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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Tucson native Oscar Noriega reflects on his band’s new LP, upcoming tour and journey

    Born in Tucson and raised in the “south-southside,” Oscar Noriega has been musically involved ever since he was a young boy. Being of Hispanic descent, he has played Banda music for most of his life and is now a prominent member of Banda De Los Muertos, the most well-known—and only—Mexicana Banda in New York. He told the Daily Wildcat about his musical journey and recent album release.

    Daily Wildcat: What is your relationship to Tucson?

    Oscar Noriega: I grew up in Tucson and graduated from Sunnyside high school. I lived on the south side—the far south side—way past Nogales Highway and Valencia [Road], almost at the reservation, and we played gigs. From fifth grade through high school, we had a gig almost every weekend. I had a band with my four brothers. When we were kids, we would play for all the quinceñeras and weddings and parties with the Mexican community. We played in Bisbee, Nogales- both sides- and around Tucson. I went to [UA] for one year and later transferred to ASU to pursue a degree in Jazz Performance. The funny thing is when I went to the UA, I was so tired of playing Mexican music … all I wanted to focus on was my jazz. … I am in my forties and I have come full circle to playing Mexican music again.

    How did you end up in New York?

    After college, I was looking for a community of musicians that I wanted to play with and study with. I found this in Boston. I went to California for two years before and after three months in [Los Angeles], I decided I hated it. So I called a friend who went to Berklee [College of Music] in Boston and she encouraged me to come out. She told me about all the musicians and opportunities that were there. So in three months, I got a plane ticket and called her back, and she called me a place.

    I transferred to Berklee but by this time, I was really done with school. So I kind of just hung out there and went through the program without paying and people thought I was a student. I was the right age and I was there pretty much every day. People still to this day think I was a student. But the thing about Boston is that it is not that big of a city. When I first moved there, coming from Tucson, I thought it was huge. It was unbelievable and an amazing experience. But after three-four years in Boston, working as a musician, there comes a point when you have to start playing in New York since you are so close. So it was a natural move for me at the time and all my friends had already moved there. I knew it was time, so I took a chance and moved to New York with [$100]. I found a way to make it work, but I wasn’t afraid because I always knew I could come home, you know?

    How did Banda De Los Muertos start?

    Jacob Garchik and I started the band. We used to go to this taco place in New York. And at this time in New York, it was almost impossible to find good Mexican food. There were hardly any Mexicans there, but there was one place we would go to with a jukebox that had all this great music. … I used to go there to get my fix of beans and rancheras. They had a bunch of bandas come and play there. Jacob and I used to play in this brass band, years ago. While we were listening to these bandas in New York, Jacob suggested we do a gig like this so I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And that’s kind of how Banda De Los Muertos started. We played a show at Barbes, a really small club where great music happened every night. … We did a show and people loved it. We did it again, and now it is a monthly thing. It was kind of a hipster joint but now Mexicans come and it’s really cool to see people hanging out and dancing.

    What’s going on now with Banda De Los Muertos?

    We just had our new album launch two weeks ago. We have had three reviews on NPR. I kind of dedicated this album to all the Mexicanos coming across the border because I grew up in Tucson playing that type of music, and I feel a cultural connection that way. We are currently planning another album. We need to keep pushing this first one so we can earn enough to pursue a second. There are people calling all the time [who] want to hire us but we are an expensive band. There are ten musicians, and travel costs [a lot], but there is a demand in Europe, California and other places. Maybe we can create a tour up the West, hit Bisbee, Tucson and then LA. But we don’t know right now.

    What has made Banda De Los Muertos so special to you?

    These band members are some of the greatest musicians in New York. I think when we did our first gig, it was so much fun that we kept it going. We have been doing it for four or five years now. We have managed to stay together- we are like a family now. We all want to do it and I never expected this. I am more on the humble side, but I am very proud of the band, knowing that we kick ass and people can tell. People dance and that to me is a good sign. With this band it happens. It works. The Mexican community is growing in New York, and it makes me happy because they see all these gringos playing banda music and they are at first surprised but end up really loving it. [Oscar is the only band member of Hispanic descent.] That to me is more important, knowing I made these people proud by playing their music.

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