For the past decade, Taos Shortz Film Festival has put Taos on the map by bringing world-class short films to our community. Taos Shortz ends its run this year with a high-flying “Fare-Thee-Well” party. The bash includes circus arts and music by Wagogo, a spirited Albuquerque-based band that combines positive messages with danceable beats from Zimbabwe, Latin America and Northern New Mexico.
The fun gets started Friday (March 31), 9:30 p.m., at Taos Mesa Brewing, 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west. Tickets are $10 at the door, with free admission for festival pass holders.
Armando Ortega started Wagogo in 1993. For 24 years, the band has been lighting up smiles and setting a flame under dancing feet. The high-energy dance band performs a wide variety of music, including songs influenced by the music of Zimbabwe. “Our slogan for a while was ‘Music from Memphis to Mozambique and back to New Mexico’ because we play waltzes, polkas, rockabilly, cumbias from Colombia, boleros, reggae, anything that is good and positive and feels good and is dancey,” said Ortega.
Wagogo’s band members are Ortega (guitar, vocals), Nick Baker (drums, vocals), Brian Shonerd (bass, vocals), Raymond Thomas (guitar, vocals), Patrick Latimer (keyboards, marimbas, percussion, vocals). They are often joined by Huntour Gents on percussion.
Anna Cosentine, the founding director of Taos Shortz, said that she first heard Wagogo as a student at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“They were one of my favorite bands,” Cosentine remarked. “I’ve always loved their music. It makes one happy just listening to it — very upbeat.”
She said she knew that the Taos audience and festival crowds would love the band’s music. “It is very soulful, yet playful with meaningful lyrics. They are the perfect choice for our ‘Fare-Thee-Well’ bash and I hope to see a lot of people there celebrating and getting their groove on!”
Ortega comes from the Ortega family of Chimayó and the Pacheco family of Mora. He was raised in Albuquerque and spent fifth and sixth grades in Quito, Ecuador, with his family. He learned to speak Spanish there. Ortega recalled that as a child, he was exposed to a wide range of music through his parents and siblings. There were musicians on both sides of his family.
“My earliest memories were of being very intrigued by music and always drawn to want to play it,” Ortega said.
Before starting Wagogo, Ortega had a number of bands that played country, rockabilly and bluegrass music, including the popular Broadway Elks. In the early 1990s, Ortega had two encounters with musicians that affected him deeply and pointed the way for Wagogo.
First, Ortega heard Joseph Hill and his band (Culture). “I’d never heard of reggae or African music,” Ortega said. A year later, Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited from Zimbabwe came to Albuquerque’s El Rey Theater.
“I’m really in love with Zimbabwe from that very first note of music I heard. Both of those experiences changed my musical path,” he said. He was especially struck that the musicians sang with a “real conscious message for the people and the community.”
Ortega said, “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I found it there.”
According to Ortega, he became friends with Mapfumo and his group. For the next several years, he would follow the African musicians around when they visited New Mexico as part of their regular touring schedule. He started learning the Shona language as a result. On return visits, Mapfumo brought Ortega grammar books, dictionaries and translations in Shona to encourage his study of the language.
“It’s a gorgeous language,” Ortega said of Shona. “Other languages — they open up a whole different way of thinking from another culture. Shona’s like a native language here, full of a lot of earth references and spirit talk, which is my medicine.”
He said he is a great fan of ancient and modern proverbs and folk wisdom from around the world, “especially those that come from people living close to nature. My elders, especially those born in the ‘old world’ [early 1900s] and even the next generation, still use proverbs to gently teach and guide as well as to color and make interesting daily speech. The Shona language of Zimbabwe even today is rich in proverbs. The mystic quality of reggae music, I think, is partly due to their use of folk and biblical proverbs.”
As an example, Ortega shared that his grandfather in Chimayó, Juan Melquiades Ortega, would often say, when asked how he was doing, “Como el día del aguita” if he was feeling good. That translates as, “Like the day of that nice little rain.” A weaver and farmer, his grandfather was also known for his singing, and he would often describe his weaving as “making the colors sing.”
Ortega has visited Zimbabwe twice. “I love that place. It was like going home. In Zimbabwe, they actually refer to music as food. You’re offering it up to the people, so you want it to be good and healthy.”
Wagogo’s seventh CD, which is due out this spring, will have three songs written in the Shona language. Ortega also writes lyrics in Spanish and English. Wagogo’s music has been played on airwaves in China, New Zealand, Canada and Zimbabwe.