In Residence: Jungle Fire’s thrilling TropiFunk is a melting pot of Los Angeles sounds

Jungle Fire represents Los Angeles in the best way possible by creating a melting pot of sound reflecting our diaspora. Photo by Farah Sosa

Jungle Fire represents Los Angeles in the best way possible by creating a melting pot of sound reflecting our diaspora. The ensemble took a while to get coalesce but the outcome made them one of the most sought after live bands in the Southland. KCRW is thrilled to share an exclusive In Residence session with the group.

Jungle Fire’s Albert Lopez chatted with KCRW recently about the band’s creative process and how they make music in quarantine.

Jungle Fire is considered one of LA's finest live bands. How are you coping without an audience? 

The lockdown has been hard on us  — and all musicians! So much of what we do is directly involved with playing in front of people. It's what has inspired us from the beginning to do what we do as Jungle Fire. But luckily, we are also fortunate to be a group of good friends that enjoy making music together, so we come together whenever we can (most of the time in smaller configurations) to do so. We look forward to being able to play live in front of people again!

Are you making new music during quarantine? If you are, how are you doing it? 

We've been quite busy writing and recording new music since the lockdown began, mostly at night, when members can safely leave their families and jobs (those who have them!) and get together to let out some creative energy in our studio. A lot of music has been written as Jungle Fire, but several members have also taken the opportunity to compose original music, often involving members of the band, but not exclusively so. It's been a very fruitful period and it looks like by the end of this year, we'll have several albums' worth of new music to release. LA, the awesome melting pot of cultures we live in, often inspires what we do. The sights, smells and sounds of Pico Union, the neighborhood our studio is located in, spark ideas which in turn become full compositions. It's really cool how it happens! We're fortunate to be able to do this and very grateful for still having the means to do so.

The band seems to have started out as a one off but you've been together for about a decade as a 10 piece band... How did the group evolve? How did the band come together in the first place?

In 2011, our bass player, Joey Reina, was approached by a group of b-boys to put together a band of musicians to play rare Latin funk grooves that are central to b-boy/b-girl events, but that longer got played live by bands. Joey got his band mates from The Simple Citizens/Rugged Nuggets and then contacted percussionist Michael Duffy (one of Jungle Fire's founding members who left the band in 2018) to help him round out the group. The show was a lot of fun, and when the opportunity to do another one arose, percussionist Steve Haney was called in for the fun. Following the second performance, in late January 2012, this group of friends/colleagues decided to get together over a weekend at Killion Sound (the studio belonging to Orgone, a band in which our drummer Sam Halterman also plays in) and record a couple of singles just for the fun of it. Percussionist Alberto Lopez was called to participate in this recording. It was a fun affair! 

At the end of the weekend, the tunes "Comencemos" (a cover of a Latin Funk version of Fela Kuti's "Let's Start" with some modifications) and "Tokuta" (an original tune written by the group of musicians) were fully recorded by Sergio Rios (guitarist and recording/mixing engineer for Orgone). The line up for these recordings has been the backbone of what became the group. The "Comencemos" single got to Giles Peterson and Craig Charles'  hands (both DJs for BBC6) and began getting weekly play on their shows. This created a demand for two more singles by the group of musicians, so soon thereafter, "Firewalker" and "Chalupa" were written and recorded. These two tunes also began getting weekly love from Giles and Craig. 

Before we knew it, the band was playing sporadically in local bboy events and at events organized at The Echo organized by Nancy Arteaga. Then, in mid-2013, Steve Haney was contacted by promoter Tony Morrison in the UK. They had worked together in the 1990s during Steve's touring days with The Greyboy All-Stars. With help from Craig Charles and Snowboy (a famed DJ and bandleader in the UK's soul/funk/latin scene), an eight city UK tour was booked for late 2013. 

The group of friends, who by then had been performing as Jungle Fire (the name is a nod to Pucho and The Latin Soul Brothers' funky release), were forced to come up with 75-90% of original music for the tour since up until then, the only fully composed original music they had were the four recorded singles (and which Colemine Records in Ohio had been awesome at distributing on vinyl!). Immediately following this tour, which truly was the genesis of the band, the group decided to record the material written for the tour. The result was what became the band's first release, "Tropicoso.” 

In a really cool case of serendipity, the band was approached by Canyon Cody, who at the time was working for Nacional Records, to see if we had any material that we thought would be fit for release, to which we responded: "Actually... Yes, we have this whole finished album that we don't know how to release.” Soon thereafter, we signed a deal with Nacional to release the record and have been making music together ever since.

Check out more In Residence sessions:
Fabiano Do Nascimento
Nana Adjoa
Raphael Saadiq
Perfume Genius 
Yuna
Norah Jones
Jensen McRae
Peter CottonTale
Rufus Wainwright
Rocky Dawuni
Lianne La Havas
Blake Mills
Laura Marling
Aloe Blacc
Devon Gilfillian
Jonathan Wilson
Juana Molina

Playlist
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]
Credits

Producers:
Anne Litt, Ariana Morgenstern

Musicians:
Sam Halterman - Drums
Joey Reina - Bass
Pat Bailey - Guitar
Jud McDaniel - Guitar
Sean Billings - Trumpet
Sam Robles - Baritone Sax
Steve Haney - Percussion
Alberto Lopez - Percussion

Special Guests:
Miguel Ramírez - Percussion
Fabio Santana - Trombone