"To be perfectly honest, the origins of the group are pretty hokey," says Pablo Valencia, a lead singer and guitarist for Chapel Hill-based band Grupo Camaleon. A Chilean native, Valencia moved to the area in the '90s and starting making music with friends who were, like himself, "not necessarily musicians, but people who loved to make music." Adding new members, influences, and musical polish over the years, Grupo Camaleon can now claim a spot as one of the Triangle's most authentic and exciting Latin dance bands.
The seven-member ensemble made their most recent splash at Carrboro's ArtsCenter, where they played a concert-length show in two sets. "We like to play long," says Rey Riera, the band's bass player, originally a dancer and conguero from Venezuela. During a stint in New York, Riera did a careful study of Cuban music, and brings a fine ear for the Cuban walking bassline, or tumbao, to the band. He played previously with La Sexta Clave, another local band now on hiatus, who were known for their great son montuno. True to form, Camaleon's Cuban numbers jolted salseros in the audience onto the dance floor. Close vocal harmonies contributed by Oscar Velasco Sr., Valencia, and the band, give their sound a rustic authenticity perfectly suited to conjunto tipico Latin styles.
Even an average band can be a real party aphrodisiac if they show an infectious ensemble sensibility. But while Camaleon has that onstage communication, they don't skimp on talent either. The evening was filled with unexpected delicacies not offered at your usual Latin buffet, from a stunning flamenco performed by Oscar Velasco Jr. (a self-taught guitarist who is also the band's flutist, and youngest member), to a folkloric guaguancó (rumba from western Cuba, as opposed to eastern son) with Patrick Loebs getting the opportunity to shine front and center on conga. Zacharias Adelman did a skilled job of adapting Latin rhythms to trapset drums throughout the evening, and Tino Mandujano's saxophone brought the requisite colors to the band's cumbia and merengue.
With so many world music bands out there putting Latin influences into their mix, one has to wonder: How is Camaleon able to tackle so many genres and not come off dilettantish? "We adapt songs to our ability," says Valencia, with unfeigned humility, "and we try to give everything our trademark 'Camaleon sound'." Their covers range from Perez Prado's "Mambo No.5" to the Buena Vista Social Club, but they also do some of Valencia's originals, including a bossa nova (in Portugese) and a reggae/rap.
True to their name "Camaleon" (chameleon), their versatility reflects the diverse backgrounds of the musicians, who come from Mexico, El Salvador, Chile, Venezuela, California and New Jersey. "A semi-professional group will always have this deal of reinventing themselves," Valencia explains. "When you're adding a new personality, a new musician, you make some concessions or some changes, maybe a new sound, and certainly a new personality when it comes to being on stage."
The band will face this challenge once again with the recently announced departure of Oscar Velasco Sr., the elder half of the band's father-son duo. The singer-guitarist-frontman plans to relocate for personal and professional reasons. While his shoes will be hard to fill, the group has long since learned to make their eclectic nature their strength. "Oscar (Sr.) is leaving for either California or Vancouver, so that leaves us again at the point where we have to look around for maybe one or two more musicians to fill the void," says Valencia.
In any case, remaining bandmembers say they will continue to make music together for the same reasons the band got started in the first place. "Here in the States, you have to sing for a reason," Valencia says. "Here people say, 'I can't sing.' You don't hear that [in Latin America]; everybody sings, whether they are polished or not." With as much polish and intensity as any local Latin band out there, we expect evolving incarnations of Grupo Camaleon to continue to pose a threat to shoe leather among Triangle audiences.