By Laura Latzko | January 25, 2021
Los Esplifs, a psychedelic cumbia group, has tried to carry on the tradition of other Arizona groups who have carved their own paths.
On January 29, the Tucson act will perform an outdoor concert at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. Los Esplifs will be joined by opening act Salvador Duran.
The band, which was formed in 2018 by Saul Millan (accordion, organ, synthesizer) and percussionist Caleb Michel, is comprised of established Arizona musicians.
“It is a family of people,” Millan says. “I help them with their records, and they help me with mine. It is a family of individuals working toward Arizona music. I think that’s what I really love about Arizona, is that I can be a member of all of these groups. All of these groups are different genres and different vibes, but everything is about recording the music and getting a good product out there.”
Millan has performed with the Mexican Institute of Sound, Calexico and Orkesta Mendoza, and Michel got his start with the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Hailing from Nogales, Millan has a jazz studies degree from the University of Arizona. In college, he specialized in the trombone, but he switched to other instruments when he became interested in composition.
Raised in Phoenix, Michel grew up playing music in the church.
Both Millan and Michel grew up playing music since they were around 10 and started professionally around age 14.
The band is also influenced by the Tucson sound, which Millan says is centered around the “textural feeling of the desert.”
“Caleb and I were really into psychedelic music,” Millan says. “We really wanted to include that texture, even from punk music from the ’70s, all of the stuff that we really like from Arizona, which is the Sun City Girls and the huge punk revolution from the ’80s in Phoenix. We also wanted to include that attitude of punk and psychedelic music in our music.”
In 2020, the band was busy working on new music and doing livestream concerts, the latter of which was a performance sponsored by the Kennedy Center as part of its Arts Across America video series.
That livestream concert took place inside of a recording studio.
Along with livestream concerts, the group has been working on a new album called “¡ESTRAIK BACK!,” which it plans to release this year.
Millan, who is a first-generation Mexican American, and Michel, who is a first-generation Dominican American, grew up speaking English and Spanish. With their band name and their upcoming album, they thought it was important to combine the two languages.
“The whole basis of Los Esplifs is we are this hybridized being, where we can exist in two spaces. Spanglish is that language that exists in both spaces,” Millan says.
During their concerts, the group members sing in Spanish but often talk to audiences in English.
Millan says the group is able to connect to people on different levels.
“Not everybody has to understand the lyrics of the concert. They can all react in a positive way by incorporating dance, the music going inside of their body and reacting to it,” Millan says.
Millan says they want to reach audiences of different ages and backgrounds while staying true to their roots.
“We are trying to have an inclusive environment where our music and our culture is accepted the way it should be and the way it is,” Millan says.
The group recorded most of its newest album in late February and early March in Phoenix’s Coronado Neighborhood using a recording-to-tape method.
Millan says this technique was challenging because of social distancing.
“It was very difficult for us to go and produce the album during these times, because we had to be in the physical space where the tape machine was, and those tape machines are very rare and very old,” Millan says.
The group first experimented with using a reel-to-reel machine with the single “La Peligrosa,” which was released last January.
“All of music that we like is from the 1960s to the ’80s,” Millan says. “Those recording processes are very different than how we record music now. We’ve always been obsessed with that era of music, of New York City in the ’70s. Caleb’s dad was actually a part of that movement in the ’70s. So, he always points us to the coolest-sounding records.
“Our music has been historically recorded through these machines. We wanted to be included in that canon of composition.”
Millan says “¡ESTRAIK BACK!” speaks to the experience of living in 2020 as a Latino individual.
“The album is a reflection of what we were going through this last year. That doesn’t have to do with the pandemic itself but more of the social revolution that was occurring during pandemic times. The whole album is trying to recreate the mind of an individual living in this space,” Millan says.
The group performed new songs during the Arizona Arts Live concert and plans to do it during the Herberger concert as well.
The group has been busy in the last few years making music.
In 2020, the band has also worked on albums with pop star Neon Indian and Good Boy Inc.
In 2019, the group released a self-titled EP, which was made in Mexico.
Millan says one song from the EP, “De Rodillas en el Altar” (“On My Knees at the Altar”), speaks to the Arizona experience of living in the desert.
“I really want kids in Arizona to listen to that and feel special,” Millan says.
“Whenever I travel to anywhere in the world, when I say I’m from Arizona, people get really interested because we have a world that nobody else has. It’s really interesting and unique. That song was to say thanks to the desert and the way the desert makes me feel.”
The group has also had its music played on other platforms.
The song “Gaimboiz” was featured on the Netflix show “Desenfrenadas” (“Unstoppable”), and music was used in a voting registration video produced by AZ Poder.
Local Arizona companies has also used the group’s music in ads.
Millan says it is important that the music continues to reach Arizonans in different ways.
“People in Arizona are finding our music inspiring to tell their story or just to soundtrack their ad. I think it’s amazing. To me, it shows that the music is getting represented and is getting the representation that I wanted, which is Arizona people listening to something that is truly culturally theirs. Not culturally in a sense of Latino, white or Black, but culturally Arizona music,” Millan says.
Thus far, Los Esplifs has mainly performed locally in Arizona in bigger venues to house shows, with the exception of a festival in Mexico in December 2019. The band hopes to continue to build on this, performing in other states and countries when it is safe to do so.
Through digital content, the group has been able to reach audiences in Mexico, Colombia and parts of Europe. Los Esplifs plans to continue to build on this, developing more of a global following.
“I’m liking that all of these people in different demographics, different places, different social classes and different ages are enjoying the music in different spaces,” Millan says.
Millan says this year has really shown the importance of online platforms. The group plans to continue to use them in the near future, while also playing live for audiences.
“The pandemic has informed us how we get ready in these digital spaces, in these new spaces that are getting carved into this new culture, and we are getting ready to go back to playing live, which is what our strength is,” Millan says.
Los Esplifs Outdoor Concert, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, 602-252-8497, herbergertheater.org, 7:30 p.m., doors open 6:30 p.m. Friday, January 29, $25 advanced tickets, $30 day of show.