The music of Elena & Los Fulanos reflects living in two worlds that graze each other, but never quite collide. Some of the band’s songs are only in Spanish; others are only in English. Some offer cumbia rhythms; others have a country twang. On a couple tracks, you’ll hear the influence of Latin American guitars; others employ a banjo.
The style illustrates how the band’s frontwoman and lead vocalist/guitarist Elena Lacayo felt straddling two different cultures while growing up between the United States and Nicaragua. She’s embraced both sides of her upbringing and channeled her experiences into Elena & Los Fulanos’ signature bilingual folk rock—which you can catch at the Smithsonian American Art Museum tonight as part of the Luce Unplugged Community Showcase. Washington City Paper co-presents this event.
“Art is an externalization of yourself, so you have to do it in a way that is accurate and expresses all the parts of you,” she said. “I don’t have to be conflicted about these two identities—they can both exist.”
Lacayo started Elena & Los Fulanos back in 2011 after she spent years working on immigration issues for the National Council of La Raza. She quit her job and began writing the band’s 2014 debut Miel Venenosa, released with the help of a $9,000 crowd-funding campaign.
Since the album came out, the band’s lineup has shifted a bit and their sound has continued to evolve. They’ve grown tighter, increasingly dynamic, and more willing to experiment. A recent collaboration resulted in a bossa nova cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.”
“In the beginning, [the music] felt schizophrenic… but now I think the different influences are a strength,” Lacayo said.
The band also constantly experiments with genres and lesser-known instruments from Latin America. Violinist, vocalist, and ukulele player Danny Cervantes has a background performing with mariachi bands, and often draws inspiration from the tiny guitars and strumming patterns found in Mexico’s Son Jarocho music. Lacayo is a regular at Takoma Park’s House of Musical Traditions, where she goes to stock her formidable collection of instruments. Recently, she dropped a couple hundred bucks for a charango, a delicate 10-string lute native to the Andean region. (“When else was I going to come across a charango?” she says.)
She’s spent a lot of time immersing herself in the particular musical traditions of her childhood home. Sitting in her basement is a gleaming wooden marimba de arco that she had custom-made in Monimbo, a small town located in Nicaragua’s craft capital of Masaya. Lacayo has been learning to play it the classical Nicaraguan way: with the weighty instrument balanced carefully on her knees as she plays two different rhythms with each hand. The marimba doesn’t always make it into the band’s live set—it’s hard to mic—but Lacayo is testing melodies out for future songs.
Themes of social justice from Lacayo’s days as an immigration advocate also trickle into her work. Her song, “Amor Migrante,” captures the irony of a mother leaving her son for America to offer him a better life. Sometimes Lacayo sings the piece at community centers and watches people who have similar stories tear up in response. But she finds that the music also resonates with audiences who haven’t directly experienced the content of the lyrics.
“Most people are thinking about what it means to them and how they’re connecting to what I’m singing,” she said. “You can tap into a universal feeling or idea, and people might access it in a way you didn’t even intend.”
Photo via the artist.