One of the most exciting, up-and-coming new bands in San Francisco’s live scene is Gringa, a five-piece female band who recently, have been winning friends and influencing people with their unique, genre-melting sound. The basis for Gringa’s irresistible, hook-laden sound are the rhythms from the music of Brazil and the Americas. This includes Brazilian forro, maracatu and samba, which is combined with elements of funk, hip hop, jazz, Latin, pop, reggae and rock. Add to this scorching saxophone solos, tight harmonies and carefully, crafted arrangements, and the result is a potent and heady musical brew that once tasted, is never forgotten.
No wonder; once Gringa get the party started, their genre-melting sound transports the audience to somewhere warm, tropical and exotic, as Gringa as they work their way through the set-list. It features a mixture of their own compositions which are interspersed with a few cover versions. Mostly, though, Gringa stick to their own songs, which are delivered in both English and Portuguese and with a certain panache.
Gringa’s compositions range from thought-provoking to uplifting and inspirational. Other songs are playful, funny and sometimes sassy. Some songs touch on subjects like love and loss right through to social justice. This is something that is important to Gringa, who believe in internationalism and inclusiveness. They want their music to connect with people and unite them. Proof of this Gringa’s debut album Letters From A.Broad which was recently released by gringamusic.com. It’s an album that Gringa hope songs will dissolve cultural barriers and transcend the status quo. However, the release of Letters From A.Broad marks the next chapter in a story that began when Maya Finlay, Gringa’s founder and front-woman first fell in love with Brazil and its music.
Maya Finlay can still remember that time: “I grew up in the US but I fell in love with Brazil. I write songs and hear Brazilian elements in them, but I don’t want to bastardise the source inspirations…You can play with something, but you’ve got to start with the roots. What’s the rhythm? I try to study it and know the traditional ways to play, but after that, you have a lot of influences. You weave them in.” This would eventually become part of the rich and vibrant musical tapestry that is Gringa’s debut album Letters From A.Broad.
Before that, Maya Finlay embarked upon a career in the music industry, which was still very much male-dominated. However, over the next few years, Maya Finlay who is a singer, guitarist and cavaco player, had to overcome gender stereotyping.
Through her love of hip hop, Maya Finlay became interested in production and engineering. Nowadays, she is a professional sound engineer, who spends much of her time working in live sound. This has allowed Maya Finlay to challenge gender expectations. “I’m used to challenging people’s expectations, and I enjoy it. As a sound engineer, I’m often asked, ‘Where’s the sound guy? I love saying: ‘I’m the sound guy.’” However, Maya Finlay is much more than a sound engineer.
Her love of Brazilian music, meant that it was almost inevitable that Maya Finlay became part of the Bay Area’s vibrant and thriving Brazilian music scene. Maya Finlay quickly discovered that men far outnumber women, and most of the female instrumentalists tend not to be Brazilian. Maya Finlay confirms this: “I haven’t met many Brazilian female musicians playing out in the Bay Area, but I do know many women who aren’t from Brazil who’ve fallen for the music. Female instrumentalists aren’t as common to begin with, but there are a lot of gringas like me who’ve studied the language and gotten into it. We’re often playing alongside guys from Brazil, and getting encouragement from them.”
One night, Maya Finlay was playing in Bay Area when she met Kate Pittard, a saxophonist, percussionist and songwriter. The two Brazilian music aficionados bonded over their shared love of music, and soon, became friends. Little did they know, that would eventually be part of the same band. That was never part of Maya Finlay’s plan.
That was until Maya Finlay and Kate Pittard were at a local carnival, and they watched as a rhythm section took to the stage. Maya Findlay still remembers that day: “my songs needed a bigger sound, and when the bass and drums came on, it clicked.” Providing that sound were drummer Luna Fuentes-Vaccaro, bassist Jenelle Roccaforte and percussionists Diana Di Battista and Megha Makam. By the time the rhythm section left the stage, Maya Findlay had found the missing link that would fill out her sound.
Eventually, the lineup featured Maya Finlay, Kate Pittard, Luna Fuentes-Vaccaro, Jenelle Roccaforte and Diana Di Battista. It was one of the first all-female bands in the Bay Area’s Brazilian scene. “The gender makeup of the band had to be intentional. Although sometimes guys play with us, and we would never reject someone we loved playing with based on their gender identification, I’d still like to maintain a matriarchy within the group…Many female musicians are drawn to the band by a desire to create music outside of the male-dominated spaces they often find themselves in. I’m hoping we can break down the stigma of the ‘girl band,’ and show people that the music stands on its own.”
When Maya Finlay came to name her nascent band, she decided to reclaim a word that many non-Brazilian women in the Bay Area’s Brazilian music scene will have heard way too often…gringa. This is a Brazilian-Portuguese term for non-Brazilian women. It’s a word that may have annoyed many women, and indeed men, over the years. Many women don’t regard gringa as a term of endearment. Instead, they believe it’s an offensive and disparaging term that belittles women. That includes some of the non-Brazilian women in the Bay Area’s Brazilian music scene. They must have been grateful when Maya Finlay decided to reclaim the word gringa, and inject some positivity into the word.
Suddenly, the word Gringa brought to mind five hugely talented female musicians who wrote and played uplifting, inspirational and thought-provoking music. Gringa also enjoyed experimenting with various Brazilian rhythms and disparate instruments. These instruments are used to play the songs that chronicled the life and times of the five members of Gringa when they play live. Now as Maya Findlay looks out at the sea of faces in the audience; “I often look in the audience at our gigs and see that it’s mostly guys dancing, while around me on stage are all women. It’s awesome.”
These are changed days for Gringa, who are well on their way to becoming one of the leading lights of the San Francisco scene. What better time for Gringa to release their debut album Letters From A.Broad, which features five new songs where Gringa showcase their irresistible and hook-laden genre-melting sound?
Opening Letters from A. Broad, is I’ma Build A Home, which is based on a love letter from a previous boyfriend. The song makes an impression from the get-go, as horns sweep in, while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat and are augmented by chirping guitars and Brazilian percussion. They set the scene for Maya’s heartfelt vocal which is accompanied by close, soulful harmonies. They’re the perfect accompaniment to her vocal. After 0.30, Gringa bowl the first curveball, as the arrangement becomes understated, before rebuilding and sashaying along, and revealing its irresistible, hook-laden sound. Then at 1.38 it’s all change, as an acoustic guitar gives way to Gringa painting pictures of “Friday at the beach.” Gradually, the song rebuilds with the rhythm section, horns and harmonies accompanying Maya’s emotive vocal. Later her vocal drops out, and the horns enjoy their moment in the sun until Maya returns, and this beautiful, joyous and radio-friendly paean draws to a close.
All About Cheating is described as a skankin’ account of a wayward woman. It literally bursts into life, with the rhythm section powering the arrangement along. They’re joined by percussion and rasping horns while, Kate’s soulful vocal is a mixture of confusion, disbelief and joy. Harmonies accompany Kate, and they’re like yin and yang, perfectly complimenting each other. When the vocal drops, out the rhythm and horn section are joined by percussion and showcase their considerable skills during what’s a musical masterclass. Gringa play with power, passion and precision. Later, when Kate returns, her vocal becomes a soulful confession before this irresistible skankin’ song reaches a crescendo.
A chirping guitar opens For Foreigners before percussion, thunderous drums and a buzzing bass synth accompany Maya. Her love of hip hop shines though, as she veers between a rap and a sassy vocal. Meanwhile, the bass synth, chirping guitar, percussion, sultry saxophone and close, cooing and soulful harmonies provide the perfect foil for Maya. Later, the arrangement is stripped bare, with just drums accompanying Gringa. Reverb is added to the vocal and harmonies, before the arrangement rebuilds. The growling bass synth and scorching saxophone work well together, as the songs continues to reveal its secrets. They play their part in hook-laden song that is melodic and memorable.
Cancao De Junho is the first of two songs that are sung in Portuguese. As the arrangement unfolds, a synth whines, drones and oscillates and is panned, as a guitar, percussion, sultry saxophone and bass enter. They set the scene for Kate, who lays bare her soul as she sings of love’s difficulties. Tender, heartfelt harmonies accompany Kate and compliment her vocal. Still, synths bubble and squeak while a guitar shimmers and is joined by a buzzing bass synth. They’re joined by a myriad of percussion and acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, the rhythm section never miss a beat during this genre-melting arrangement flows along. By then, the alto-saxophone and tender, soulful harmonies are playing leading roles is this beautiful, genre-melting ballad.
A Bicicleta closes Letters From A.Broad and finds Maya taking charge of the lead vocal on a track that is the musical equivalent of a magical mystery tour. This genre-melting track heads in the direction of baião and then maracatu and rock, during a playful song about over thinking things. A chirping, shimmering guitars and buzzing bass synth join with percussion and the arrangement sashays along, showcasing its feel-good sound. Maya’s soulful vocal soars above the arrangement, and is accompanied by equally soulful close harmonies. The final piece of the jigsaw are a rap and stabs of trumpet, as Gringa ensure that their debut album ends on a memorable high.
After five songs, Gringa’s debut album Letters From A.Broad is over. It showcases what Gringa are capable of musically, and is a tantalising taste of Gringa’s hook-laden, genre-melting sound. Gringa take as a starting point Brazilian forro, maracatu and samba, which is then combined with elements of funk, hip hop, jazz, Latin, pop, reggae and rock. To this, scorching saxophone solos, tight, tender and soulful harmonies and carefully, crafted arrangements are added. The result is a potent and heady musical brew that once tasted, is never forgotten. So much so, that the listener will keep coming back for more.
That is no surprise, as Gringa’s music is beautiful, joyous, uplifting and inspirational. Other times, it’s cerebral and thought-provoking. For much of the time, the music on Letters From A.Broad is irresistible and akin to a call to dance. It’s no surprise that Gringa have been winning friends and influencing people on San Francisco’s live scene. However, Gringa’s music deserves to find an audience way beyond San Francisco. Hopefully, the recent release of Letters From A.Broad on gringamusic.com will introduce Gringa’s irresistible, hook-laden, genre-melting sound to a much wider audience.