“Carrying two flags”: Spanish Latin American Band builds community with a fusion of Latin and American sounds
By MADISON BROWN
Spanglish Latin American Band has a remarkably pragmatic name. It is exactly as its moniker describes: a unique sound born from a fusion of Latin genres like the salsa, samba, and bachata with U.S. American jazz, R&B, and pop.
Elle Jay, the band’s founder and lead singer, describes Spanglish as a representative product of her own identity. “I’m a Puerto Rican-American person, so I’ve always carried two flags, not quite fitting in anybody’s specific genre,” she said. “The fusion that you hear in our music, it comes from all the different experiences that I’ve had and the music that I’ve loved for my whole life.”
The band has been playing events in the Fredericksburg area for four years, and thanks to a growing base of support, hopes to put out their first recorded album as a CD late this year.
“I am so thankful to be a part of the Fredericksburg music scene,” Jay said. “I think that our town is really special, and I’ve always felt like that, even before the music. Fredericksburg is incredible. The history, and the architecture, and the access to rivers and lakes and parks and trails and plus the art community that is here. I just want our public to know that I’m really thankful to them.”
Jay says her music is most heavily influenced by salsa and jazz. “Salsa is near and dear to my heart,” she said. “[Salsa] is trickier to play and trickier to dance to because there are these upbeats that happen in salsa music. It’s a music of passion and there’s a lot of sensuality in salsa that I really love. On the American side, I love standard American jazz. It’s kind of soothing, it’s like a salve. It just sits in your soul and lays you back a little bit in life, and makes you feel at ease. I love that, and I love the swing of it, the swag of it. I think it’s really dapper.”
But at the core of Spanglish Latin American Band’s identity is a refusal to box themselves into any particular genre or sound.
“I love American jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, I love soulful sounds, I love hip-hop and R&B, I love salsa, I love merengue, I love bachata, I love flamenco – I love it all, why should I have to pick one?” Jay said.
The band has gained significant traction this year, with performances at the library and the Market Square and dance classes hosted in Curitiba Art Cafe, Grounds Bistro, and even local ballrooms. Founded in 2019, Jay says the band is finally having a chance to flourish. “The first year was just really coming about, and the second year, COVID happened. It shut down the entertainment industry, pretty much,” she said. “Our third year, so last year, was our recovery year, and this year we’re catching fire.”
The band’s repertoire includes both original numbers and pieces that Jay calls “original rearrangements,” usually American jazz standards rewritten with Latin percussion and rhythms. Jay says this unique sound has attracted a diverse audience. “The structure of music being very jazz really resonates with the older community,” she said, “but because you bring pop and reggae and reggaeton rhythms too, that resonates with the younger communities. There’s something for everyone.”
That Spanglish can’t be placed in a clear box, being neither fully Latin nor fully American, has also caused them to face rejection and pushback from some.
“Sometimes we are rejected by our own community because we’re not so purely Latino in terms of our rhythm, and sometimes the American music community also does the same because it doesn’t quite fit so neatly into one of their genres,” Jay said. “The temptation is to kind of yield and bend […] but then you’re not really being authentic to who you are.”
Nevertheless, the band’s unique sound has found a wide and accepting audience as, Jay says, a growing number of people in the United States identify with the feeling of carrying two flags. “In our culture right now, many of us are of a descendancy. We’re born in the United States and we’re growing up here and we are fusion. Whatever it is, Irish-American fusion or Puerto Rican-American fusion. We are fusion. There are so many of us like that,” she said. “Really, what we have is a community of culture that is Spanglish.”
The band has a rotating orchestra of instrumentalists, but has been held down by Jay and her “partner-in-crime” Jorge Rosario, a guitarist and bassist with 20 years’ experience in the music industry who moved to Virginia from Puerto Rico in 2017. Jay credits him with keeping the band alive during difficult times.
“Bands go through difficult seasons, and shortly after COVID we also went through a season of loss, where we lost the musicians in our band and it was down to just Jorge and I,” she said.
Jay says she was tempted to dissolve the band then. “He really just encouraged me: ‘We can be sound enough, you and I. We can,’” she said. “‘You and I can sustain the music.’”
A speech language pathologist by day, Jay learned music organically through musical parents and participating in choirs and musical theater. She and Rosario, who has formal music training, write the band’s music together. “The idea is born, and Jorge and I sit down with his guitar, and I kind of raw sing,” Jay said. “He finds the chords, and together we create an arrangement.”
Jay leading a dance class (left) and a DJ session (right).
Jay says that the Spanglish Latin American Band experience is about much more than the music alone.
“It’s not just about entertaining people through what they hear. It’s about crowd engagement. So how do crowds engage with live music? Principally through dancing. I realized by watching the crowds that even though people were drawn to this music, whether they were Latino or not, they weren’t exactly sure how to interact and dance with the music.”
She began offering dance lessons and DJ sessions as part of the band’s package for event bookings. Often, she will give an hour long dance instruction before the full band performs. These lessons have helped Spanglish develop their base of fans and leave a mark on the community.
“I’m a dancer, so when I write music and when I compose music and when I pick music for our band and our performances, I’m always mindful of the dancer. That’s kind of who I write and compose and sing for,” she said. “And I’m noticing that in Fredericksburg and Stafford, people are starting to get it, and we’re starting to have a community of Latin dancers, which is really exciting. It’s so much more fun to sing and perform for people that are dancing to your music.”
“Really, what we have is a community of culture that is Spanglish.”
Jay describes the upcoming album as “an eclectic mix of things.” In addition to her original rearrangements, the collection thus far includes original bomba, swing, blues, and bachata songs. In the meantime, Jay says, fans have been helping the band build relationships with new venues and gain new performance opportunities.
“I hope I leave this legacy behind that I brought joy to people, I made them dance, I ministered to them in some way with song,” Jay said. “You can stay home and listen to the radio. If you’re gonna get all dressed up and come to an event, it’s my job to engage you. To give you an experience and a good time, and I’m just thankful that I get to do that.”