Sandra Velasquez arrived in New York in 1999 and developed a longing. Brooklyn’s streets lacked familiar Mexican restaurants, dishing up grub on every corner. The large Caribbean-Latino population spoke Spanish with a different accent. Most importantly, the music of her youth wasn’t blaring from car stereos. “Even though I had traveled around the globe, it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I felt really far away from Mexican culture.”
Velasquez grew up in San Diego, just a few miles from the border. On Saturday mornings her mother would tune the radio to Mexican pop, to cumbia, to merengue, to salsa, all kinds of music from all over the Latin world. Velasquez spent her rebellious teen years with an ear for rock, playing keyboards and guitar in several projects. “If I had stayed in California, I would probably be in a very different band.”
A few years ago, reeling from the breakup of yet another of her rock groups, Velasquez stayed with relatives in Mexico and started thinking about her next step. There she wrote what is now the majority of Pistolera’s material. She returned to New York and called her cousin, Ani Cordero, who drummed in her last band. “I know you’re busy,” Velasquez remembers saying, “but would you just play these songs with me?” From there, they found two more musicians through friends. Pistolera’s lineup emerged with three women and one man. “I just found the people that were the best for the job. Two of them just happened to be women.”
She calls the band’s sound ranchera, just to avoid a long-winded historical and geographical conversation. “People know that usually means Mexican music.” Pistolera’s first disc, released last November and titled Siempre Hay Salida, reveals a mix of Latin sounds. The album feeds primarily on cumbia, however, a style marked by a particular cowbell pattern and certain bass lines. Velasquez stirs in a pop-rock sensibility with American verse-chorus structure and accessible hooks, perfect for people who are often sinking their teeth into these sounds for the first time.
Since Pistolera’s sound is such an anomaly on the East Coast, the group received attention right away. “Our very first show in New York, we got our picture in the paper, underneath, like, Mos Def,” she says. “I think it’s just because it’s something different out here.”
Approaching its two-year anniversary, Pistolera is still without a label, in spite of some radio success and four tours. That means Velasquez handles all the press herself. It’s a lot of work. “It didn’t happen overnight or anything. I still work really hard.” She also hasn’t given up her day job as an administrator for the dance department at Columbia University (thankfully, the university has been flexible about letting her take time off to sound check or go on tour). “We’re still juggling, and we’ll continue to juggle until it becomes impossible,” she says. “That’s the advice I’ve been given by people in the industry: Just hold on to your job until it’s really not possible.”
Velasquez is stoked to come to the Southwest, where Pistolera’s mix of rock and Latin sounds won’t be such an aberration. People in the Southwest will get it right away, she says. “I don’t feel like we need to be the people that just stand out.”