Wayfaring musician Raúl Vargas got a tip from a fellow Spaniard he crossed paths with in Sydney, Australia: He had to go to San Francisco, and he had to check out the international hostel in the Mission District. Vargas, who spent years traveling after playing music and cooking professionally in Madrid, was game.
A few weeks later, he landed, got to the hostel, and knew it. He had found his place. That was where Vargas met bassist Vinicio Peñate which led to the birth of Makrú.
Sixteen years passed, and a lot has changed, but Vargas and the band he founded in 2008, Makrú, are still loud and proud and freethinking as ever. On Tu Mission, the five-strong group blends everything from reggae to rumba flamenca to ska in songs designed to spark change and connect listeners to the spirit of the place that inspired the project.
“Message is as important as the music on this album,” Vargas explains. “It doesn’t have to be openly political. In general when I write, a song’s message could be silly or really serious and important. I picked songs for this new album that create missions for people, ways they can hopefully help to improve their lives and surroundings, even in small ways. I decided to do fewer songs but have them be much stronger in this purpose.”
Songs beckon listeners to harken to nature’s beauty (the rolling, rainforest-inspired “Palabras”), to connect with their personal source of happiness and peace (“Cloud”), to call for open borders and free movement (the punchy brass-powered reggae ska anthem of “Nómadas Opción”).
As sonic nomads, Makrú lets songs take on whatever style or color they need to make their point. “I may write a rumba or a ska for one song, the next song will be likely something completely different,” Vargas reflects. “I don’t really have a niche that way, and we add new instruments or sounds or influences that fit the conscious message.”
Makrú grew out of a uniquely Bay Area creative endeavor, La Malamaña. Vargas settled in the Mission and got to know fellow Spanish-speakers from around the Latin world, including Peñate. The experience made him rethink his own roots, and he went from listening to mostly Anglophone rock to diving into music from Spain and Latin America.
“We were hanging around, all these Latino and Latina friends, eight people from seven countries. We want to start a project, but we don’t know what we’re doing,” Vargas recalls with a laugh. “The group had so much talent, with dancers, actors, and musicians. We decided to do three different arts combined into one project. It was unique every time, dancing on stilts and juggling fire.”
Along with the performance art came wild, upbeat music. “My fellow artists encouraged me to bring more Spanish flavor to the music, so I started writing music for it,” Vargas says. “We had this mix from Venezuela, Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Spain and Argentina, and I really loved playing around with it.” The mix of pan-Latin music and art was pretty unique for the Bay Area and eventually won the group gigs at major local venues.
Makrú spun off from La Malamaña, keeping its wide-ranging but Latin-centric heart. The group’s sound emerged gradually: “The music I was writing and that I keep writing, makes the most of all the places I’ve been and where I’m from,” says Vargas. “It’s also drawing on the diverse experience from the band members.” North American guitarist Bob Sanders, Colombian singer and vihuela player Jenny Rodriguez, and Turkish violinist and oud player Haluk Kecelioglu bring their own musical ideas to Makrú. The diversity in sonic and geographic origins has sparked a united sense of urgency and hope, as Peñate explains. “We put our own sources of inspiration and energy into our music,” he says. “Some of the lyrics in ‘Where you wanna be’ are like a mantra to me. ‘Embrace the world / And fight until you are gone.’ I want to live by that.”
Though calling for listeners to find their personal mission, big or small, many of the songs are wonderfully fanciful. The dreamy quality of “Cloud” Vargas decided to magnify with a floaty clarinet line. “Palabras” was written on a laidback day in the Costa Rican rainforest, when the sounds and sensations of nature overwhelmed Vargas, who started jotting down individual words to capture sweet and sour interaction between humans and nature.
Another feeling that guides Tu Mission is the band’s birthplace, the infamously bohemian neighborhood that has faced an onslaught of change and gentrification. Vargas chronicles the eviction woes of a long-term resident on “Tu Mission,” who looks around and sees the places he loved have disappeared. Though Vargas still lives in the Mission, “the place I wanted to stay sixteen years ago is very different now. The bohemian artist vibe is being pushed out by the tech community. Those two worlds have a tough time merging,” he notes. “San Francisco has always been changing, sometimes really dramatically, and I think by highlighting the stories and considering our roles in it, we can find new connections and a better way to be in our community.”
No matter where you are, however, “Our mission is to be aware and to get involved in what is happening around us,” muses Vargas. “We all need to prioritize our goals, dreams, and wellbeing as well as those of our community…We want listeners to reflect on what is important,” and to get moving, be it on the dancefloor or in their lives.