Arts and Culture

Malahierba and the Denver-Juárez Connection

Malahierba on Colfax, July 2018.
Malahierba on Colfax, July 2018. Michael Goodwin
In July 2015, the members of Juárez-born psych-blues trio Malahierba would wake up at dawn to clear weeds from cotton fields in Morton, Texas. Come nightfall, they’d crash in an RV loaned to them by a neighbor. It had neither running water nor electricity; they’d have to hike to a corner store for a restroom. Even so, they were grateful, because their band was on the move.

In their eyes, for Juárez bands to make it, they needed to get out of the city — and hard work in the Texas fields and living in a ramshackle abode were the price of the ride.

“There have been some good bands from Juárez, but they never took that risk,” says bassist Fernando Rocha Martinez — aka Ferras — about the uncertainty and struggle they might encounter stateside. The goal remained: “Hey, we’re a band. Let’s get out of here and try to do it.”

The name Malahierba literally means “bad weed” in Spanish. The musicians thought it was a good fit.

To jump-start their career, the bandmembers shaved what little fat they could from an already lean budget and pooled their savings to buy a gray 2002 Grand Caravan — the Mama Mobile — for $1,000. When possible, they would finish up work in Morton and pile into the van for the hour drive to the Backstage Lubbock bar in Lubbock, Texas, to play open-mic nights. When the jams ran too late for the drive back to Morton, they’d set up camp for the night at Buffalo Springs Lake.

“The people in Lubbock, the same as here in Denver, were like, ‘Hey, man, I can’t understand a word you guys are saying, but I really like what you’re doing,’” recalls Ferras, laughing.

click to enlarge Malahierba on Colfax, July 2018. - MICHAEL GOODWIN
Malahierba on Colfax, July 2018.
Michael Goodwin
“Hearing that was really good. I was starting to get more faith in our band,” says drummer Cristian Aaron Vega Rodriguez, who goes by KB. In October, a phone call from a friend, Leo Muñoz — a fellow Juárez native and current keyboardist/flutist in Denver’s Love Gang — put Denver on their minds. A couple of weeks later, the Mama Mobile was heading north.

In Denver, Ferras, KB and guitarist/vocalist Victor Ivan Rochin Mancha (known as Boti) upgraded from the RV and moved into a one-bedroom place up a twisting set of stairs off an alley near Colfax Avenue. Secured with the help of a local liquor-store proprietor, the space was convenient, if confined — just a small kitchen, bathroom and living room. By day, a drum set was the room’s centerpiece, encircled by guitars, amps and braids of instrument cables. At night the gear was ushered to the walls, air mattresses and assorted blankets taking its place.

click to enlarge Boti at the inaugural Electric Funeral Fest, June 2016. - MICHAEL GOODWIN
Boti at the inaugural Electric Funeral Fest, June 2016.
Michael Goodwin

Plenty of bands are playing heavy blues these days, but Malahierba is unique. A distinct sexiness defines the group’s sound and helps set it apart from that of its American peers.

In relatively little time, the risk, hard work and tight quarters began to pay off, as whispers of an outstanding band up from Juárez breezed through the dives of Broadway and Colfax. The band gained traction playing Electric Funeral Fest three years in a row alongside Radio Moscow, Crypt Trip, Electric Citizen, Mothership, Sacri Monti and a slew of other acts leading a nationwide retro rock revival.

“We had just met Malahierba earlier in 2016,” recalls Mario Rodriguez of Dallas’s Smokey Mirror, who first heard of the band on the inaugural Electric Funeral Fest lineup. “They had played their first shows in Texas outside of El Paso earlier that summer with us and were appreciative of us setting up some shows. They wanted to return the favor and had told us a lot about how great Juárez was and how receptive people were to psychedelic rock and roll — especially to American bands, since there weren’t really too many bands from the U.S. that would come through.”

Denver’s Love Gang, with a member from Juárez, built a strong bond with Malahierba, helping the act get established in Colorado. Smokey Mirror and Love Gang, inspired by the reputation of Juarez’s growing music scene, booked a show there with Malahierba and a pair of rippers from the city, Dizz Brew and Ultimo Trip. The two U.S. groups were some of the first in a wave of rock-and-rollers to make a point of touring through Juárez in recent years.

click to enlarge Crowd warming up at Hysteria, January 2017. - MICHAEL GOODWIN
Crowd warming up at Hysteria, January 2017.
Michael Goodwin
The show took place at Hysteria, a downtown club near the Paso del Norte port of entry and a place where the city’s rock-and-roll underground has picked up steam. The venue is housed within a large, unremarkable two-story building. Anexo Centenario, another popular Juárez rock venue, sits above it on the second floor. There’s a sizable rectangular bar in the center of the room; beyond it is a long stage with a tall drum riser to the right and an array of tables to the left. The bar sells 32-ounce bombers of Carta Blanca and Indio beer for around forty pesos, and despite No Smoking signs hanging on just about every wall, no one hesitates to light up inside. It’s a much looser environment than you’ll find in most stateside venues.

The night the groups played there, remembers Smokey Mirror’s Rodriguez, “people were breaking bottles and jumping on stage and getting crazy. The crowd reception was really positive.”

“They definitely get into it — people were moshing when we were playing,” says Love Gang guitarist and vocalist Kameron Wentworth. “It was the best show we played on that tour. Super rowdy.”

click to enlarge Dizz Brew's Martin Torices and Marely Nolasco at Hysteria, January 2017. - MICHAEL GOODWIN
Dizz Brew's Martin Torices and Marely Nolasco at Hysteria, January 2017.
Michael Goodwin
Love Gang had a similarly wild experience when the band returned with Malahierba to play the Anexo Centenario in 2017. “I remember at one point when I was watching Malahierba, you could feel the floor shaking from all the people jumping around,” says Wentworth.

It was clear to the visiting bands that there was something exceptional about playing in the city.

click to enlarge KB at the hi-dive in May as the band opened for Y La Bamba. - MICHAEL GOODWIN
KB at the hi-dive in May as the band opened for Y La Bamba.
Michael Goodwin
“There’s just a more palpable energy and feeling in Juárez, even more so than I have really ever experienced in most cities in the States, Dallas included,” says Rodriguez. “The energy and the crowd response was just one of a kind. If you want to go and feel like you’re famous or perform for people and get that real rewarding crowd response that only comes every so often, I would always recommend Juárez. I have wanted to go back there since the first time I went.”

As American bands have spun through Juárez or Juárez bands through Denver, Malahierba has acted as an ambassador, connecting each city’s rock-and-roll scene. And while Juárez may best be known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, plagued by drug cartel and gang violence in recent decades, the rock scene there is beginning to bring new attention to the city.

Malahierba is keen on having more U.S. bands stop in Juárez. “If you want to have a good time in Juárez, contact either us or Dizz Brew,” recommends Ferras before adding a word to the wise: “And be alert to los cholos and the police.”
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