Drawing by Renzo Ortega
To set the record straight, R-Tronika is not a band; it’s a “project.” The more philosophical music sage might even call it a movement. Its members are fluid, they come and go with time; fleeting moments of rhythm much like the winds of New York where they disseminate. As the city streets provide a foundation for world wanderers to test the waters of America’s lucrative fields, R-Tronika likewise offers a stage for uprooted musicians to impart their craft, melding a pot of aural brilliancy and forging onward as the winds pull their sails.
At least that’s how founding father, Renzo Ortego, sees it. Ortego established the group, an ongoing endeavor, eight years ago. His idea was to construct a musical collective with no distinct background, rather an amalgamation of sounds and sights in the true essence of the city inspiring it. A birth child of the New York’s enclaves, R-Tronika possesses flavors from around the world.
“People from all nationalities play in the group; they come and perform for awhile, then continue on with their own projects,” explains Ortego, originally from Peru. “Though we’re from all over, our songs are written in New York, they are the nature of the city. We are part of this machine…We have so many influences in our background—Peruvian, Colombian, Jamaican,—but we don’t consider ourselves Latin or from one country…We are New York.”
Stylistically, R-Tronika began with an electronic focus; it was by the inclusion of such melodic stray cats that elements of foreign lands and elusive sonic entities crept into the mix. Self-described as “techno, punk, ska, rap, dub, reggae, rock and Andean,” the multicultural ensemble has released two albums to-date and produces all their own work. Their first record, a full-length album titled Apple Pie, was self-released in 2009; their sophomore project, an EP, was put out solely on vinyl last year. Such a logistical choice was as much thematically-influenced by the band’s artistry as it was by their innate love for the quality of good sound, an attribute muddled by today’s apathetic ears.
“In the underground scene where we play music, a lot of people record on vinyl,” notes Ortego. “It’s made differently, so it sounds completely different. With a digital album, you record in parts that are put together; there are loops and samples. With vinyl, it’s 90% real-time. The saxophonist records at the same time as the guitarist and the vocalist, it’s beautiful, It keeps the spirit and life in the sound, like an old school rock ‘n roll album.”
Rock definitely carries weight with Ortego, whose next project is a conceptual throwback to The Clash’s fourth studio album, Sandinista! Like the 80s punk classic, R-Tronika’s forthcoming record will be focused on social issues, geared towards a consciousness of societal displacement and diaspora in New York. This long-term project will be an anthology of sorts, dissecting the process of musical discovery, creation and revelation, and bent as a compilation of not only new music, but interviews and rehearsal sit-ins. The sound will tap back into the group’s electronic base, as Ortego hopes to eventually build a bridge out of Manhattan.
“I’m really looking forward to playing electronic music in Europe and the West Coast,” he remarks.
Other goals include everything from importing more cultural novelties—“I’d love to bring in someone from China one day, and someone from Korea… someone from the Midwest”— to featuring a native English vocalist on a record to clearing up perplexity surrounding the notion of Latino in this country.
“There’s a misunderstanding regarding terminology in America. Being from Peru is not the same as ‘Spanish;’ every nationality is different,” argues Ortego. “In Peru, we like salsa, we like cumbia, there’s huge Andean influence in the language and the food, in the music…You can’t just simplify us to Latin. In the band, we play drum & bass, we play electronic, hip hop and funk…One time, I had an agent try to book us as a Latin band, and when I sent him over our music, he actually turned us down because he said we weren’t Latin at all… We are a New York band.”
For Ortega, a visual artist too, music can forge such complex identities and also further political agendas, two efforts prominent in R-Tronika’s work and outlook. While he finds greater satisfaction through music than visual arts (the latter has limited market and scope), he insists all images of the band be artistic designs, not photography. Using his skills as an illustrator, the group’s album artwork is a series of Ortega’s abstract sketches and videos, which embody ideals of the band.
“If you look at Moby’s last album, every song is represented by a particular image, that’s something like what I want to do,” says Ortego, adding, “A photograph would never work. We are always changing. One photo would disregard the artists who’ve been with us in the past.”
It is this evolving paradigm that makes R-Tronika one of the more unique artists to catch in New York at the moment. Currently, they’re playing gigs around the city, this week hitting the Local Project and Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and also performing at the Punk Island Festival later this month. From there, they go with the breeze, welcoming fresh talents and sounds, recording and surveying the field, and hopefully bringing their work outward bound. Always keeping an ear to the street, R-Tronika is “music without borders.” You’ll know them not by their faces, but their soul, zealously harkening at past vestiges and future forays in the ever-present ethnic interchange of New York.