It’s not easy to forget the prejudice confronted by Chicago’s Latine bands and artists who were trying to build relationships with venues and recording studios in the late 90s and early 2000s. I experienced some of it personally as manager for one of those bands. From 2001 till around 2014, I worked with [.DESCARGA.], and I heard it all. “Latin rock? What does that mean—they play with maracas?” The worst comment came from the owner of a long-gone venue in Wicker Park, who was Mexican himself: “I don’t want Mexicans playing in my bar!” I’d just started working as a booker there, and I quit.

Well, it’s 2021, and the success of local five-piece Dos Santos arrives as a clear signal that at least a few things have changed—and they’ll no doubt make the road easier for upcoming bands. I’ve seen for myself the great pride that Chicago’s Latine musicians take in Dos Santos, whether they themselves play indie rock, son jarocho, salsa, or something else—and that pride is spreading beyond the city to the Latine music community at large. For more than three years Dos Santos have been releasing music on a non-Latine label, International Anthem, and when they tour the country (which they did regularly before the pandemic), they attract plenty of fans who don’t know enough Spanish to have a clue what their lyrics mean but who dance along anyway.

It’s been a long time coming.

Dos Santos debuted with a self-titled and self-released album in 2015, and their previous full-length, Logos, came out in 2018. In two weeks they’ll release City of Mirrors, which is poised to be their biggest release yet.

Dos Santos’ sound has a foundation in traditional rhythms from across Latin and South America, among them cumbia (which originated in Colombia, influenced by Indigenous and African peoples) and chicha (an Andean fusion of psychedelic rock, cumbia, and the huayno music of the Quechua). They reconfigure these mainstays in combination with their members’ personal influences—jazz, Mexican folkloric genres, punk rock, and salsa, to name a few—and in the process upend stereotypes of Latine music. 

The cover of City of Mirrors incorporates artwork by Chicagoan Amara “Rebel Betty” Martin.

“We’re not doing anything new—música Latina in all its iterations, it’s all hybrid music, all of it,” says vocalist Alex E. Chávez. “It’s never been static, and so what we do is the same sort of thing—we take from these fundamental ideas, concepts, and things that inform them and change them and do different things with them.” 

But while Dos Santos’ hybridizing method is tried and true, the results are distinctive to the band and to their time and place. “I think we are definitely aware that we’re not just doing it, but we are doing it in this positioned way. We are Latinos in the context of the U.S., right now, in this century,” Chávez explains. “It’s a continued appeal to everything that’s always been hybrid and trying to highlight that and be true to that—and not in a ridiculous simulacrum of tradition that I think can be ironic, kitsch, at its worst stereotypical, and even worse, tired.”

YouTube video
This video from Logos is the last one Dos Santos made before beginning work on City of Mirrors.

Dos Santos’ lyrics reflect current cultural shifts, just as their music merges the past with the present. This satisfies a yearning felt by many BIPOC to connect their daily lived experience with their roots. For Latine folks in Chicago and beyond, City of Mirrors reflects our heritage and our lineage, and reminds us that we’re an ancient people—we’re still here, and this is what we’re going through. Dos Santos’ music and stories reflect a vibrant cultural awakening that strives to enrich the world.  

It’s rare to see a Latine artist or band flourish as quickly as Dos Santos. In recording three full-lengths, they’ve broken the “curse of the first album” that has often seemed to stymie Chicago rock en español bands after just one. They started landing gigs outside the city much more quickly than most of their peers, and even managed to get booked at big festivals—success that in their local scene had previously been an unattainable dream. 

This rapid rise is even more impressive when you consider that Dos Santos started out playing music heavily indebted to traditional sounds such as chicha and cumbia, which haven’t been popular in the Latine alternative-music community. In the early 2000s, for instance, Chicago band Los Vicios de Papá were effectively shut out of a Latine rock venue in Little Village because of the cumbia in their sound—they wouldn’t flourish till they crossed over to the larger ska audience. 

Dos Santos have reframed the narrative of what Latine music is or should be, unafraid to spotlight our collective struggles. They’ve catapulted traditional music in a new, borderless direction and become a symbol of success. 

But let’s start at the beginning. 

YouTube video
Dos Santos perform at the Hideout as part of the virtual CIVLization festival in November 2020.

Dos Santos first performed in 2013, at which point their aim was still vaguely defined—they knew they wanted to incorporate chicha and psychedelia. Back then they were still using the name Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, but after their first album (and a change of guitarist) they shortened it.

“What I noticed in the city of Chicago was, it’s the second-largest Mexican population outside of East LA, and one of the largest Latino populations,” Chávez says. “And I’m coming from Austin, Texas—I lived there a decade before—and there’s always progressive and experimental stuff going on with música Latina. And getting here, I was very surprised that there was a lot of traditional stuff—salsa, regional Mexican music, and even some innovative stuff from like a decade before like duranguense, and a big mariachi scene and rock and ska.”

The idea behind Dos Santos was to do something forward-looking and rule-breaking with those traditional sounds. “I was jonesing to play an original project that incorporated Latin American rhythms that are inflected in this progressive way that has a real disregard for what that should be,” Chávez explains. “I was already used to that, being in Austin.” He remembers trying to find out who might be on a similar path in Chicago, but none of the musicians he asked knew anyone.

“Alex had the project idea developed,” says drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo. “He wanted to do a fusion of cumbia and pan-Latin rhythms and was looking for a percussionist and drummer. I was actually introduced to cumbia and chicha music through Alex.” 

Chávez seems just as eager to credit Villareal-Carrillo for the project’s genesis. “I can tell you, Daniel is the hub,” he says. 

Dos Santos, Sonorama Records
Part of the Feelin’ Groovy series. Scott McNiece will interview Marlowe Baca of Sonorama and Dos Santos will perform live. Proof of vaccination required. Fri 10/1, 6 PM, Hideout front patio, 1354 W. Wabansia, free, 21+

Since Dos Santos shortened their name, their lineup has consisted of Chávez, Villarreal-Carrillo, bassist Jaime Garza Rodriguez, guitarist Nathan Karagianis, and percussionist Peter “Maestro” Vale. Chávez began by recruiting Karagianis’s predecessor, who in turn pulled in Garza (they both knew him from the son jarocho scene). Villarreal-Carrillo had never played chicha or cumbia before, but because he’s a busy musician and DJ, once he came aboard he could use his social and professional network to help find additional musicians.

The band’s original percussionist couldn’t make the debut gig in 2013, so Villarreal-Carrillo invited Vale to fill in (they’d met at a Cuban restaurant where Vale was playing with a salsa band). Vale immediately became a permanent part of Dos Santos, and the band’s membership remained stable till 2015, when Karagianis replaced the founding guitarist. Villarreal-Carrillo had gotten to know Karagianis on gigs they shared in Woodstock, Illinois, where he’d lived before coming to Chicago. Karagianis had even seen Dos Santos’ first shows.

The 2018 release Logos is the previous Dos Santos album.

Chávez is from the small city of Midland in west Texas, where his family settled after migrating from the Mexican states of Zacatecas and Querétaro. He’s a fourth-generation musician, and his father toured and released records on venerable Corpus Christi-based Tejano label Freddie Records. Chávez had his first concert experiences seeing him play onstage in onda grupera bands. He’s also an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and he wrote the 2017 book Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño. For the Smithsonian Folkways series Tradiciones, he produced the 2016 album Serrano de Corazón by Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú. 

Villarreal-Carrillo was born and raised in the capital city of Panama. When he was seven, he was taught how to play scales on an organ by his father, a musician in a touring conjunto. At age 18 he started hitting the road with punk bands in Panamá and Costa Rica. 

“When I was in Panama learning the drums—I never tell this story, but my mentor happened to be the drummer of El General and Nando Boom,” Villarreal-Carrillo says. “They’re the ones who invented the reggaeton in Panama. He taught me how to play all kinds of rhythms and told me I didn’t have to just play punk music, because I was so into rock ’n’ roll. He played everything from Rush to reggaeton to Korean music to salsa music. . . . He told me if I wanted to be a good drummer, I had to learn all the styles. He took me under his wing, and I learned a lot from him.”

In the early 2000s, Villarreal-Carrillo moved to Woodstock, Illinois, and in 2012 he relocated to Chicago, where he decided to pursue music full-time (and very quickly ended up in Dos Santos). Recently he debuted the Los Sundowns, a Latin psychedelic-soul project created with guitarist and producer Beto Martinez of Grupo Fantasma and Money Chicha. 

Vale is a master of congas, bongos, and other percussion as well as an active participant in the city’s salsa scene. Born and raised in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, he was first exposed to salsa vieja and salsa dura (a high-energy subgenre that contrasts with the more familiar romantic salsa) through his mother’s record collection. While at military school, Vale played snare in the marching band, and in high school he joined a hip-house dance crew called the Hip House Party Boys. 

After watching his cousin Frankie “Hollywood” Rodriguez play in local Puerto Rican salsa groups, Vale took up percussion himself, which led him to Dos Santos. He’s also part of a project called AlgoRitmo that he refers to as “free jazz,” though it also incorporates EDM and dubstep.

Karagianis grew up in his native Peoria till age 12; his father was a rock musician, and his grandfather was part of a big jazz band. “My grandpa started to teach me how to play the cornet when I was about six or seven, and it was around that time when I remember the distinct moment of seeing his band, watching the drummer, and going, ‘Grandpa, I want to play the drums.’ And he said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and comes back with a pair of drumsticks,” he says. “That’s when it really started. That was when the bug was pretty strong.” 

By age 13, Karagianis had moved on to the guitar. When he joined Dos Santos, though, he’d never played cumbia before. He’s also the sole creator behind the ambient- and psych-tinged electronic bedroom-pop project carefulGIANTS

Garza, like Vale, is a Chicago native, and his father was a musician and concert promoter in the 70s, booking events with iconic Latin American artists such as José José and Angélica María as well as other pop stars. His dad taught him to play chords on the guitar while he was living in Mexico as a kid, and when Garza returned to Chicago a decade later, he got involved with the Mexican folk music that Víctor Pichardo of Sones de México was teaching at Benito Juarez High School. 

“I started studying and playing and learning more about that part of my life, a part that I was rediscovering,” Garza says. “Living in Chicago, having such a rich culture of music, helps me kind of direct where my energy and my musicality wants to go.” Garza’s first performances were in Chicago rock bands: Bajos Recursos, Escándalo Social, Enemigos d’ Pakita, and El Mitote, among others. He curates events through his production company, Pachanka Music Culture, plays in son jarocho group Ida y Vuelta, and maintains a solo psychedelic-folk project called Almafuerte.

At Énez Beauty in Evanston, where Dos Santos shot the video for “A Tu Lado,” the band members give a group interview to Sandra Treviño.
Credit: José Calvo
At Énez Beauty in Evanston, where Dos Santos shot the video for “A Tu Lado,” the band members give a group interview to Sandra Treviño.
At Énez Beauty in Evanston, where Dos Santos shot the video for “A Tu Lado,” the band members give a group interview to Sandra Treviño. Credit: José Calvo

Dos Santos conceived of City of Mirrors while on tour in 2019, and its songs are informed by a barrage of tragedies and outrages across the country in the year or two before the pandemic struck—family separations at the border, wildfires in California, racist policing and white supremacist terrorism almost everywhere. 

City of Mirrors guides listeners through complex stories and legacies. It’s the sound of the dueling emotions deep inside us—sorrow and joy, hate and love, but most of all despair and hope. It’s a musical vision of futures that may yet come, an amalgam of scintillating polyrhythms emanating from the midwest. 

“Through this cascade of tipping points and tragedy, we summoned melody and verse to sound out verdant technicolor dreams of freedom and desire, mirroring the miraculous vortex of our time,” explain the band in a narrative they collectively created to accompany the record. City of Mirrors, they write, reflects “our sonic crossings across a landscape of trauma and effervescence.”

This is the music you listen to during a global pandemic, when your faith in humanity needs to be restored. With its bold blend of influences, City of Mirrors feels as instantly epic and paradigm-shifting to me as the 1994 Café Tacvba record Re, which the New York Times called “the equivalent of the Beatles’ White Album for the rock en español movement.”

Once Dos Santos and International Anthem determined that City of Mirrors would be a full-length, not an EP, the band knew they were going to introduce a producer—something they’d never done, despite their long history of collaborations and coproductions. By giving an outsider keys to the car, so to speak, they could help ensure that they’d be pushed out of their comfort zone in surprising directions. 

“We wanted to continue with that tradition of each album sounding radically different from one another. One way to achieve that was by bringing in someone else to produce. Elliot Bergman was one of the names that came to mind,” says Chávez. Bergman is probably best known as half of adventurous indie-pop duo Wild Belle, but he’s also led a bigger band called Nomo whose sound fuses Afrobeat with jazz and a variety of outré influences. 

“Elliot’s a Chicago guy, there’s already kind of a relationship there, and we all sort of knew each other,” Chávez explains. “I think on another level it was that we really respect his ear, which is very discerning. He’s a very knowledgeable guy when it comes to musical styles and musical genres. When we sort of put things together in unconventional ways, he’s able to hear where those elements are coming from in a really honest way.”

Dos Santos felt they could work with Bergman because he could appreciate the specific sources of the more traditional styles they play. “The sort of music that we do, it’s otherized, like, ‘Oh, you could simply think of that as something really ambiguous like world music,’ or whatever, and there’s a lot of problems with that,” Chávez says. “But one of the big problems with that is it’s flattening—it lacks a kind of specificity, and it’s really lazy. You know, these rhythms and sounds are coming from particular traditions, and even if you don’t know them, you acknowledge that. And we knew that about him, that he knows a lot of the stuff already that we do. He’s the kind of person who would respect and understand that.”

The band treated Bergman like a sixth member. They wrote material together, or Dos Santos would build on an idea Bergman brought in. “It was less curated and more organic,” Chávez says. “He contributed his creativity, his energy, and more specifically he was a producer with a lot of interesting ideas and strategies—because if you’re going to do the same things you’ve done before, then what’s the point of bringing in a producer, to help you think outside yourself? Elliot is sort of the right person to be able to make the door much wider for more ideas.”

Dos Santos already knew what they wanted their lyrics to say—they would speak about injustice, racism, and environmental catastrophe—but most of the music on City of Mirrors arose from the give-and-take with Bergman, which lasted several months. “We started writing for this album in Chicago in 2019, and probably a couple of songs on the record came out of those sessions,” Chávez says. 

The band entered Bergman’s studio in Los Angeles in December 2019. Chávez returned for a session alone in February 2020, and after a short west-coast tour, all of Dos Santos went back to the LA studio in early March. They were interrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns and finally finished a few months later with additional overdubs and mixing at a second studio that Bergman maintains in northwest suburban Barrington.

Dos Santos at Énez Beauty
Dos Santos at Énez Beauty Credit: José Calvo

“Some of the guys were in the studio a couple of days and left, and others stayed,” Chávez recalls of the March sessions. COVID-19 was beginning its first stateside surge, and no one knew what would happen next. “We weren’t aware because we were working. It was like being in a hole for hours, which is something I like about working in a studio, just being in it all the time.

“Elliot would come back and mention the long lines at gas stations and grocery stores and all this craziness. I was the last one left in LA because I had to stay an extra day and a half to work on some vocals, and I remember jokingly saying one day, while trying not to focus on what was going on because it was so worrying, ‘I hope I can get out of here.’ And the studio people looked at me and asked about my flight out and said, ‘If I were you I’d take the next flight out. They’re shutting down everything.’ So I cut two vocal tracks and flew out.”

Chávez believes that the madness of those days is reflected in the sound of the new record, even though it isn’t specifically addressed by the lyrics. “It was a maddening situation,” he says. “This record has songs that are about mourning, loss, isolation, and injustices.” 

City of Mirrors begins its 13-track journey with “A Shot in the Dark,” which opens the floodgates on the album’s lush folkloric and electronic sounds. Dos Santos have never incorporated electronic elements to this extent, and Karagianis is responsible for most of the change—he used a Teenage Engineering OP-1, a digital Mellotron, a Prophet synth, and a Roland SP-404 sampler, as well as augmenting his guitar with a loop pedal.

On that lead track, Chávez sets an electrifying tone with his heart-piercing falsetto—something he adopted from huapango huasteco, a style of Mexican music he grew up with and that he instinctively turns to when creating melodies. “The song is about love, the kind that’s unrequited,” he says. “It expresses a desire to be with someone, lost in a dreamlike state while looking up at a starry sky, and is inspired by traditional huapango verses from a song about a lily.” 

YouTube video
Estudio Pneuma in Mexico City helped create the video for “A Shot in the Dark.”

In the video for this track, artist Miguel Jara and the design team from Estudio Pneuma in Mexico City have animated colorful mixed-media pieces created for City of Mirrors by Chicago artist Amara “Rebel Betty” Martin. Her art appears in a series of videos released with the album, as well as on its cover. 

In the kaleidoscopic video for “A Tu Lado,” for example, director Osvaldo Cuevas combines floating images of Martin’s art with shots of dancer Adia Sykes and of the band, who wear monochromatic white flowered masks; sometimes their bodies are painted with moving projections.

YouTube video
The video for “A Tu Lado” also includes artwork by Amara “Rebel Betty” Martin.

Songs such as the cumbia-driven “Soledad” and the merengue-ish “Cages and Palaces” allude to the migrant experience—the struggles faced on those journeys and the isolation of being away from home. On “Soledad,” Villarreal-Carrillo adds a poignant spoken-word piece based on the poem “Yo Estoy Enfermo de Soledad” by Ricardo Miró.

The video for “City of Mirrors,” shot in Chicago and Puerto Rico and also directed by Cuevas, is a love song to the island and its enduring spirit—Puerto Rico has of course been struck by devastating hurricanes and earthquakes, from which many people have yet to recover. Chávez describes the track by invoking perhaps the most famous Latine novelist of the 20th century: “Inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Puerto Rico to us is like Macondo—the city of mirrors, a central character in that novel—a place of beauty and trauma, of struggle and triumph.” 

YouTube video
The “City of Mirrors” video was shot in Chicago and Puerto Rico.

“Lejos de Ti” rides on a simple, prominent drum-machine beat that almost sounds like a quirky bossa nova—its relentless regularity highlights by contrast Chávez’s smooth, nostalgic balladeering, which switches back and forth between Spanish and English. It’s as polished as any jazz-club performance, pero con cultura, and it’s the perfect song to close the circle of the album and send you back to the beginning to listen to it all again. 

When Dos Santos began recording their album Logos in summer 2017, the world was hardly less chaotic than it was in early 2020, despite the absence of a deadly pandemic: anti-Trump protests, racial violence, police brutality, civil unrest, and Hurricane Maria all colored those sessions. Vale says he felt that playing music became almost like therapy. 

“That’s part of our identity as Dos Santos,” he explains, “addressing what we see through our eyes and how we can interpret what we see, through our instrumentation or our lyrics. So when we recorded Logos, I kind of felt lucky I was able to create art during such a hectic time.”

During the City of Mirrors sessions, Vale says, their approach to the chaos and conflict was much more explicit and intentional. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m happy to be doing this and I’m gonna just express myself,’” he says. “This time around it was like, ‘Now you’re gonna hear what I have to say, and this is what we want to tell you. And you can listen to it and you can discard it, but it’s still going to exist,’ which I think is pretty cool.”

Dos Santos, Nemegata
This release party for City of Mirrors (part of the Sonorama Día de Muertos celebration Calaveras y Palmeras) also features DJ sets by Love Maker, Fanita Banana, La Colocha, and Volcan. Sat 10/30, 4-10 PM, Marz Community Brewing back patio, 3630 S. Iron, $20, $15 early bird, 21+

In 2018, freelance writer Will Schube interviewed the group for Bandcamp, in the process commenting that “Dos Santos’ goal is to be a mirror for Chicago’s diversity, and to an even larger extent, America’s.” Because I want to know what the band’s goal actually is, if they have one, I remind them of that proclamation.

“That’s ironic,” says Chávez, laughing. “‘Goal’ I think is a very heavy word. It’s end-based. I always resist end-based kinds of claims, because they necessitate a conclusion. I think you should always leave the process open, and you should always leave the ability to explore. I don’t know if we have well-defined goals, but what we do resonates in ways that we don’t even anticipate but that we are happy about and that we’re proud of. Are we a reflection of the kind of cultural, social, historical kind of milieu of Chicago creatively? And is that a reflection of the potential of the whole country? I don’t know—I’ll let Jaime talk about that.”

“Alex makes a very good point about the goal aspect,” Garza says. “I don’t think necessarily the goal is what drives us, but I do think that we are a reflection of our surroundings, of the social movements that are happening around us. It’s something that we can’t shy away from. We’re in it, we’re part of it, and we’re happy to be part of it either socially or even musically—to echarle más leña al fuego [‘add more wood to the fire’] of Latin American music in the U.S.”

City of Mirrors represents an evolutionary step forward from Dos Santos’ previous work, but all their albums share the theme of transformation and progress. The band look forward to getting back on the tour circuit as soon as possible. In the meantime, City of Mirrors will be available Friday, October 15, via International Anthem and all streaming platforms.