The crowd outside Holgas gallery in downtown Phoenix has swelled to nearly 100. From the apartments above the gallery, cigarette smoke rises in the November chill, drifting into a mass as two girls and a guy fiddle with amps and speakers on a makeshift stage. The crowd grows as passersby realize that the band's opening song — a cappella except for a pulsing drumbeat and tambourine — is in Spanish. Few leave before the end of the two-hour set.
The band is Babaluca, a Phoenix-based trio that plays a beguiling brand of sparse indie rock that's simultaneously cutesy and devious. They've spent the last year and a half collecting an eclectic mix of devotees of varied ages and ethnicities by not fitting into the local scene. And though the fans out here don't have much in common besides the band, they are intense about it: Several people here are wearing homemade Babaluca T-shirts.
As one fan (who is seeing them perform for the 11th time) says, Babaluca is something different. Even at first glance, that's obvious. At center stage is a female lead singer on keyboards rather than the standard, a man with a guitar. And partway through the night, the male drummer and the female guitar player swap instruments. As the performance goes on, it becomes even more clear that though Babaluca's sound is that of a cohesive band, there are three distinct personalities in play. Lead singer Carla Morrison, wearing bright turquoise shoes she "borrowed" from her roommate six months ago, dances with the kind of flair that belongs in a nightclub. Guitar and drum woman Niki Petta plays drums with jaw clenched and red ponytail bobbing emphatically, though she tends to stand very still and straight on guitar. Fellow drummer and guitarist Nick Kizer hardly opens his eyes during the set and, while playing guitar, writhes around so much it's hard not to imagine he'll kiss his own knees at some point.
Babaluca is a rather unlikely trio. The members come from widely divergent backgrounds, and the three were only chance acquaintances when they formed the band.
"It just sort of happened," says Petta of the band's beginning. The same goes for the way the band's songs come together. And the tour they completed last year in California. Not much seems to come to Babaluca by premeditation. As Kizer says, the three just do what works.
Morrison writes most of the group's lyrics. She is the reason for the bilingual music that has put Babaluca on several Latino radio stations — she was born and raised in Tecate, Mexico. Bilingual songs can be odd, but they work for Babaluca, she says.
"It just depends which language feels right," she says with a trace of an accent. "Sometimes I can explain myself better in English, but sometimes in Spanish."
Morrison says she's been singing all her life, partly thanks to her mother, who sang while doing household chores, but childhood shyness kept her off the stage until a school talent show when she was 15.
"After that, people just knew I could sing, so I'd do shows and things when they asked me," she says. Wanting a career in music, Morrison came to the United States six years ago. She returns to Mexico often. In fact, Babaluca is one of few American groups that have performed in Tecate, which is, as Morrison says, "a tiny, tiny, tiny, little town."
She met Petta and Kizer through Petta's best friend, who knew that both women were interested in making music. "Our friend kept saying, 'My best friend would totally love you!' but we just kept not meeting," Morrison recalls. "Then one day, I was doing a show and Niki agreed she would help me out."
Petta, a self-proclaimed tomboy, grew up in Nebraska as the only girl on her street. She, too, says she has been making music all her life, partly because she had no one to talk to.
"I used to spread rubber bands between my dresser and the wall and play on those," she says. "It's just . . . I have to get things out, or I'll go insane, and music is the way I do it."
Before long, she was taking drum lessons and moving to Arizona for college. In the seven years since then, she began learning guitar and got involved in the Valley music scene, which is how she met Kizer.
"I was playing in a group with Nick, and I brought him along to play with Carla that first night," she explains.
"The rest is history," finishes Kizer with an ironic eye-roll.
Kizer is the only member of Babaluca born and raised in Phoenix. He also has the most formal musical training of the three, thanks to a high school career spent in band, choir, and symphony.
"When we're writing a song, it's just chaos. We all have different writing styles, we all have ideas, and we all talk at once," he says.
The ideas can range from putting Petta on lead vocals to using heavier bass sounds on Morrison's keyboard (to make up for their lack of a bass player) to leaving Morrison's voice on its own without accompaniment. As their sound matures, Kizer and his bandmates hope to incorporate some of the other instruments Kizer plays, such as the cello.
With any given song, the chaos continues indefinitely, says Petta. Few of their songs remain the same from performance to performance, or even week to week — all three love experimentation, and once the basics are in place, anything can happen.
It is that experimentation that the members of Babaluca credit with their eclectic sound.
"We don't try to be experimental, or to be punk, or to really be anything," says Kizer. "We just try to make music that sounds good."
"That, and we're really weird," jokes Petta.
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"Oh, we totally are," Morrison chimes in. "We hang out so much we practically have our own language. We understand each other's random noises and stuff."
"We have to hang out with other people to keep us normal," Petta agrees.
But normal or not, the three are definitely passionate about their music — passionate enough to practice in the back room of a carpentry shop in Tempe where the most prominent features are a free-standing cracked toilet and the smell of sawdust. It's been about a year since they self-recorded and produced their first EP, and it regularly sells out at Babaluca's performances. They are ready to take the next step, which will be getting into a recording studio, sometime in January, according to Kizer. They hope to release their first album in May 2009 and see if something else "just happens."
The crowd in front of Holgas, which buys every EP the band brought, will be glad to hear it. Who knows? After the CD is pressed, perhaps Babaluca can print up some real merch, too, ending the need for homemade T-shirts.