta make sure you don’t put the foot where the head goes; it still has to walk. I think we always were building the same Frankenstein, but we kept tweaking it because it would walk a little funny. And now it walks.”
In addition to gathering an increasingly larger following, Making Movies has also garnered devoted support from other artists, among them Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin—who produced their first three albums—and the legendary Panamanian singer-songwriter and activist Rubén Blades, who gave them a shout-out at the 2017 Latin Grammys. They have since collaborated with him on the protest song “No Te Calles,” and now he lends his voice to “Consejos” on the new album. Other guests on XOPA include Civil Rights activist Dolores Huerta, Native American flutist Robert Mirabal and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. “They all represent mentors in our lives,” Chi says. “If we were broke or confused or life wasn’t working super well—the music career, whatever—these folks would show up at the right times, pat us on the back and say, ‘You’re going the right way—don’t freak out, just keep walking.’”
That’s a two-way street. In AMERI’KANA, a documentary film made by the band—which shares its title with their 2019 album (following 2013’s A La Deriva and 2017’s I Am Another You)—Making Movies gives voice to some of those who initially inspired them. And extending their reach further, in 2017, Chi and his bandmates founded Art as Mentorship—an organization that, according to its mission statement, began “as an after-school music program for an under-served community [and] has grown into an organized network of international performing artists committed to guiding the next generation through the power of song.”
That, says Chi, “is our way of putting into action and words what Rubén wrote: ‘Don’t let them silence you or the sound that we made together.’ Our way of living is to empower young people and say, ‘Hey, raise your voice; make your own music.’”