DeVotchKa's Shawn King on Dreaming Sin Fronteras, art and immigration

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DeVoktchKa's Shawn King may not think too highly of didactic protest songs, but he has devoted himself to Dreaming Sin Fronteras: Stories of Immigration and American Identity, a massive theatrical collaboration about "dreamers": undocumented students who have been in the United States since they were children and are seeking a clear path to citizenship. Working with local director José Antonio Mercado and fellow music director Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli, King has curated a lineup of nationally renowned musicians to bring their talents to the stories of undocumented youth. In advance of the March 21 opening, Westword spoke with King about the project.

See also: Poet Yosimar Reyes on the power of personal narratives

Westword: Talk about the production.

Shawn King: Dreaming Sin Fronteras was originally an idea from Jose Mercado. I've worked with him in the past, so when he told me that he wanted to do a hybrid of stories using theater and music, I thought it was a great idea. That idea came about a year-and-a-half ago. We've been expanding on the concept as we've gone along, and Jose's been collecting the stories from real world dreamers, people who would be affected by the DREAM Act. We wanted to portray immigration stories and talk about American identity.

Talk about who the dreamers are and what the DREAM Act is.

The DREAM Act says that if you came here from another country and you were working hard that you would be able to gain American citizenship by graduating high school with good grades. It's been very hard to get people on board. It's highly politicized. For Jose and I, it seems so simple. He's worked with a lot of kids who would be affected by the DREAM Act. I've been an educator myself in Denver. We feel like it's something so simple when you're talking about a path to citizenship or fair immigration reform. It seems like something that everyone can get on board with, and it's still being met with resistance.

Talk about how you see music fitting into this production and the political struggle as a whole.

Jose heard a remix that I did with Stephen Bracket, known from The Flobots. Stephen had gone to Tucson, with Air Traffic Control, on an activism retreat based entirely on immigration. He went down to Nogales and went to the border and saw people who were jailed indefinitely because they had no papers and were undocumented Americans separated form their families. He came back. The experience was incredibly emotional for him. Another artist there named Erin McKeown had written a song, and she wanted Stephen to remix it. Stephen and I are friends, and we've worked together. I became producer for this remix. Stephen Brackett rapped on it. It became almost a protest or a rally call for people to think about what immigration reform could look like. Jose heard that, and he said he liked it. "How can we take this and put this in a personal context and tell actual stories from people in song form." That became a great idea to me, because, I feel like what this really comes down to is personal story and what better way to tell it than in a song. I wasn't going out to write protest songs, but when we contextualized it like this and spoke about songs being a vehicle to tell a story, to me that seemed very doable and powerful. It spoke to my desire to collaborate and reach out and produce and write with new people.

You're talking about collaborating with new people. Talk about how Dreaming Sin Fronteras fits into your own practice as a musician and the various projects that you work on.

I've been in DeVotchKa for fourteen years, and Nick and Tom have known each other an extra two, so their friendship is sixteen years in the making. We've learned by producing our own records. Most of our stuff is self-produced; we've spent lots of the time in the studio experimenting; we've written together. We've covered a lot of ground with the albums that we've recorded. On stage, we love to collaborate with other musicians. We've worked with the Colorado Symphony. At this point, DeVotchKa is recording new music this year.

Dreaming Sin Fronteras was an opportunity to do something a little different with a different context where we are doing a lot of music in Spanish, which I've always wanted to do. For me, it's a natural progression to write and produce in a different style. I should add that my partner in this, Raul Pacheco, is releasing an album with Ozomatli this year. We just met at the right time. There's an artist-activism group; this is the same one that brought Stephen down to Tucson. They're called the Air Traffic Control. They have a roster of artists who've worked for different causes, hence, their name, and they basically bring everyone together. When I was talking to them about what I was doing with Jose's play, the first person they thought of was Raul. We had done a show together in LA, and we didn't get to connect at that point, only because we are both in large bands. Sometimes the green room isn't a good place to make a connection happen. Years later, this opportunity came up. I met Raul last year. I've been going to L.A. a lot and have really begun a relationship with him that has proven to be fun, fruitful and interesting. It sounds like you have hesitancy about writing protest songs. How do you reconcile that with Dreaming Sin Fronteras?

Anytime I feel that I'm being told something -- Rage Against the Machine is the exception; people have been on board -- and when something comes across heavy-handed, I kind of retract. Sometimes I feel like if it's forced, I have a hard time feeling inspired by that. I've been really cautious to try to write songs for this project that are coming from the heart and coming from real experience and that don't fall into the preaching category.

A song that I did with Ceci Bastida speaks about her travels from Tijuana to Los Angeles. The way she describes her time crossing the border refers to what she did first hand. She experienced people of another generation turning their backs on newer immigrants struggling with being undocumented. Within her story lies something compelling and something to make you think. For me, that's the way I want these songs to fit in. I want them to be personal and not a call to arms. A lot of this debate gets lost in technicalities, and what's really happening is that there is a human side to it that needs to be heard.

Continue on for more about Shawn King's thoughts on music and activism and to hear another track from Dreaming Sin Fronteras.

Is activism a part of your experience through the years, or is this issue-focused work a newer thing?

In DeVotchKa, we've spent a lot of time together-sometimes hours together in the van-and we've talked about everything under the sun. We've always been politically minded. The biggest thing about activism and art is finding something that works in a natural way. I wasn't looking to be outspoken on this issue. It just comes naturally because of my travels, my family and my politics. It has to be a natural thing. When it's forced, things can suffer. Really, what's most important is that as artists we continue to make the best art possible, because that's what it comes down to. If you're trying to tell a story that happens to be inspired by current affairs, if the delivery and the music aren't good, it's not worth it.

When audiences show up, what are they going to see?

There are going to be some stories that are heavy and make you think. There are also going to be some lighter, comic tales about the mash-up of cultures here in the states as told by young actors. Musically, having these interludes of music will bring the whole thing together. We're not looking to bring people down. We're trying to do a complete piece that talks about these issues of American identity. The music is going to compliment it and help people step back a little bit. The quality of musicians that are going to be there is going to be thrilling for me. We have Ceci Batista coming from Los Angeles. Raul Pacheco is taking a break from his tour with Ozomatli to come. Stephen Brackett may do a song with us as well.

I wouldn't call it a concert by any means. It's more of a multimedia mix that will entertain as much as it makes you ponder our current situation. It tells multiple stories.

Is there an overarching narrative thread or is it different, discreet stories?

It is different discrete stories. It's like putting out a mix-tape of various immigration stories and songs. What can we expect from this music?

Raul and I have been working in Los Angeles and Denver on this music in the studio. We've gotten different singers involved. There is a singer from Portland, Luz Elena Mendoza, who is also recording a record with her band, Y La Bamba this year. We're hoping to reach out to more rappers and singers. This project will complete in the fall when we've got a number of tales that we will release as a full record after the play is over.

As far as activism and music, one group of people that was inspiring was Gogol Bordello.

We did a couple of tours with them, and I saw how Eugene, Elizabeth and Pedro were outspoken on a lot of these immigration issues. In the Gogol fashion, they made their protest with "No Human is Illegal." For me that was really inspiring. Going back to how it's something personal, that worked for them--shooting a video and using that phrase, "No Human is Illegal," to emphasize what they stand for. For me, these collaborations are my way of contributing to that conversation, and it has been a good fit. We're hoping to get more traction after the play to release a proper record. Dreaming Sin Fronteras runs March 21 and March 22 at North High School. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $5 for students.

Follow me on Twitter: kyle_a_harris

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