The Members of Sávila Explore Their Mexican Heritage, and Their Place Within American Society, Through the Rhythms of Cumbia

This is a band that can’t be neatly packaged into a brand or traced to a curated set of influences.

IMAGE: Abby Gordon.

1. Sávila (60.5 pts.)

SOUNDS LIKE:  A utopian vision of society that moves to the rhythms of cumbia.

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Sitting at a table that overlooks Northeast 60th Avenue, the three members of Sávila are carefully inspecting Angel Food and Fun. It's the first time they've been back to the Mexican restaurant since its chef, Manuel Lopez, was forced to leave the country in December. The tortilla warmers have been replaced by plastic napkin holders, vocalist Brisa Gonzalez's tacos are served with black beans instead of refried, and in the adjoining bar, there's now a Corona mural and a Chinese altar.

At first, the band seems skeptical of the changes. But the restaurant is still employee-owned, and in the shadow of Lopez's absence, eating there has become a form of solidarity.

"It's kind of interesting," says percussionist Papi Fimbres. "It feels a little bit like LA."

Fimbres should know—he grew up there. Coincidentally, the band also just returned from a short run of shows in Los Angeles. There, they shared stages with bands that, like them, are influenced by the rhythms of South American cumbia music. It was an eye-opening experience.

"We didn't know that we could find such kindred spirits," says Gonzalez.

To be fair, Sávila aren't exactly outsiders in the Portland music scene. Guitarist Fabi Reyna is a former member of Pacific Northwest surf-rockers La Luz and the founder of She Shreds, the country's only woman-focused guitar magazine. Gonzales fronted the rock band Swan Island, and Fimbres is a key member of several Portland bands—to put it lightly—including fellow Best New Band finalists Máscaras and Sun Angle.

But even though there are other bands in Portland drawing on the cumbia rhythm, according to Sávila, the culture is much different in LA—mostly because there, people know that cumbia is not necessarily a narrowly defined genre. In its most basic form, cumbia is a simple dance beat that originated in the mountains of Colombia. Spanish colonial rule spread the sound across the continent, and now, almost every country in South America has its own iterations. So to label Sávila simply a "cumbia band"—or to use any single identifier, really—is to turn a uniting factor into a dividing line.

"It's like saying 'rock,'" Fimbres says. "There's so many subgenres, so many different styles."

In truth, Sávila is a band that can't be neatly packaged into a brand or traced to a curated set of influences. But rather than feeling like some inaccessible, abstract mass, their music feels like a warm embrace—the communal equivalent of self-care. Their songs unfurl in rhythmic, organic layers driven by various Latin rhythms, including cumbia and salsa. Gonzalez sings in both English and Spanish, in a voice that sounds as if she's summoning a higher consciousness, while Renya lets the cleanly picked tones of her guitar echo into the sprawling void.

"It's kind of like exploring," Reyna says of the Sávila sound, "exploring cultures, exploring the past, and potentially the future of how people see our culture in the United States, and all this stuff that we don't necessarily know."

The band officially formed in 2016, when Fimbres joined. But Gonzalez and Renya had been writing music together years earlier. The pair first met in Austin, Texas. Gonzales was playing a show with Swan Island when Reyna, then 15, jumped onstage. "I have a Polaroid from that night," Reyna says. "We look like little babies. But yeah, I was just rocking out." It wasn't until Gonzales and Reyna ended up in Portland years later that a mutual friend reunited them and they began writing music together.  "We're both only-children, Mexican—we just have a lot in common," says Gonzalez. "So I like to think that those kind of relationships are unavoidable."

For a while, the pair wrote songs without knowing if they'd ever record them or perform them live. They tried out dozens of drummers without any particular ambition to find someone permanent. But the first time they played with Fimbres, something clicked. Already juggling several bands, Fimbres initially turned down the offer to be Sávila's third member. After a few months, though, he gave in. Fimbres' drumming in Sávila is far more restrained than the frenetic pounding he employs in his other bands, slowed down by the band's trancelike force.

"This is the first time I'm in an all-Mexican band," Fimbres says. "It's so cool. I feel like there's a root, there's that connection within the three of us."

At the end of last summer, the band holed up in a friend's studio in the woods outside Estacada to record their first album. Armed with tequila and 'shrooms, and nothing to interrupt them, they recorded most of the 10 songs in one take. The album release is slated for later this month, right before Sávila's first full tour.

For now, they're keeping the unmastered recordings under wraps. But when played live, the songs reveal themselves to be remarkably intricate, especially considering they're made by only three people. Reyna creates phantom basslines with a loop pedal, while Gonzalez adds to Fimbres' carefully constructed rhythms with maracas. Somehow, it all coheres—everything melds into a groove so deep, you can't help but sink in, too.

"We all are sort of playing from our roots," Gonzales says. "Whatever you're doing, the more you do that work, the deeper you have to dig, the more you have to offer."

In the same way that it's inaccurate to call their music "cumbia," it'd be overly simplistic to call Sávila "political." Though the collective introspection of their music hints at some kind of utopian vision, it would relegate their work to yet another reductive category. But for the most part, Sávila seems willing to take up any responsibilities thrust on them.

"I definitely missed my culture when I moved here," says Fimbres. "There's been a lot of brown people moving up to Portland because it's still 'affordable.' It's great that there's this influx of all these other cultures coming up because they can't afford to live in other major cities. But still, at the same time, it's like, where are we going to house all these people? In these nasty new apartments off of Burnside and shit?"

Sávila doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

"For me, one of the most important things about being in this band is that we get to create space with other people of color and other women of color and meet under the same conversation," Reyna says. "We need to use our voices. That's what we're here to do."

NEXT SHOW: May 19 at Aladdin Theater.

Best New Band Intro | No. 1: Sávil| No 2: Black Belt Eagle Scout | No. 3: Frankie Simone | No. 4: Amenta AbiotoNo. 5: MaarquiiNo. 6: Brown CalculusNo 7: SunbatheNo 8: Blackwater HolylightNo. 9: AutonomicsNo. 10 (tie): Public Eye and WynneWho's Got Next? No. 11-20 | The Complete Ballots

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