SXSW Spotlight: World’s top gayageum rocker Luna Lee

Luna Lee will perform at SXSW 2018. Photo contributed by Joe Oh

Catch Luna Lee at 9 p.m. March 15 at Russian House and at 1:30 p.m. March 16 at Flatstock Stage at the Austin Convention Center

When the South Korean government pulled her South by Southwest funding last year because she wasn’t a K-Pop artist, she found her way to Austin anyway. Now, the world’s only professional gayageum rocker Luna Lee returns to the festival – for two showcases on Thursday and Friday – to keep pushing musical boundaries.

Lee takes a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument called the gayageum and custom designs it to play the popular rock and pop music that’s earned her legions of YouTube fans around the world.

“A musical instrument is a musical instrument,” Lee says. “It can’t decide the genre.”

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Transforming her own gayageum to play everything from Prince to Jimi Hendrix covers as well as her own original songs means installing guitar pickups, pedals and amplifiers to kick up the volume necessary to rock during live shows.

While she’s nailed the production of her studio recordings for YouTube, she said she’d like to perfect the gayageum sound for live performances, which means some more custom designing of the instrument.

“I’m still working on it,” she says. Lee has about 15 gayageums and brought her favorite one to SXSW. She spent part of her Monday installing some custom parts for her upcoming showcases.

MORE SXSW: See all of Austin360’s SXSW coverage

Lee has been playing the gayageum since she was 11. As a teenager, she remembers coming home after school and experimenting with non-traditional music on the gayageum. She later devoted her university studies to the instrument when she majored in gayageum.

“If I didn’t enjoy it I would give it up, but once I find a new tone I’m thrilled,” she said. When Lee covers a song, she says she doesn’t just cover the music but also interprets what she imagines the musician feels when performing. “I can feel the mood of each song,” she said.

Her YouTube popularity has also sprung younger fans curious about how she created her own musical path. Lee said that she feels a duty “to pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

Earlier this year, Lee temporarily moved to Los Angeles, where she’s working on the next phase of her career. She had a residency at Disneyland and hopes to tour throughout the U.S. and practice her English this year. After that, she says, she’s open to the possibilities ahead.

5 Women Who Rocked SXSW 2017

Liniker Barros performs with the band Liniker e os Caramelows at SXSW 2017. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani/American-Statesman

South by Southwest 2017 has been full of inspiring moments and amazing musical discoveries. I kept finding myself at showcases led by strong, talented women. Here’s a few who caught my eye.

Luna Lee (South Korea): She may be small, but she’s fierce. Not only is the Seoul-based musician a rock star, but Lee has revolutionized the way a traditional Korean gayageum is played. She’s invented techniques to play rock and blues on the zither-like string instrument. And when her government pulled funding for her to attend SXSW, Lee’s fans brought her here anyway.

ILe (Puerto Rico): You may recognize her as the feminine voice of Calle 13, who for nearly a decade toured with her brothers Rene Pérez Joglar aka Residente and Eduardo Cabra aka Visitante. But it’s time to get to know Ileana Cabra’s own music as a solo artist. Cabra pours everything into her moving, theatrical performances that are a nod to yesteryear.

La Dame Blanche (Cuba): Yaite Ramos Rodriguez oozes swag. The hip-hop artist struts on stage wearing a cape and smoking a cigar. She spits rhymes and then turns around and starts playing the flute. She’s uber talented and her live performances can’t be missed.

Luz Elena Mendoza (Portland): In the middle of the madness that can be SXSW, Mendoza, frontwoman for the folk band Y La Bamba, offered an authenticity that pierced through all of the festival noise.

Liniker e os Caramelows (Brazil): It was her first time performing in the U.S., but hopefully not the last. We want to hear more from Liniker Barros, frontwoman for the popular Brazilian soul/funk band. As a black, transgender singer, she brings an important perspective to music and on stage her charisma and magnetic performances make her an artist to watch.

SXSW Spotlight: Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba on music, identity

Luz Elena Mendoza at SXSW 2017. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani/American-Statesman

Catch Y La Bamba at 11 p.m. March 18 at the Palm Door on Sixth Patio

For Y La Bamba frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza, music has been therapeutic. And when she takes the stage, you feel the raw emotion of her journey.

Mendoza, a South by Southwest showcasing artist, has been performing sans her Portland-based band at the festival. It’s something that she says is “really scary and hard, but also inspiring.” A stripped down version of her music means she’s relying on her individual strength while she’s on stage, which results in honest performances that are a refreshing step away from the usual SXSW madness that can sweep up the festival.

Mendoza, 35, has been writing and singing since she was a young girl and remembers penning her first song in elementary school. She didn’t grow up on Bob Dylan or the Beatles. Instead, as a daughter of immigrant parents, her childhood soundtrack included artists like Vicente Fernandez and Ramon Ayala.

Her bilingual folk music has also been an exploration of her Mexican identity. “I’ve never felt Mexican enough for Mexicans or American enough for Americans,” she says. “But also I’ve never felt Mexican American enough for Mexican Americans because of the way I look,” she says.

Mendoza, who is tall with short hair and fair-skin, says she knows what it feels like to be “an outcast among outcasts.” Lately, even at SXSW, she’s been asked about her identity a lot and peppered with questions from why she speaks Spanish so well to why she’s singing in Spanish.

“How do you talk about this with someone in a way that’s productive?” she says. When Mendoza writes, she doesn’t think about what language works best for what song. She writes what she feels and that comes from all the layers that make up her identity.

“People sometimes want to put you in a box,” she says. “But I’ve realized that I just need to take care of my spirit. My body is just a capsule and it doesn’t define everything.”

SXSW musical journey through Latin America

La Dame Blanche at SXSW. Photo by Nancy Flores/American-Statesman

At South by Southwest, where acts from all around the world descend on Austin, it’s easy to take a musical journey to any part of the globe. On Friday night, the sounds of Latin America took me on a sonic trek to Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela.

At the Sounds from the World showcase at the Russian House, Aluvión Afrobeat Pacifico led the dance party with Afro-Colombian rhythms from the South American country’s Pacific Coast. The group’s lead singer leapt off the stage to lead the energetic crowd in some dance moves. The killer marimba sound plus charismatic stage presence makes Aluvión a band that must be experienced live.

In 2015, SXSW presented its first Sounds from Cuba showcase and I was glad to see a strong lineup return this year. Among the top artists billed for the show was Yaite Ramos Rodriguez, aka La Dame Blanche. Rodriguez strutted on stage wearing a white cape and smoking a cigar. As if her magical blend of hip-hop with a bit of cumbia, dancehall and reggae wasn’t enough, Rodriguez also takes command of the stage when she whips out a flute to round out her sexy, soulful sound.

For the first time at SXSW, the festival presented a Sounds from Venezuela showcase featuring seven bands including rockers La Vida Bohème. The band’s third album “La Lucha,” which was produced by Calle 13 co-founder Eduardo Cabra (Visitante), releases on March 24. La Vida Bohème’s Friday performance included many of the new songs as well as plenty of the older anthems that fans love to sing like “Radio Capital.” When the lights at the Speakeasy dimmed for their show, the reflection of their matching jackets continued to glow. La Vida Bohème’s live shows never disappoint. They have one last SXSW performance at 11:20 p.m. March 18 at Palm Door on Sixth.

Brazilian R&B band Liniker e os Caramelows breaks transgender barriers at SXSW

Liniker e os Caramelows at SXSW 2017. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani/American-Statesman

Catch Liniker e os Caramelows at 1 a.m. March 17 at Palm Door on Sixth and midnight March 18 at Flamingo Cantina.

When Afro-Brazilian singer Liniker Barros steps on stage with her popular R&B band Liniker e os Caramelows, she helps break transgender barriers with every soulful note. Through the band’s evocative sound and magnetic stage presence, they’ve been able to perform in Brazilian spaces where black, transgender artists wouldn’t typically go before.

“That in itself is a political statement,” says Pericles Zuanon, the band’s percussionist. In Brazil, their shows bring together mixed LGBT and straight audiences, he says. They’re also pushing boundaries, he says, because the rest of the band is straight and led by a black, transgender woman. “We believe in the dignity of life,” Zuanon says. “At the end of the day we want to spread love and respect.”

The band’s South by Southwest showcases mark the first time they’ve performed abroad and look forward to connecting with new audiences.

Liniker Barros performs at the Russian House during SXSW. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani/American-Statesman

For Barros, who captured Brazil’s attention after a YouTube video of a performance went viral, music has always been close to her heart. Growing up with a musical family, though, also meant that she felt intimidated at first to sing aloud. But soon she found her own voice. At 16, she began writing songs and says she found “her soul in her words.”  “I could translate all my feelings into songs, and now I can’t see myself without my voice,” Barros says. “It was how I found my personality.”

Barros finds solace in the fact that she’s not trailblazing on her own. With other Brazilian bands led by transgender artists, she feels like “we’re fighting together to strengthen our music, our country.”

Residente talks Trump, fascism, and baseball at SXSW All Latino Resist Concert

Residente performs at Auditorium Shores during the 2017 SXSW Conference March 16. 03/16/17 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Latinos have been at the center of many contentious issues lately, from raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement across the country to a controversial border wall debate. At South by Southwest on Thursday, the nonprofit organization Voto Latino brought together activist musicians for a free concert at the SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake.

Featured performers included Mexican ska-fusion band Panteón Rococó, Los Angeles-based Latin music mashers Ozomatli, and Residente, who headlined the special All Latino Resist Concert. Festivalgoers waved Mexican and Texas flags and at one point chanted, “Latinos! Latinos!”

Former Calle 13 rapper Rene Pérez Joglar aka Residente pumped up the crowd with a memorable, high energy performance that kicked off with his latest single as a solo artist “Somos Anormales.” His new album was inspired by a DNA test the artist took years ago. His journey around the world to retrace his genetic makeup is also the subject of the “Residente” documentary that premiered at SXSW. In it he features musicians from China to Niger.

“My band is made up of immigrants from around the world,” he told the cheering crowd. “F*** Trump.”

Ozomatli performs at Auditorium Shores during the 2017 SXSW Conference March 16. 03/16/17 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From past Calle 13 hits like “El Aguante” to his new hip-hop/world sound, Pérez Joglar united the crowd at Auditorium Shores by dedicating the goosebump-inducing performance of “Latinoamérica” to all immigrants. At the Drive-In’s Omar Rodríguez-López joined Pérez Joglar on stage for several songs where he played lead guitar. His mad skills are also featured in the new Residente album, set to drop later this month.

At one point Pérez Joglar, a self-professed baseball fanatic, asked the enthusiastic crowd to chant “Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico!” so he could send the video to the Puerto Rican baseball team competing in the World Baseball Classic. He also gave a platform to festivalgoers holding a “Refuse Facism” sign that said, “In the name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America.” Pérez Joglar asked for the sign, read it aloud and displayed it on stage for all to see.

 

SXSW Spotlight: Puerto Rico’s Ileana Cabra or iLe

Catch iLe at SXSW at 11 p.m. at The Townsend Thursday; 10:20 p.m. at Half Step Friday

At 16 years old, Ileana Cabra stepped into the huge spotlight that her brothers created when they formed the alternative rap duo Calle 13 about a decade ago. As the female backing vocalist, Cabra or PG-13 (as she was known back then) grew up on stage, touring extensively as the group’s fame exploded.

“It was unexpected for us,” she says. “It got very intense, very quickly.” Calle 13 is the name of the street where the family lived, and they moved there because of her, she says. When she was born, the family needed a house with more space. “Our house was always full of art and music,” Cabra says.

But after more than a decade of Grammy winning-albums that catapulted the group to new heights, Calle 13 recently dissolved. Cabra and her brothers Rene Pérez Joglar “Residente” and Eduardo Cabra “Visitante” are now all pursuing their own creative paths.

“We’re still working together in the background, though,” Cabra says. “We still need each other, and I love working with my family.”

Ileana Cabra is a SXSW 2017 showcasing artist.

This new chapter has meant a solo career for Cabra, whose debut album “iLevitable” recently earned her a Grammy of her own. At South by Southwest this week, Cabra will bring her own vintage, nostalgic sound at several showcases Friday and Saturday.

Cabra says she feels a closeness to the music of yesteryear. Her latest album includes two songs written by her grandmother that had never been recorded. “I feel that’s music from the heart, it’s a more personal.” Since going solo, Cabra has also been writing more. It’s something that she says helps her let go of baggage she accumulates and hopes it helps other women who may struggle with expressing themselves.

With Calle 13, Cabra says she gained confidence as a person and performer. Now as a soloist, she’s learning to trust herself more. “I really want to create more music,” she says. “I want to feel challenged and uncomfortable so that I can explore more of myself.”

Luna Lee rocks SXSW with traditional Korean Gayageum instrument

Luna Lee’s music has a global audience with more than 17 million views on YouTube. Photo by Nancy Flores/American-Statesman

Luna Lee isn’t just a musician – she’s a pioneer. As the one and only gayageum rocker, she’s managed to bring a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument into the 21st century by redesigning it to fit her love of rock music. Seoul-based Lee developed a custom gayageum to play everything from Pink Floyd songs to Jimi Hendrix, which has earned her scores of loyal fans on YouTube.

At her South by Southwest performance at the Victorian Room at the Driskill, she captivated audiences with her command of the ancient instrument, which rested on a stand as she plucked away with fierce intensity.

“I love to play rock music,” she said sweetly from the stage.

Lee moved from rock and blues covers including Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” to traditional Korean folk songs (so that we heard what the instrument typically sounds like, she said) to her own moving original music. Lee was joined by four other musicians, including three from Austin who stepped in after funding fell through for her own band.

Lee almost didn’t make it to SXSW. The Korean government pulled its funding of her trip to the festival after realizing that she was not a K-Pop performer. However, her fans came together to help her raise enough money to travel here anyway.

“I was a little nervous about this showcase,” she said from the stage after rousing cheers and applause. “But now, I’m just happy.”

 

SXSW 2017: Residente reflects on life after Calle 13, new film and album

Residente at SXSW 2017. Photo by Nancy Flores/American-Statesman

After 25 Grammys and more than a decade as rapper and co-founder of the alternative rap duo “Calle 13,” René Pérez Joglar, also known as Residente, has started a new chapter on his own.

“As an artist, I was starting to feel comfortable and that’s the worst feeling,” Pérez Joglar said. “As soon as you start feeling comfortable, you have to quit and do something else. It would have been very easy to do another tour with Calle 13, but I took a risk.”

Over the years, Calle 13 pushed musical boundaries, caused controversy, raised awareness about social justice issues and constantly evolved. Now, Pérez Joglar, who has earned more Grammy awards than any other Latino artist, is carving another path. At South by Southwest this week, he premiered his documentary “Residente,” and will perform with his new band at Thursday’s free Latino Resist Concert at Lady Bird Lake. His solo album drops later this month.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pérez Joglar spoke in the SXSW featured session “Conversation with Residente,” where he let fans in on the past and future of the Puerto Rican rapper who began spitting rhymes at age 11.

Pérez Joglar still remembers the days when he was trying to get the attention of record labels. “I would start rapping in front of the security cameras outside of the (record label’s building),” he said with a laugh.

A Conversation with Residente at SXSW 2017. Photo by Nancy Flores

As a student, Pérez Joglar landed a scholarship to attend art school in Savannah, Georgia. It was there, he said, that he learned to create things that were a reflection of what affected him. It’s a lesson that he’s carried with him throughout all of his creative endeavors. “It’s impossible to be only one thing,” he said. In his music, he can rap about everything from politics to partying. “That’s the balance that I have.”

The master lyricist, known for using phrasing with double or triple meanings, said he likes his lyrics to be accessible. “I like improvisation because it’s an art, but in my writing every sentence has a meaning.” His creative process nowadays works in different ways. Sometimes music or a concept will spark lyrics or “sometimes I’ll come home drunk and start writing,” he said. “But I love the editing process because I love playing with words.”

For his documentary and new album, Pérez Joglar took inspiration from a DNA test he took years ago. Then, he documented his journey throughout all of the countries and regions that have formed a part of his genetic makeup from Armenia to Africa.

At the height of his career, when he could collaborate with any big name artist he wants, Pérez Joglar chose to instead collaborate with lesser known artists from around the world such as throat singers. Despite some of the language barriers throughout his global trek, Pérez Joglar said “music was our language.”

SXSW 2017: Around the World in 5 Days: Saturday, March 18

For the next week, it will be possible to go on a global musical journey without leaving Austin. We teamed with Michael Crockett, host of “Horizontes” on KUTX (7 to 10 p.m. Sundays), to put together a selection of Latin and World music picks at South by Southwest. Follow our live fest coverage at in this blog and at kutx.org.

Listen to a playlist of our favorite world music acts on Spotify.

MORE SXSW WORLD MUSIC: TUES. | WEDS. | THURS. | FRI

Krudas Cubensi (Cuba via Austin) This hip-hop duo took Cuba’s underground rap scene by storm in the late 1990s. Their lyrical explosions about feminism, equality and veganism tackled uncomfortable truths that were taboo on the island at the time. (11:15 p.m. at Carver Museum Boyd Vance Theater) — N.F.

Hanba! (Cracow, Poland) Punk + klezmer + folk = must-see music. Watch this Polish quartet defy musical genres with a banjo, accordion and tuba. (1 a.m. at Russian House; 9 p.m. Thursday at Flamingo Cantina) — N.F.

Radiocaliente (Medellín, Colombia) The band adds a bit of hip-hop to their blend of South American and Caribbean music. (11 p.m. at Flamingo Cantina) — M.C.

Silvastone (London, England) Like many of the Afrobeats artists playing this showcase, Silvastone has multicultural musical influences. Born in the U.K. to a Sierra Leonean mother and Ghanan father, his music has African roots, but the influence of English and American R&B and hip-hop might be stronger. (9:10 p.m. at the Belmont; 10:20 Friday at Clearport) — M.C.

Little Simz (London, England) A British grime spitta with a wicked quick fire flow. (10 p.m., the Mohawk)

Alex Cuba (Cuba via Canada) Alexis Puentes, raised in Cuba, changed his performing name after moving to Canada several years ago. He now is a Latin Grammy-winning singer-songwriter/guitarist who, besides writing many songs for fellow Canadian Nelly Furtado, has also released several albums mixing the Cuban trova with American funk. (11 p.m. at Russian House; 12:10 a.m. Friday at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room) — M.C.