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Bacilos' Fortunate Latin Fusion

By Deborah Hirsch | Sentinel Staff Writer

August 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Reflecting their roots.

What do you get when you put a Colombian, a Puerto Rican and a Brazilian together?

For the members of Miami Latin rock band Bacilos, the answer is music -- music that simultaneously blends traditional sounds from their native countries and modern trends in Latin American melodies.

Three students from the University of Miami formed Bacilos -- a variation on a Spanish term for "partying" that also means "bacteria" in English -- in 1995. Since then, the band has built up a large fan base, Latin Grammy nominations and a Grammy award. The group's success years after the "Latin craze" of the mid-'90s reflects the still-growing support for new types of Latin American music.

Before starting Bacilos, guitarist-singer Jorge Villamizar, from Colombia, played with percussionist Jose Javier Freire, of Puerto Rico, and three other Americans in a jazz-influenced jam band in 1992.

The two friends joined with bassist Andre Lopes, of Brazil, in what was first a Latin punk-rock garage band. Following friends' advice, they lightened up their heavy melodies with tropical Caribbean rhythms, strings and folk guitar.

"We began to discover the potential of my compositions in the Latin genre," says Villamizar, 32. "We loved it and it was easier; I didn't have to carry amplifiers or anything," he jokes.

Although their first self-titled CD didn't gain much attention, the release of Caraluna resulted in nominations for two Latin Grammys and a Grammy for best Latin pop album in 2001.

That record and their latest release, Mi Primer Million, took six nominations for this year's Latin Grammy Awards, plus two others for their producers.

"We should say that we should get something, but I don't know," Villamizar says. "There are people we respect so much. We're competing against Rubén Blades. I mean that's crazy. We're just doing what we've always been doing and, suddenly, boom. But I'm happy and I'm flattered and I hope next year someone else gets it. I think it should be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, having so many nominations."

The band members didn't purposefully try to bring together different Latin cultures, but Villamizar says that probably would never accidentally happen in Latin countries.

"To make a multi-Latin American band, you have to be here, you have to leave Latin America," he says. "It's a very diverse community, and for that reason the social activities seem to be very integrated."

Villamizar moved to the United States 11 years ago to study at the University of Miami and ended up staying.

"We made the sacrifice to move to the U.S.," he says. "I wish I could go home. Professionally speaking, Miami is the place I have to be. There's a tragic cultural situation happening with Latin America. Latin America is broke: No one buys albums, no one goes to concerts. So we go to the United States to get some money. That concept of success doesn't necessarily mean developing Latin culture. It's more like melting into the Anglo culture."

Though Bacilos reflects this fusion of music genres and perspectives, Villamizar says the group also maintains more traditional rhythms.

"We stayed here and we're doing music more the way we do it in Latin America than the way we do it here," he says. "We don't sell as much as other artists but we sort of remain faithful to our roots."

Staying true to the music under the expectations of budding popularity comes with some pressure, though.

"We have to learn how to do it or else we will disappear," Villamizar says. "We have a good reputation as working people. We are ambitious and old enough to know that life doesn't give you too many shots at this level."

After Bacilos finishes a tour of Latin America this fall, its members will continue working on another album and possibly visit Mexico. Villamizar says he'd like to work with American songwriters to produce English lyrics.

"We might be the tip of the iceberg of a new general Latin American music that is going to start happening in this country and it might change the world."

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