For Empresarios, collaboration is the key
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, December 21, 2012
Six people appear in the band portrait on “El Sonido Magico,” the second Empresarios album. But the local ensemble can also perform its mix of Latin, reggae, jazz and funk as a quartet: two singers, a conga player and electronics, a format that plays up the group’s techno and hip-hop elements. And sometimes the group’s sound system -- Sonny Cheeba and Sammy Khosh, who aren’t in the album photo -- perform DJ sets under the Empresarios banner.
In fact, what is now a tight live band began as a DJ project. The idea germinated about a decade ago at Gazuza, a Dupont Circle lounge, when conga player Javier Miranda was hired to play along with Cheeba’s turntable mixes.
“All of a sudden, I have a conga player, which I’d never experienced,” Cheeba recalls. “I loved it. It changed the whole feeling. I started catering to him, giving him something to play to.”
That began a fruitful alliance for Cheeba, a Bethesda native, and Miranda, who moved to Rockville from Puerto Rico as a teenager 20 years ago.
“When I got here, I didn’t know English,” Miranda says. “The only thing I could relate to was music.” He began performing at his father’s church and, by the early 2000s, was providing Latin percussion for Thievery Corporation and local dub-reggae band See-I (with whom he still plays).
Meanwhile, Miranda and Cheeba began crafting riffs and rhythms with software rather than with instruments. “We had the idea, but didn’t know how we were going to get it out there,” Cheeba says. “We had probably 50 songs on the computer. Everyday, we’d come home and go straight to music.”
Then Miranda met guitarist Paul Chaconas, part of the trio (with Miranda and John “J.B.” Bowen) now credited with writing and producing most of Empresarios’ material. “He had a beautiful studio in Frederick,” Miranda says. “He had guitars, he had a drum set, he had everything. We’d take our ideas over there, and they’d get finalized.”
Miranda’s work with Thievery Corporation opened up an unexpected musical door for the percussionist. Guitarist Rob Myers, a member not only of Thievery Corporation, but also of the Fort Knox Five (which shares a label with Empresarios), recruited the conga player as the vocalist for a track from the Five’s 2008 album, “Radio Free DC.” That singing gig was the first recorded vocal for Miranda, who leads Empresarios but whose voice is rarely heard on their tracks.
“This guy is so shy,” Cheeba says with a laugh.
A large man with a booming voice and an exuberant manner, Miranda doesn’t seem even slightly introverted. But, he says of vocals, “I have to be in the moment. . . . I like the percussion thing.”
Miranda’s brother, Frankie Rosada, and Felix Perez do most of Empresarios’ singing and rapping, both of which are more prominent on the group’s second album, “El Sonido Magico,” than its predecessor, “Sabor Tropical.” But that’s not all that Rosada added.
“My brother was involved in reggaeton music,” Miranda says. “Our music was a blend of a lot of things, but it was a softer approach. He and Felix brought that edgy thing.”
Among the band’s strengths is that its members deliver so many styles to the mix. “Paul comes from a rock-and-roll background,” Miranda says. “J.B. loves reggae. Sammy likes house music. I grew up around Spanish music.”
“This guy changed my whole set,” Cheeba interjects. “I used to be a house DJ! And when I was younger, I played old school hip-hop music. All that stuff is a huge influence on our music.”
Empresarios play live as a sextet, anchored by drummer Anthony Gary, and sometimes with electronic contributions from Cheeba and Khosh. Eventually, Miranda would like to add a pianist and a trumpeter to the lineup. But the group also takes smaller forms.
“We can break it apart,” Cheeba says. “Me and Sammy will do DJ sets and represent the band. Or me and Javier will make an appearance with the singers, Frankie and Felix.”
Collaboration is the key, Miranda says. “I think that coming up with musical ideas is the most beautiful thing that you can do. I think it’s amazing. And when we disagree, no problem. We have a good understanding, and respect for each other. It started with being friends. I think that’s why it works.”