Chicago-based percussionist Daniel Villarreal says of his debut solo album: Panama 77, is a soundtrack of his life and an introduction to who he is. “It’s about my upbringing and my experiences as a musician and artist in the city of Panama and also in the city of Chicago,” he explains. “It’s a mix of all of that, a mix of different experiences that I want to bring to people sonically.”
Panama 77 was released in May via Chicago-based company International Anthem 12 tracks fit seamlessly into the label’s premier catalog of rousing hybrid grooves. They fuse experimental psychedelic funk with jazz, rock and reggae, plus traditional Latin rhythms like cumbia and son jarocho, the distinctive tones of vintage keyboards (Farfisa, Rhodes piano, Mellotron, Hammond organ), the occasional synth and more.
“Panama 77 says where I stand as an artist and where I stand right now. That’s why I gave something that is close to me, my homeland, my city of Panamá, as a title. And ’77 is the year I was born,” says Villarreal. “My main goal is to bring good stuff to market and to represent my race, my ethnicity, who I am and to be true to myself. That’s important too. You cannot lose your identity no matter what you do. Everyone has their own charm and magic.”
Daniel Villarreal, Anteloper, Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer
Friday, 7/8, 8:30 p.m., Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $20, 17+
Villarreal’s unique charm and magic is evident in the music he creates, his DJ sets around Chicago (he sometimes performs as “Brown Baby Jesus”) and in the confident way he carries himself, with a fashion sense that is always on point. He adorns his fingers with eye-catching statement rings that shine and sparkle as he drums, and his retro outfits seem to pay homage to the cool, carefree style of the ’60s and ’70s. As flamboyant as Villarreal can be, he’s not confident in himself – his approach to life exudes modesty. His politeness, constant smile and easy-going nature make him easily approachable.
dedicated to Villarreal Panama 77 to his paternal grandmother, Ofelia De León, affectionately known as Abuela Fella, who influenced and inspired him with her half-full vision. He grew up with her in the town of Arraiján west of Panama City. He fondly recalls his childhood, despite the constant presence of the military on the streets to quell protests against the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega – and despite the trauma of the 1989 US invasion of Panama that left in the taking culminated by Noriega.
Villarreal laughs as he recalls the nickname he was given as soon as he was old enough to speak: he was nicknamed ‘el polítiquero’ (‘the politician’) because of his non-stop chatter. He approached everyone of all ages and started conversations that went on and on. He was told he had an old soul.
Villarreal’s parents, who worked and lived in Panama City, would visit him at his grandmother’s on the weekends, and music became a focus in his life after a particularly memorable visit when he was five or six: his father, a musician in a touring conjunto, began teaching him to play the organ. He soon switched instruments to playing drums, and by adolescence he was deeply involved in the local punk rock community – eventually touring with punk bands (No Hay Día, 2 Huevos 1 Camino) in Panama and Costa Rica.
It was during this period that Villarreal began to broaden his musical horizons, taking lessons from acclaimed drummer Freddy Sobers, known for his work with reggaeton and dancehall legends Nando Boom and El General. Sobers taught various styles to Villarreal and became his mentor, enlightening him on how to approach music with an open mind.
Villarreal took his mentor’s advice and after relocating to Woodstock, Illinois in the early 2000s, he began forging connections with local musicians and continued to expand into genres beyond punk and ska. In 2012 he moved to Chicago and made his living as a full-time musician. In 2013 he co-founded the band Dos Santos, an experience that introduced him to playing cumbia. Since then he has helped found the groups Valebol and Los Sundowns; He also plays with Mexican folk band Ida y Vuelta and Latin American psych-pop artist Rudy De Anda and has performed with Mucca Pazza and Wild Belle.
When Villarreal goes on tour, it’s not always about touring: He’s the proud father of two daughters, Estelle and Fania, and often visits them in their hometown of Ocean Beach, California. Estelle graduated from high school in 2021 and is pursuing a degree in anthropology from UC Santa Cruz, while Fania will start at the University of San Francisco this fall to study psychology and music.
The cover of Panama 77 Pictures Daniel Villarreal in a studio in the backyard of International Anthem co-founder Scotty McNiece.
Text on the Obi strip wrapped around the LP sleeve Panama 77 calls the album a “floral array of percussive psychedelic funk blossoms plucked from a lush garden of collaborative instrumentals.” The sessions were definitely collaborative – each track has its own lineup supporting Villarreal, drawn from a pool of a dozen musicians including Jeff Parker (Tortoise), Elliot Bergman (Wild Belle, Nomo), Cole DeGenova (Lupe Fiasco , opportunity). the Rapper), Bardo Martinez (Chicano Batman) and Nathan Karagianis (Dos Santos, Careful Giants).
However, Villarreal doesn’t just add facets to his music with a variety of collaborators: he’s carefully crafted compositions that explore traditional sounds in unconventional ways. Some of these sounds are influenced by his Panama City roots, others by his experiences in the Midwest — it wasn’t until he moved to the States that he was introduced to things like son jarocho, chicha, cumbia, jazz, soul, and house.
The album is not a faithful representation of Panamanian or Latin music, and Villarreal does not pretend to be. “Tradition is a point of reference, not a destination,” he explains. “I use traditional influences in my songs – folklore or any traditional genre. It can be jazz or rock or whatever. But I’m experimenting with all these sounds – so it might sound familiar, but it’s just a reference point.”
For example, the song “Ofelia” suggests Son Jarocho (a Veracruz folk style) with its percussion, although traditional Son Jarocho does not use drums. The rhythm that opens the song and provides its pulse – which Villarreal demonstrates by repeating the words “café con pan, café con pan, café con pan” – is fundamental to this familiar style.
On the other hand, the piece “Patria” is Villarreal’s interpretation of an old standard by the Panamanian composer and organist Avelino Muñoz. He sticks closely to the original and says he recorded it as a tribute to Muñoz and his own organist father.
“Growing up, my father, who plays the organ, listened to a lot of organ music and asked me to listen,” says Villarreal. “My father took lessons from Avelino Muñoz’s sister. The Muñoz family, a large family, taught music privately. They would teach anyone to play the piano, compose, play the guitar, or sing. My father took lessons from them and introduced me to this traditional Panamanian organ music so that I grew up listening to it on the radio and television before the news started. ‘Patria’ means home and I just wanted to pay tribute to Avelino.”
recording sessions for Panama 77 started in 2019 and continued into the pandemic. International Anthem co-founder Scottie McNiece used the backyard of his home to set up an outdoor studio for Villarreal. You can see him in this studio with his drum kit on the cover of the album.
The track “I Didn’t Expect That” got its title from a jam session at McNiece’s with guitarist Jeff Parker. It was an interesting take overall, says Villarreal, because he didn’t know where it was going.
“You know it’s October 2020 and people are still nervous about the pandemic but we have agreed to gather outside,” he explains. “And this was the first time Jeff Parker has left his house since the pandemic began. And when the song ends, he says, “I didn’t expect that” and laughs. What happened was we played some jazz and when he counted the beats it ended up being 11/8, which is a weird time signature.” You can easily count it yourself: each bar is made up of three triples plus one double.
Another distinctive tune is “Bella Vista,” a live recording from a February 2019 appointment at the Freehand Hotel in Los Angeles. The song’s name alludes to a chime that Villarreal placed on his drum kit while playing. Their dry, tinkling tones, almost like cowbells, lend the song a cheeky tropical texture.
On Friday July 8th, Villarreal and his band will perform Panama 77 in its entirety as part of a triple album release show “in the round” at Thalia Hall with Anteloper (aka Jaimie Branch and Jason Nazary) and the duo of Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer. Villarreal is joined by three musicians from the album – Cole DeGenova on keys, Gordon Walters on bass and Nathan Karagianis on guitar – and Danjuma Gaskin on congas. Bergman and Honer, both featured on the album, get to be guests, and Branch gets a turn too.
Villarreal plans to play the entire album at a couple of Michigan gigs in September, one on Union Pier and one at the All Call Music Festival in Traverse City. And as often as his other projects allow, he’ll be sharing his percussive psychedelic-funk blossoms in Chicago and beyond.