It’s impossible to describe Jungle Fire without employing a lot of adjectives.
The band/project (they describe themselves as both) sports nearly a dozen members: four drummers, two trombonists, two guitarists, a bassist and two baritone sax players who can also bust out flutes on short notice. Their music starts off with a base of Afrobeat and Cuban Pil?n, before pouring in some cumbia and slapping on a couple of breakbeats.
Top all that off with some '70s funk and a tad of '60s psychedelia and you’ve maybe come close to describing the end result — their debut LP, Tropicoso.
“The premise started off with the rhythm section and it was to be super-gritty funk,” recalls Joey Reina, the band’s founder and bassist. “I wanted to do it as gritty as possible, as dirty as possible… but I wanted to pair it with percussionists who really knew the language. The heaviest guys in town.”
Jungle Fire was conceived as a one-off project three years ago for a Chinatown festival. A club promoter for Soul Sessions contacted Reina about putting together a band to play one of their events. He immediately phoned drummer Sam Halterman and guitarist Patrick Bailey. The sound was eventually rounded out when timbales player Michael Duffy brought fellow percussionists Steve Haney and Alberto Lopez onboard.
“I’ve lived in L.A. for 15 years,” says Lopez. “Most of us have. Most of us are professional musicians — we’ve all struggled and had a great time. We’ve all made our lives off of music.”
Soon Jungle Fire was scorching dance floors from clubs to warehouse parties. Their first single — “Comencemos,” a cover of Fela Kuti’s “Let’s Start” — came out on Colemine Records. Later, the group signed with Nacional Records, home of Manu Chao and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. Despite being based in North Hollywood since 2005, the Latin music label never signed a local act prior to Jungle Fire.
“We did a night at La Cita,” Reina says, “with some DJs, some Subsuelo DJs, and some of the guys in that crew work for Nacional.”
The sudden hook-up with a bigger label spurred the band to actually lay down a full-length album. (So did an unexpected U.K. tour, for which Lopez claims they concocted nearly 100 hours of music.) The result is Tropicoso, which dropped on September 30.
“A recipe came out,” says Reina, describing the creation of the 11-track LP. “Afrobeat, Latin, funk — these are the three styles of music that we can really dig on. As long as the music converges those three elements, we’re good.”
That’s easier said than done. Not only does the music have to include those three elements; it can never have too much of just one. Reina and Lopez discuss throwing out excellent songs for having too much Afrobeat, too much Brazilian.
Their influences bounce from Fela Kuti to James Brown and back again. And the group as a whole sports musical backgrounds from across the map. Some members’ resumes include Ozomatli and LCD Soundsystem; others have jammed with Del the Funky Homosapien and De La Soul.
“The percussionists were heavy into salsa, Latin music,” says Reina, “but us rhythm guys, we were deep in the funk and hip-hop scene.”
Despite the list of influences a mile long, Jungle Fire are adamantly determined to forge a sound entirely their own.
“You embrace the limitations,” explains Reina. “It’s actually freeing. You don’t wallow in this ocean of possibilities — you actually do stuff.”