By Sam Jeffery
This week marks the release of "Sonido", the first album from the funkily named LatinAotearoa, forged here in New Zealand but firmly rooted in the rasping sounds of Latin America. I chatted with Jennifer Zea, whose voice provides the great Latin force behind the impending album, and who, along with DJ Bobby Brazukaand Isaac Aesili, has created what Zea hopes "appeals to a younger generation as well as older - people that listen, want to dance and have fun".
Zea's journey from early Venezuelan upbringings, infused with some years spent in Detroit, to a flagship Latin band in New Zealand is one of great interest. Having moved to America at the age of 8 she speaks warmly of her time there, and early musical influences.
"I had the fortune of living in the United States because my brother was too young when he won a scholarship. From the top of my head I loved a lot of different styles, anything from Michael Jackson to Public Enemy, and everything in between".
Upon returning to Venezuela in her mid-teens Zea embarked on a musical journey that would start, somewhat surprisingly given the truly soulful nature of her voice, in a heavy metal band in the late 80s, before teaming up with Desorden Publico, a ska band in which Zea was the only female accompaniment to 12 male members.
"Desorden Publico was an amazing experience... They are still going now. I was the back vocals girl and did a couple of songs for the band, and it was awesome.
When you think Ska you think punk and that 'mix' - they did that 'mix' but on top they added all the Latin America feels like salsa and meringue. It was full on but flavoury of our land. It helped me remember my roots growing up there".
It is clear given the passion and fervour with which Zea speaks that, to her very core, she lives and breathes Latin music. I was curious to know how she ended up, firstly, in New Zealand and secondly how the band came into being.
"You cross a ditch, and go a bit further each time", Jennifer says with a smile as she explains her adventurous nature. It's in fact her husband's job that brought her to these shores, and without which chance occurrence she would not be the position she is with LatinAotearoa.
"I met Isaac Aesili at the Khuja Lounge and Bobby Brazuka I hunted down. I met them independently of each other", she explains.
DJ Bobby Brazuka is a well-known name within music circles within New Zealand. Originally arriving as an exchange student from Brazil, Zea describes him in glowing terms: "All the women love Bobby because of the music he plays. He's the king of getting things done, putting things together - he's made an art of it".
Zea credits Brazuka with bringing many Brazilian artists to New Zealand and "integrating Brazilian music into Kiwi culture without aggressiveness or being too imposing. He knows how to blend our [Latin] music with music known here like reggae, funk, dub and house".
The origin of LatinAotearoa as a band stems from Jennifer's zeal in wanting to cut it on the New Zealand music scene.
"I knocked on every door, I did things I've not done for a long time like open mic".
Eventually she was advised to seek out Bobby and was invited to sing with him on his DJ sets. Before long it was clear that a natural synergy was in blossom and Zea "liked the potential to make people dance".
Having covered other people's music at first it was universally agreed that music of their own would "take us to the next level", as Zea explains it. With the help of producer Isaac Aesili putting the music together, under Bobby's watchful eye, the band and the upcoming album began to take shape.
"Isaac has a very strong personality in the way he does music. Whatever he does, we know it's the hand of Isaac there".
So what should we expect of "Sonido"?
"It's a mix of different styles - everything from house, dance, there's even a cover of Ladi6 in Spanish, and percussions bringing it a Latino flavour. We have Brazilian as well, with electronic and rapping on top of Colombian music! It's a mix of a lot of things", Zea outlines with the broadest of grins.
She is clearly excited about what LatinAotearoa has produced and speaks with ill-contained and refreshing enthusiasm about the aspirations for the album.
"I hope it gets the radio play that other Latino styles wouldn't - that would truly be the beginning of a mix of younger people appreciating Latin music".
With a planned tour of New Zealand and across the Tasman to Australia later this year, as well as potential visits to Europe and Brazil, LatinAotearoa look destined for a busy future. Zea also explains that they'd like to take their project into local schools to help youngsters "embrace who they are and believe in possibilities".
"Sonido" is released this week and Zea, for one, can't wait.
"If you wanna dance and have a good time, you put that thing on full volume and you bring your friends and do the party. Put a smile on your face".
I've a feeling many New Zealanders will be smiling along with her soon enough.
May Tour Dates:
May 3rd - Auckland - Goldfinch
May 4th - Wellington - Havana Bar
May 5th - Cadillac Bar - Queenstown
May 11th - Monday Room - Christchurch
May 17th - Blue Beat - Sydney
May 19th - Section 8 - Melbourne
May 25th - Aroha & Friends - Napier
Sonido de LatinAotearoa is available from Friday May 3rd