Camaradas del Barrio is a tiny restaurant/bar tucked beside a bodega at the corner of First Avenue and 115th Street. When I arrive after a five-block journey from the 6 train, the hardwood tables are already taken, small groups wedged together in laughing, raucous conversation. Inside, I wrestle my way down a narrow passage toward a stage that makes the Mercury Lounge look like the Hammerstein Ballroom. Everything is nudged up against everything else, yet the place doesn’t feel crowded: It has that intangible sense of community that turns “hot, sweaty, and claustrophobic” into “intimate.” Outside, other customers lean against cars, smoking and socializing. The night air, the traffic, and the full-throated contributions of neighbors and passersby do nothing to drown out Latin electro-rock trio Navegante, who are commanding the same stage they’ve taken every other Friday for close to a year. Tonight, it’s their record-release party: Microcosmos, their debut CD (out on their own Rebel Ship label, named after the vehicle that takes them to every gig), is available.
The songs on Microcosmos combine live instrumentation—guitar and cuatro by vocalist Jean Shepherd, formerly of Radio Mundial; drums by Washington Alcebo “Wash” Duke; and bass by 19-year-old Guillo Colón, also of Yerbabuena (“There’s the Cuban one and the Puerto Rican one; he plays for the Puerto Rican one,” clarifies Shepherd)—with electronic touches ranging from hip-hop beats to techno synths. The rhythms bulk up funk and Latin grooves with thick, dubby bass, all topped by deceptively simple arrangements, keyboards, and effects-heavy guitars swirling around each other as Shepherd’s vocals float over top.
Lyrically, those vocals are socially conscious without sinking into world-music gooeyness. Songs like “Aparencias,” “Ladrones,” and “La Optimista” imbue personal relationships with a broader perspective. Some songs dip into alternative rock, while others tilt more toward of-the-moment hip-hop and electronica: “Ya Verás” is a chant over a minimal, thumping beat reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” On the other hand, “Hermano” is dominated by an acoustic-guitar melody, percussion, and a straightforward programmed beat intended more for sober listening than wild dance-floor abandon . . . until the chorus comes in, the guitar fuzzes out, and it’s time to wave your hands in the air.
There are many such moments during a Navegante live set. Tonight, Shepherd and Colón are shoulder-to-shoulder on Camaradas’ tiny stage, singing in Spanish but addressing the crowd between songs in English. Colón’s bass is much louder and more dominant onstage, with a hard-rock distortion and overamped sonic fervor that his bandmates match. Behind his kit, Duke slams out tough rhythms with a funk edge and a Latin groove that’s always organic, never tacked-on or ersatz. The electronic elements are there, too, but live, Navegante become a band, not a project.
“I think it has a lot to do with all the influences you get throughout your life by being an American-born Latino in the United States,” Shepherd says of their hybrid sound, equal parts Latin music, hip-hop, and rock. “I was born in the Bronx, raised in Miami, and I’ve been back here 13 years. So there’s all this mix of culture that you have. You hear electronic music, then you go home and you hear salsa, and my family would get together and play salsa. . . . You’re influenced by this huge amount of music that you’re getting everywhere. I love rock music, I love music from London, space-rock bands—I love all of that stuff. And I think all that stuff ends up in the music naturally. That’s why all the people from this neighborhood—the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans, even if they’re not from [the U.S.]—they get it, because they’re living here now.”
Indeed, despite mostly living in Brooklyn (Colón currently lives in the Bronx), Navegante are now part of Spanish Harlem’s cultural life, thanks to their personal relationship with Camaradas co-owner Orlando Plaza; Shepherd has worked with the club’s owners for much of its nearly five-year history. “Jean had another band, Radio Mundial, and I knew him from that,” recalls Plaza. “So when he came to me and said he had this new band, to me, it was a no-brainer. I said, ‘Absolutely. Whatever night you want, just let me know.’ And it’s worked out really well. He loves playing here, and our audience loves him.”
Live music (Colón’s other band, Yerbabuena, also plays there) has helped Plaza build a successful business in an area that doesn’t have much to offer visitors—or residents, for that matter; he admits 115th and First is “not a destination neighborhood.” But inside, the crowd is white, black, and Latin, indie kids standing next to hip-hoppers standing next to beautiful brown-skinned women dancing in pairs.
It might seem like a funny thing to say immediately before your record-release party, but Shepherd isn’t too concerned about racking up record sales. “We’re focusing on our live show,” he says. “I met Chris, who does lights for us, when he was working at Irving Plaza. We became friends, and he said, ‘I have these lights—do you think I could come and do lights for you?’ He puts on an amazing light show, and we’ve been continuing to play here because he has given us the opportunity to build this small model of what we could do with a bigger stage. I feel like live music—getting the music across and transmitting that energy—is really important, almost more important than a big hit song, whatever that is these days.”
Duke concurs with the idea that live performance is the only way to reach people in such a physical, directly emotional way. The collapse of the traditional retail model and the major-label star system has opened the gates for bands to flood in, build a cult following, and make a career of it. “It’s wide open right now,” he says. “I feel like mainstream music . . . I don’t even know what that means anymore. There are a lot of successful working bands that have hundreds of thousands of fans, and you might not even know who they are.” Navegante—making music that combines an organic, bohemian songwriting style with amped-up rock and electronic grooves—seem destined to be one of those bands. Their music isn’t for everyone, but what is?