A decade or so ago, Rowan Jiménez was riding the alt-Latino wave as the lead vocalist of Orixa, the Bay Area’s most celebrated and original rock en español band. With a video on MTV-es, a shelf full of awards, national tours and interest from major labels, he and drummer Juan Manuel Caipo were putting the East Bay’s hip-hop inflected Latin sound on the map. It was enough to make any musician pause for a breather, but the hiatus Jiménez ended up taking wasn’t at all what he had planned.
After experiencing shortness of breath in the fall of 2007, he was diagnosed with the sudden onset of an autoimmune disorder that was destroying his lungs. Given a 5% chance of survival, Jiménez underwent a double lung transplant at UC San Francisco, and made a slow but miraculous recovery. Finding his way back on the scene with a new set of pipes, Rowan introduces Guarandinga at Ashkenaz on Friday, an Afro-Caribbean dance band he co-leads with Oakland bassist Jeremy Allen. Still a work in progress, the group’s sound is informed by their love of folkloric Venezuelan rhythms, pop, and soul-steeped East Bay grease.
For Jiménez, Guarandinga is a major step on a long road back to full power, a journey that’s been aided by esteemed vocal coach Raz Kennedy. “I had new lungs and I didn’t know where my singing was going to go,” says Jiménez, who was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to Berkeley at the age of 18. He’s lived in Richmond for more than a decade with his wife and their teenage daughter, and he’s taken his time figuring out his new creative path.
“Around 2010 I did some reunions with Orixa,” Jiménez says. “I went back and connected with some vocal coaches, went through a process of relearning to sing with new lungs. I put out some little solo things, and started putting myself out there sonically. Orixa had a good impact on my life, but I knew I wasn’t a 30-year-old young buck again.”
Like Orixa, Guarandinga is a multilingual band, with lyrics that jump from Spanish to Spanglish to English. Part of what sets group apart from other Afro-Caribbean ensembles is that Jiménez and Allen are deeply versed in Venezuelan rhythms. Allen spent time in the South American nation as an exchange student after high school “and fell in love with Venezuelan music,” he says. Living in the East Bay several years later he became friends with Jackeline Rago, the Caracas-born cuatro master who’s spent decades championing Venezuelan music in the Bay Area. He and Jiménez met through Rago, as they were both early members of her Venezuelan Music Project (which evolved into the Snake Trio).
Their musical paths parted when Orixa took off, an ascent made possible by Berkeley Square, the grungy rock club on lower University Avenue. The band started La Rockola, a monthly Sunday rock en español showcase that quickly snowballed, attracting fans hungry to hear their favorite alt-Latino bands from the U.S. and Latin America.
“It was like the CBGBs of Berkeley,” Jiménez says. “The place stunk. It had this sweaty smell, but it was a hard core rock venue where I’d seen Rage Against the Machine and Jane’s Addiction. They offered us a day once a month, Sunday, and Caipo was like, we’ll have to make it work. We did a lot of legwork promoting the night and it became the home for rock in Spanish in the Bay area. When word got around people started coming from San Leandro, San Jose, the South Valley and Santa Rosa. People would drive for two hours for a show on Sundays, and then we started getting hit by a wave of international acts that wanted to play there.”
As Orixa was hitting its stride, Allen was honing a gorgeous acoustic sound with Quijeremá, a pan-Latin American ensemble associated with La Peña. Led by Chilean-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Quique Cruz, the ensemble featured masters such as John Calloway, Maria Fernanda Acuña, and trumpeter Henry Hung (who often performs with Guarandinga).
Jiménez and Allen started talking about launching a new band about four years ago. Jamming at home, they began writing songs and strategizing to find an unfilled musical niche on a scene brimming with salsa and cumbia. Following their musical passions, they started developing a dance-inducing sound they call Latin Afro pop, inspired by everything from hip hop and Afrobeat but grounded in rhythmic components from central coast Venezuelan music,” Jiménez says.
Jiménez and Allen have attracted a cast of stellar players, and for Friday’s show they’ll be joined by Kenya Moses and Edgar Lavado on percussion and vocals, guitarist Chris Carter, and Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel leader Brian Andres (who shares the drum chair with Fantastic Negrito’s James Small).
“Guarandinga is the perfect combo of all the music we love,” says Allen, who has thought a lot about what it means to embrace music from another culture. “What is authenticity? It’s the process of being an artist and being free with the music. Guarandinga is about making people move and dance. Not about the tech information, but what moves you in your soul. We have this strong identification with Venezuelan music and not many people here know much about it. It’s a different swing and cadence, and we’re mixing it with pop and hip hop and funk.”
For Jiménez, Guarandinga has provided a vehicle for redefining himself as an artist. He received tremendous support from fellow lung transplant recipients in the years following his surgery, but came to feel that he didn’t want to let the operation define his identity. He credits percussion maestro John Santos with helping him calibrate his vision. As he started writing new songs with Guarandinga in mind, Jiménez brought the music to Santos looking for guidance.
“I had 20 songs I’d written and John said, you ought to do something with your story,” Jiménez recalls. “What you’ve gone through is so amazing. Don’t focus on it, but make sure people know. Six years ago your life was hanging by a string, and your instrument was going with it.”
Today his instrument is as expressive as ever, and with every performance Jiménez gains confidence and authority. “I’ve started relaxing, and found a whole new vocal spectrum I didn’t have before,” he says. “I’ve always liked rapping and spoken word and being able to change tonalities. I love to play with my voice as a I perform, doing vocal effects, screams, wails, switching from Spanish to English. I’m still learning about what the aftermath is. I’m nothing but grateful that it worked out.”