Vox Urbana's Kiki Castellanos Is All About Positive Messages

Talking gear with Tucson musician Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos.
Talking gear with Tucson musician Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos. Marisol Badilla
In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times gets technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature style.

Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos, guitarist for Tucson-based band Vox Urbana, is a man all about songwriting. He has a love for both rock and traditional Mexican music, and his band is dubbed as "Cumbia Tucsonense." And all of his different musical loves are present in his playing and songwriting, using tight technique to keep the grooves tight and upbeat on the guitar.

Castellanos was born in Nogales, Arizona, and raised in Sonora, Mexico. His musical path began in Sonora, where his father encouraged him to play the acoustic guitar. At first, Castellanos resisted; acoustic wasn't exactly his thing at the time.

After a brief stint with formal guitar lessons, he lost interest and took a different path. Castellanos was drawn to electric guitar and rock music, and he started learning from friends who played their own songs. As a teenager, he would play along to his friends' songs, picking up techniques and tricks all along the way. Castellanos and his friends eventually started learning traditional Mexican music. It was a very important time for the artist, one that continues influencing him today.

Fast forward to 2004, and Castellanos found himself in Tucson. He was playing in a punk band called Ataxia, which dissolved. In 2010, Castellanos started Vox Urbana in 2010 with a bassist and accordion player, and he's been playing with the band ever since.
These days, Castellanos is all about writing music that tells people's stories. You can hear his love for traditional Mexican music in his playing, as his guitar stands strong and provides a strong rhythmic backbone to the Vox Urbana sound. The artist believes in the power of positive messages lyrically and is very into writing about the empowerment of women. Additionally, he has seven rescue dogs, and regularly fosters dogs and helps them find homes in the Tucson area.

Vox Urbana will bring their "Cumbia Tucsonense" to Valley Bar Saturday, January 20, for a free event called Naranja: A Night of Latin Music, Culture, and Dance. New Times was able to squeeze in some words with Castellanos about his love for songwriting, traditional Mexican music, and his upcoming performance in downtown Phoenix.

New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?

Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos: Since our music in Vox Urbana is very horn-driven, I usually like to play a guitar through a clean channel from a Roland amp for rhythmic sections. I also like to use delay pedals and tremolo effects for sections where guitar has stronger presence. I feel that these two types of effects help me to create the sound textures that I enjoy.

click to enlarge Kiki's dogs are a huge part of his life. - MARISOL BADILLA
Kiki's dogs are a huge part of his life.
Marisol Badilla
What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?
I love the sound of my Fender Stratocaster, made in Mexico. This was a gift from my partner about two years ago. This is my favorite piece for three reasons, and the sentimental value that it holds. When I was younger, I was not economically able to buy this kind of guitar.

Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
I do not really have a lot of gear these days. However, I still write music with the same acoustic guitar that I used when I started playing over 20 years ago. This guitar was a gift from my father. It still is a source of beautiful memories and inspiration.

When I was about 13 years old, I dreamed about having and playing an electric guitar. My family was not able to buy me an electric guitar during my early learning stage. We were financially limited, but my dad still wanted to encourage and support me in my musical ventures. He was able to put an acoustic guitar on layaway in a Mexican Curios store. It took him a long time, but he was able to pay it off and and bring it home. My dad brought me the guitar and had also saved enough money to pay for guitar lessons. Having access to this guitar helped me stay away from various negative socioeconomic forces that harmed many Nogalense youth during that time. This acoustic guitar was an important tool because it facilitated the exploration of other musical styles outside of the traditional music.

click to enlarge Vox Urbana perform at Valley Bar on January 20. - NICCI RADHE
Vox Urbana perform at Valley Bar on January 20.
Nicci Radhe
Just listened to "Cumbia de Nadie." Awesome song. I love all the presence of the horns and Mexican cumbia rhythms mixed in with that surf rock style guitar you are playing. How did you go about getting that sound from your guitar on this track?
The song “Cumbia de Nadie” — "Nobody’s Cumbia" — was one of the first songs that I wrote for Vox Urbana about seven years ago. I used a tremolo effect to create the rhythmic guitar part. I really like how the guitar interacts with the horn melodies throughout this instrumental song.

You had mentioned that you grew up in Sonora, Mexico, fighting against playing traditional Mexican music as a youth, and now citing it is a major influence on your musical spirit. What was the process of that change for you?
I feel that as a teenager when I lived in Mexico, I was not fully appreciative of many musical styles that prevailed in my environment. This included Mexican traditional folk music. Throughout the years, I had a chance to revisit and reflect on those musical elements that surrounded me and look at them from a different lens. Nowadays, I feel thankful for most of the music that I listened back home during my earlier musical formation. Therefore, I incorporate some elements in my vocal harmonies, musical writing, and my guitar playing.

Vox Urbana has a show coming up at Valley Bar Saturday, January 20. Any words you wish to share with fans about your upcoming performance?
We are very excited to come back and play at Valley Bar. Phoenix has always shown strong support for us. We are going to be sharing space with DJ Rocka and Vivo Tropical from Mexicali, Mexico. This lineup guarantees a fun experience for the audience.
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Henri Benard
Contact: Henri Benard