Trace Ingredients: Unadulterated New Orleans Funk from Milton Villarrubia’s Pollo Frito - November 30, 2011

"A drummer by training and trade, Villarrubia is among a cadre of progressive musicians in Santa Fe that question if not argue against the static underpinnings of music, its composition and consumption..."

If we allow ourselves to enjoy karaoke and hold the illusion that for five minutes and 32 seconds, we are Bonnie Tyler and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is our moment of grace, we should not be fazed about the house band playing “Iko Iko” into the ground. For a band to claim that it plays New Orleans funk means one of two things: The band or key musicians are actually from New Orleans or the band wishes it was from Nawlins’ and it has the personalized beads to prove it.

One way to tell the difference is to understand the set list. Like most derivatives of the sound, New Orleans Funk is tied tightly to R&B and Soul. In a way, there is no hard line between these styles of music, but rather a progression of the sonic temperament: exaggeration of compositional elements, endless variation of root rhythms, on and on. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, New Orleans luminaries punctuated and propelled the mix, so for every Meters and Neville Brothers’ tune, there’s James Booker, Lee Dorsey, Bo Dollis, Irma Thomas and Professor Longhair somewhere in the vibe. This knowledge is typically lost on faux funk outfits mutilating Cissy Strut during happy hour, but it isn’t lost on Milton Villarrubia III.

Villarrubia is a born and bred New Orleanian who his lived off and on in Santa Fe since 1995. A drummer by training and trade, Villarrubia is among a cadre of progressive musicians in Santa Fe who question, if not argue against, the static underpinnings of music, its composition and consumption. In other words, many of his projects including his jazz trio, “Letter from Ucha” or duo with Carlos Santistevan “iNK oN paper” or “Out of Context” with J.A. Dino Deane don’t exactly fit into the bar circuit gauche.

That said, Villarrubia and his latest funk and soul project, Pollo Frito, recently murdered out clean sets at the original Second Street Brewery. As they worked through Smokey Johnson and Allen Toussaint, the band--which includes Case Tanner (Bass), Chris Ishee (keyboards) Jeremy Bleich (guitar) and Julie Stewart (vocals)--stretched into territory inhabited by reprisal funk and soul bands like the New Mastersounds, Soulive, The Bamboos and Breakestra.

Villarrubia leads the band through tight instrumental stretches, with occasional vocal leads and drops by Stewart. It is in his background under the tutelage of drum master Johnny Vidacovich, among others, that you see the restless jones in his drumming, hammering syntax precision that holds the thread around the trees leading out of the wilderness.

The band debuted last summer at the International Folk Arts Museum on the Fourth of July, through its “Gallery of Conscious Exhibition” that featured artists responding to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters around the world through various creative mediums. It was an occasion that Villarrubia used to establish the band and play the roots music he admires.

Villarrubia, who is also a gifted chef, speaks in the cadence of an unmistakable New Orleans’ accent, which is not unlike his drumming. In fact, he uses the nomenclature of food culture, “Pollo Frito,” to sounds—in iNK oN paper he uses electronic triggers on his drums that flip sound bites of kitchen noises: bacon sizzling, pots clanking, etc., when he hits the drums—to his philosophy of bringing music to the masses as a kind of nourishment, where he takes the responsibility of the music he produces very seriously, bordering on the spiritual.

Writer and hournalist Chris Rose nailed it when he wrote, “New Orleans was always a place where people talked too much even if they had nothing to say.” Villarrubia let’s his music speak for itself. Now it is our turn to sit at his table and eat.

(photo of Villarrubia by Alexis Brown)