Interview: Saul Millan of Vox Urbana

Vox Urbana is a seven-piece bi-national band from Tucson, Arizona that infuses Latin sounds with elements of rock. The band breaks language barriers and stereotypes through their repertoire and distinct grooves, and includes a guitar, keyboard, sax, trombone, bass guitar, congas, and drums played by a diverse roster of musicians. Vox Urbana is a small ensemble of incredible talent who aim to expand their musical horizons and share the stories of others.

The band uses a style of folk music known as corridos to compose songs about the border community. A corrido is a story told in song. The word comes from the Spanish verb “correr,” which means to run, and indicates there will be a running narrative. Corridos are often about oppression, history, and the daily life struggle of those less fortunate. The band has been working on a project called Cumbia Corridos, a musical story-sharing project that tells the stories of immigrants crossing the border and Tucson’s marginalized denizens.

I spoke with Saul Millan, the band’s trombonist, who joined the band about four years ago when he bumped into Enrique “Kiki” Castellanos, the band’s co-founder and guitarist, at a supermarket. This chance meeting catapulted Saul onto an extraordinary journey of personal growth and experience.

The Cumbia Corridos project has helped immigrants tell their stories of struggles and overcoming challenges. How has the project influenced the band’s approach to music, as well as your personal lives?

For the band, this project definitely helped shape the understanding that our music can be a powerful tool. It influences us to write music that carries a message and theme, emulating corridos–the classic Mexican-style of songwriting that includes writing a story. This was the first time I wrote on a concept album and the testimonies redirected my approach on how I composed music.

How did you guys choose which testimonies to convert into songs?

We choose the testimonies from people who have migrated to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico. We mostly wrote about the experience of women and non-male individuals. It is important for us to tell the stories of migration of of women, children, and the LGBTQ community.

Are the lyrics of your song, “Cuentan los Cerros,” about the brutal journey the immigrants face going north of the border?

Yes, the lyrics talk about the experience of crossing north of the border to reunite with a loved one.

What was the process like for writing your latest release, La Pitaya?

This was our attempt to further use our vocals to send a message and probe at deeper meanings in testimonies through our music. “La Piedra y La Bala” is about a young boy, Jose Antonio Elena, in Nogales who allegedly threw a rock at and was murdered by a Border Patrol agent. His case has gotten national recognition and it seemed as a story we had to talk about. We definitely had a lot to work from. This album serves as a stepping stone to our current music which carries universal themes.

Is there a song from the band’s catalogue that gets a huge response from a live crowd?

“Pepe Arpia” is our most requested song from a live crowd. It’s a song that condemns [former] Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s actions and brutality against minorities.

Vox Urbana has been described as a cumbia band that fuses its sound with elements of punk and even psychedelic rock. There are also elements of salsa, mambo, and huapango. Do you believe this fully captures the band’s musical style and goals?

Well, I think that those things are completely true but more than anything the musical style of the group mostly focuses on other people’s experiences. Each band member is from a different time period associated with a different musical style and background. The diversity in the group is amazing. We have our bass player that is from the Netherlands. Kiki and I are from the border town–Nogales–and the rest of the members are from different cities across the country. It makes things interesting.

What has been the band’s most significant or cherished moment?

I can only speak from a personal stance. My most cherished moment is when we played at El Casino Ballroom and did the release for the Cumbia Corridos project. It brought a lot of people together. People who had painful testimonies to share and we helped them find a voice. It also helped them forget, even for just a moment, about their struggles and they just danced the night away. It was powerful.

Is the band currently working on new material? If so, can we get details on the group’s future plans?

We are currently working on the Cumbia Corridos concept album. We are just finishing on the details of this album, but we want to make sure we get it right for all of those who shared their stories with us. Our main focus is to promote this album in order for these testimonies to be heard.

Interview conducted by Tiny Donkey editorial intern Gabriel A. Jiménez.