Frontman of Punk Band Zeta Makes a New Home in Charlotte
New album 'Todo Bailarlo' expected to drop in 2022
In the video for their latest single, “La Flor De La Palabra,” the punk band Zeta assembles on a windswept, driftwood strewn beach. Under glowering clouds cut by the whirring rotors of a helicopter high overhead, drummer Eduardo Sandoval kicks off the jam. His jittery, galloping percussion seems to infect the band’s tumbling preternatural keyboards, bass and guitar, all choppy sci-fi sound effects, like Pink Floyd’s score for Zabriskie Point, bolstered with swiping strings across fret-boards that suggest the fluttery bat-wing sounds of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Then, improbable Latin jazz trombone dopplers down like a freight train headed straight for your Toyota stranded at the crossing. The swinging trombone, coupled with clattering steel drum-style beats and plaintive free jazz keys, begins to suggest a South American street carnival with all the background noises pushed forward in the mix.
Threading through it all are bubbling horror movie electronics; soaring and swarming female-fronted vocals and wailing, rampaging rhinoceros guitar. Add some snippets of Spanish-language announcers, and “La Flor De La Palabra” (The Flower Of The Palabra) sounds like a radio dial skittering from station to station, never settling long on any frequency — and somehow it all coalesces in an uneasy yet joyous alliance that simultaneously swings and rocks out.
It’s a wild ride that’s over in just three-and-a-half minutes, and despite the wide range of sounds featured within, Zeta frontman Juan Ricardo Yilo, aka Juan Chi, says it’s just a “tiny sample” of what’s coming with Todo Bailarlo, the new album by the experimental punk band that’s expected to drop in 2022.
“I think it’s going to be way more musical, definitely still very passionate and it’s a strong expression, but I think it’s way more colorful [than past albums], way more accessible and more inclusive — way more instruments than we’ve had,” he recently told Queen City Nerve about the new album.
So in a word, Todo Bailarlo is more.
Fans can get a taste for what more is to come at Snug Harbor on Nov. 19, when Zeta will lead a bill that includes local icon of the experimental scene Andy the Doorbum; as well as Bravo Pueblo, the latest project from siblings Claudio and Lisa Ortiz, known for their past work with local bands Chócala and Patabamba.
The show will serve as a simultaneous celebration of Yilo’s arrival — he moved to Charlotte from Miami just three months ago — and a short-term farewell, as Zeta will kick off an East Coast tour at that Friday night show.
The Snug Harbor show will be Zeta’s last live performance of the year with the Abajo Cadenas Orchestra, which collaborated on many of its newest songs, including “La Flor De La Palabra.”
It will also be their last performance of the year at which they bring out the dancing devil, a Venezuelan tradition that goes back to the 1700s and is believed to help ward off tough times.
In fact, the entire new album is tied to this tradition, as Todo Bailarlo translates to “Dance it all,” explained Yilo.
“The idea behind the name and the concept is celebrate the resilience of our communities and how they dance through everything — the good, the bad, the sad, the happy,” he said. “Like salsa music is not all about romantic things, it is also about life and mostly the hardest parts. Those are the tunes that our people dance to the most, so the name of our album is a way of honoring that skill.”
To Charlotte by way of Venezuela
It’s been a long road for Yilo and his fellow band members to arrive at this point. He and his close friend Daniel Saud first formed Zeta as high schoolers living in the small town of Lecheria, Venezuela, in 2003.
They brought on other friends and continued to play together into adulthood, then began touring around South America in 2008.
To the average American reader, that may sound like an expected path, one that is almost cliche. But in Venezuela and elsewhere around Latin America, the DIY tour life was completely unknown even to hardcore music fans.
The band traveled to Costa Rica once in 2008 and played a show opening for Canadian band Combat Kids. It would change their lives.
“We were part of a group of friends, just a handful of kids that were into punk music,” Yilo said of his Zeta band members. “Until we went out, we didn’t really see the entire culture right there in front of our eyes — mosh pits and other bands with merch, the full-on punk experience,” Yilo said.
They returned home and made a decision: If a Canadian band could tour around Latin America, so could they.
“We had just a bunch of fan zines and punk literature and reading about so many different things, we were inspired. ‘There’s no reason why we shouldn’t try this here,’” he recalled of that time. “But it was just such a new idea. We would play in cities where we would put up our merch and people would be like, ‘What is this? Why do you even have shirts?’ We were like, ‘Well, this is merch and this is how we sustain ourselves and help to carry on the tour,’ and they were like, ‘What tour? Where are you from? What?’”
Zeta used MySpace to connect with other acts around the continent, or another punk band interested in traveling to South America.
They continued to build a name in the region, while somewhat tarnishing their names in their more traditional suburban hometown.
“I remember when we started touring and we came back with a bunch of tattoos, people looked at us weird,” Yilo said. “Doing a normal daily errand like going to pay the water bill, it was like, ‘Oh no, we can’t allow you to come in here if you’re not wearing long sleeves.’ So we were just the weird kids down there, and we found a home in punk music and rebellion.”
Eventually, it was time to fly the coop.
The band began traveling to the United States to play shows around 2015, and family members encouraged them to stay and seek out opportunities for full-time work there.
Beginning in 2016, the band petitioned for and eventually received visas to work in the U.S. The agreement specifically stated that each member would have to work in music to keep their visa, which inspired the band to take touring more seriously.
They settled in Miami with the understanding that they were now full-time musicians.
Their DIY ethos remained the same, as they became hyper-focused on creating new music and playing shows all around the country.
The core and the collective
Todo Bailarlo marks a sort of transformation for Zeta, which has for years consisted of four core members: Juan Chi on vocals and guitar, Saud on guitar, Gabriel Duque on bass, and Eduardo Sandoval on drums.
But remember: Todo Bailarlo is more. While the band has always acted as a collective, bringing on members here and there to play a string of shows or help with recording songs, the new album sees the addition of the The Abajo Cadenas Orchestra, a collective of musicians spread out across the world that has collaborated with Zeta on many of their latest recordings.
The orchestra acts as an extension of the band itself, adding flavors of traditional sounds to the existing hard rock and punk sounds that Zeta is known for. The new album experiments with sounds not only from their home country of Venezuela but the Caribbean, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.
Todo Bailarlo includes elements of calypso, cumbia, salsa, bossa nova and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.
It’s not lost on Yilo that, upon moving to the United States, Zeta began to focus more on the sounds of home. He points to homesickness and the Latin-American immigrant experience for inspiring the change.
As teenage Venezuelans, family members often tried to push Yilo and his bandmates to listen to more Latin jazz, salsa and other sounds. Their rebellious punk attitudes, however, stood in the way.
When they arrived in the United States, they began to long for the sounds of home. Living in Miami, which Yilo still calls “a north Latin-American city,” they connected with immigrant communities who hold those styles of music dear as their bridge to home.
It all built up to a new appreciation for the music of their homeland.
“There are these other expressions that here are very meaningful to our communities and we want to try to embrace that more,” Yilo said. “We had other ways of connecting with them in deeper ways, because whenever you find someone that speaks your own language or likes the same food you like or has the same types of questions, figuring out the community and how to navigate it, and all the worries that you share with the people from your cultural background, being immigrants, it’s been eye-opening.”
A sand grain in community
That appreciation also translates to the band’s live performances, which often serve as a mix of concert, community meeting and potluck. While they haven’t been able to resume the shared food concept since the pandemic started, Zeta has continued turning its gigs into public forums, book exchanges and whatever can help connect them to the community they’re playing in.
“Back in the days when we were doing the touring in South America, the food was a big thing,” Yilo explained. “It was always before or after the show we would gather with the bands and with the people from the art communities in the little places where we played, and that was a great way of knowing each other and also retrieving a little bit of the energy that is given to us.”
It’s an energy that Yilo has been tapping into in Charlotte since moving here in August. He came to connect with Claudio and Lisa Ortiz, whom he performed with during a Zeta/Chócala show at Oso Skate Park in 2018 and felt an instant connection with. The brother and sister now perform with Zeta as part of the Abajo Cadenas Orchestra, which will join them onstage Nov. 19 for the Snug Harbor show.
Yilo calls the two bands’ connection a “band crush,” but it’s more than that. He and Lisa are currently in a relationship, and it’s readily apparent during our conversation how happy he is to be living in the same city with her.
Still, Yilo has deeper reasons for coming to Charlotte. After visiting many times in recent years and witnessing the work that Claudio and Lisa were doing in a city where the Latinx population was only beginning to build a true sense of community, he decided he would rather play a role in that than remain in Miami where the community already exists.
“Miami is great, I think being down there talking Spanish straight up all day everyday and listening to Latin music in the background at any time and anywhere you go is super cool, but I felt very moved by all the things that Claudio and Lisa showed me from Charlotte,” he said.
“I think here I could possibly do a more positive thing for our community. We have this expression of trying to put our little sand grain where it belongs, and I feel here my little sand grain will make more of a difference than it would in Miami.”
Because, in a word, Todo Bailarlo is more.
Pat Moran contributed reporting to this article.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.