When Earth was a young, throbbing orb, it consisted of one super-ocean of turbulent water and one supercontinent that later broke apart into the global map we're familiar with today. That continent was dubbed Pangea by paleontologist Alfred Wegener in 1915. The members of the world music band known as Pangea Futbol Club chose Pangea for their name to remind listeners that the human race is still a single family, one that dances to a never-ending global groove. The band came together in San Francisco almost a decade ago, and includes lead singer Damian Nuñez, who also plays charango and keyboards; acoustic guitarist Richard Barnes; Colin O'Leary on bass; Marco Casalegno on electric guitar; drummer Elia Lewin-Tankel, and percussionist Garsha Shabankali. They've been knocking out local audiences with their eclectic blend of international grooves ever since their formation. They're currently celebrating the release of their first album, Mira Cuantos. Ahead of shows this Thursday, July 17, at El Valenciano, and Friday, July 18, at Revolution Cafe, singer and songwriter Damian Nuñez spoke to us about the band's history and ethos.
What are the origins of Pangea Futbol Club, and why do you call yourselves a futbol club?
Damian Nuñez: We met playing pick up soccer games in the Western Addition at Hamilton Park (Geary and Steiner). It's a real family scene, with people from Russia, Cuba, Madagascar, Italy, Honduras, El Salvador, Turkey, Bolivia, Spain, and San Francisco. After the games, we started doing barbecues and parties and discovered that we were all musicians. I'm from Argentina and never had so much exposure to people from other cultures. A brotherhood developed, and the first time we got together to play music, it was magic. We started doing covers of songs from Latin America and the Arab world, mainly for dancing and parties. As we began playing gigs, it evolved into an ongoing multicultural celebration. When we chose a name, we thought of the continent of Pangea, because we want to bring the whole world together. Futbol Club is a funny name and we still play soccer together every week, if we can.
How many genres of music do you play?
Bossa nova, funk, rock, samba, reggae, rai, a mix of everything. We have had members from Iran, Morocco, Cuba -- every musician has added more ideas. I brought in Cyril Couz, a classically trained violinist from Russia, and we've had African percussionists. I play piano and charango, a folk instrument from the Andes, with a sound similar to a mandolin. It's used in Bolivian and Peruvian folkloric music and is our main rhythm instrument. Recently, I became the main singer of the band and started composing in Spanish, drawing on Latin music from Mexico to Argentina and the Caribbean. We also like Arab, Balkan, and Middle Eastern music. We're a San Francisco band, because the city draws people from all over the world. We're also a band from the Mission. We like playing there because that's where people go when they want to have a good time.
It took more than a year to make Mira Cuantos. What was the process like?
When we started writing songs, it took a long time to get anything together. Everybody had so many ideas, it was a struggle to work out arrangements. We knew we wanted to put a lot of different rhythms together, but with so many musicians in the band, it took a while to learn how to work together. Now, I bring in finished songs and then we destroy them together -- in a good way. When you have an idea in this band, you have to be ready to have it destroyed and reassembled. Finally, we had enough good songs to record an album. We produced it ourselves, with engineer Richard Preston at Get Reel Studios. We did the basic tracks live, in a couple of weeks of intense recording, then started layering up stuff. It took a year and a half to get the expansive international sound we wanted. Part way through the process, I got polyps on my vocal chords, so we had to take seven months off before I could finish the vocals. We're very happy to have it on the streets.
How do the songs evolve?
After a song is written, we usually start with a rhythm and put it through as many changes as possible. We may start with a samba, but we'll add an Arabic melody or rhythm. We have no respect for borders, although we have a lot of respect for individual cultures. We're not purists. Our song "Sin Preguntar" is very flamenco, but the drummer plays with a rock style and there's a lot of Cuban and Latin piano on it. "Hay Un Sol Pa Canta" mixes West African rhythms with son montuno, "Cancion Para Brindar" (A Song for Toasting), has a reggae groove and changes into a Mexican corrido. It's done in the style of Manu Chao, a real international celebration. Everyone collaborates to make every song as multi-cultural as possible.
What has been your biggest challenge as a new band?
In the beginning, it was putting all the ideas everyone had together and making it work. We had to do a lot of detailed work and research to make all the rhythms mesh, but if you see us, you'll see it's all very fun, the way it comes together. Today, it's finding a stage big enough for us to play on. We always have guests sitting in, sometimes eight or nine people, so many they have to stand off the stage. We used a horn section on the CD and we loved it so much, we keep calling them to play with us. One problem we don't have is generating energy. Something magic happens every time we play.