FMEL shocks Chicagoans into a new world of Latino electronic music

August 23, 2011

By Catalina Maria Johnson

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(Photo courtesy of FMEL)
The Latin electronic music festival FMEL is in its fourth year.

Stephanie Manriquez and Charly Garcia, co-founders of the Latin Electronic Music Festival - called “FMEL” from its initials in Spanish - are taking Chicagoans into the brave new world of electronic music.

“We want to have new digital contemporary art and music from Latin America, so we created this space,” Manriquez says.

The digital art at the heart of the Fest starts with music. Local and visiting musicians and composers working within a variety of genres are showcased. These sound artists compose music and use both created and sampled sound to compose pieces that can be very abstract, to those which have more recognizable melodies or rhythms with a Latin influence.

But all the pieces incorporate technology as an essential instrument: from computers, IPads, video projection, to the manipulation of devices to make sounds.

Many electronic artists also work with images that accompany their music. This visual component is also very important, as Manriquez describes: “each of our artists or our showcases [they] come with a projection in the back that makes the complement on their sounds, the image moves as the sound goes.”

The Latin Electronic Music Festival is in its fourth year. Since its start, it’s gone from only showcasing 3 projects to 9 this year and moved to other corners of the city - from a central location in Pilsen to venues on the city’s North and South Sides. But one thing has not changed: the fest always includes workshops for youth that teach elements of digital music production. In fact, says Manriquez, the workshops are at the heart of the motivation for the festival.

“We are trying to bring these concepts to a community that is not aware of the electronic,” Manriquez says. “These new concepts, we are trying to put them in our daily vocabulary.”

The workshops cover topics such as Internet radio, VJing, and something called circuit bending, which Manriquez describes: "Circuit bending is the manipulation of toys or instruments that are low voltage and only use double AA batteries. We open them up and then we modify their sounds.”

The workshops take students from the Latino community into the digital world in a way that isn’t threatening; it’s actually inviting. They develop skills in Math, Physics and computers. It’s all a part of circuit-bending, even though it’s not that obvious, as 16-year-old Monica Gonzalez explains, “It’s really fun I’m learning a lot of things…this doesn’t really involve words it involves creativity and thinking of different sounds.”

At the same time, it teaches young people how to use mistakes, with a touch of hacking, as an artistic tool to create music. Yair Lopez, who is teaching the circuit-bending workshop at Pro Arts in Pilsen, describes how this happens with vinyl records: “There’s scratches and weird noise and the perfect loop. The loop in music is a cycle where you can repeat and repeat and repeat…Tum tum tum tum… that is a loop.¨

Selling people on the idea error and odd noises as art isn’t always easy. Each year the organizers thought that money woes would mean the Festival might not happen.

“We are trying to explain that this kind of culture, this kind of movement, it’s needed in our communities, the digital,” explains Manriquez. “It’s hard to explain what we’re trying to do, and it’s relatively new, so it’s hard to have big funds into it.”

To keep it alive, a varied group of Latino media, businesses and community organizations have stepped up to the plate. The community is beginning to recognize the value of joining the digital era, and the musicians … well, they just love the freedom, says Leonardo Ciccone. “There’s less rules, referees, less, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that."

Ciccone is a Chicago-based music composer and producer who grew up in Mexico City and has participated in the Festival 3 times. He explains his interest in the fest: “It responds a lot better to new things…like the Jeff Mills quote, he’s the father of Detroit Techno, he says electronic music is exciting because people when people hear something they’ve never heard before they cheer, whereas in rock and roll, people cheer when they hear they song they’ve heard fifty times and that they really like.”

Fest co-founder Charly Garcia agrees that, “It’s time to create something in the U.S. and create that bridge between Latin America, Chicago and other countries.”