by Jordan Green
The idea for the band’s name came to Denisse Funes and Laura Carisa Gardea one evening when they were walking to their neighborhood gas station to buy beer.
They were both thinking about the South American word Pachamama, which roughly translates as “Mother Earth.” They adopted the abbreviated “Mama,” which perfectly matched their mission. The decision to start a band came after spending hours together volunteering with a program through the North Carolina Cooperative Extension to help people start backyard gardens on the south side of Winston-Salem. An almost spiritual eco-justice sensibility matched with a general sense of disenchantment toward society shapes Mama’s sound — an amalgam of raw garage-y chaos and ethereal yet discombobulated vocals.
“If you get into horticulture and studying soil and our bodies… you realize we are an extension of the earth,” said Gardea, the band’s vocalist and guitarist, during a recent interview at Krankies Coffee. “We have to use our voices and instruments to give expression to it.”
Classically trained as an opera singer at UNC School of the Arts, Gardea made a hard pivot after graduating in the spring. While preparing to pursue a master’s degree related to her growing interest in ecological sustainability, she’s chosen a creative outlet that discards the structures of her formal training.
“Mama is a truer expression of how I’m feeling,” she said. “The rawness informs the music with more honesty.”
She taught herself how to play guitar over the course of about two years, looking to Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground models of what she calls “deconstructing formal training.”
Funes had initially planned to play drums, but she and Gardea eventually decided she would be more useful on bass. She took up the instrument shortly before the band formed at the beginning of 2016, and has already developed a distinctive style with propulsive grooves that seem to burrow into the music and reverberate over its surface at the same time.
“We connect more with people because you can see that music doesn’t have to be perfect,” she said. “You can get together with your friends, and maybe come up with something that sounds like this on your own.”
Gardea added, “It can be more exciting that way. You have this feeling of, ‘Is this going to fall apart?’ But no, that’s the world we live in.”
When Andrew Irving, who also plays with the Winston-Salem band Foxture, joined Mama on drums, Gardea urged him to take a looser approach, and focus more on feeling than precise execution.
Mama’s self-titled debut, released on Sept. 30, was recorded live at a house party in Greensboro, capturing the unpredictability and excitement of making music on the spot as opposed to carefully constructing studio tracks.
Although Gardea and Funes are both Latina, they’ve found their gender sets them apart in the local music scene more than their ethnicity.
“Mama’s really unique because you have mostly women in the group,” Gardea said. “We go to shows and people were like, ‘Where are those girls’ boyfriends?’ And then we pick up instruments, and they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re a band.’”
Gardea and Funes have talked about exploring more Latina aspects in the future, but their music already bears distinct hallmarks of their heritage, along with ’90s grunge. Gardea’s reflective alto nods to her heroes, the late Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa and blues singer Leadbelly, while Funes grew up in Ecuador listening to everything from System of a Down and Manu Chao to Victor Jara, a political folksinger who was murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile in the early ’70s.
As young Latinas in Winston-Salem, Gardea and Funes have traveled different paths.
Gardea’s family, who claims Mexican, French and Irish heritage, came to Winston-Salem from El Paso, Texas in the ’80s so her family could take a job with RJ Reynolds Tobacco. Gardea herself was born in the United States. There were so few Latinos in the city at that time that most of her friends were black or white.
“Part of the reason I didn’t feel so much animosity is my parents took it upon themselves to be leaders,” Gardea said. “My father served as president of the Hispanic League for several years.”
Funes emigrated from Ecuador at the age of 18, and is now a permanent resident of the United States.
“Coming here has been super crazy,” Funes said. “I’ve changed my beliefs. I’ve changed a lot. Over there, I was with my friends all the time and I didn’t have time to reflect. When I came here, I didn’t have that. I didn’t have friends. I became a little more introspective.”
After first moving to New Jersey, she “met someone special,” and they decided to move together to Winston-Salem, where Funes’ boyfriend had extended family. She’s currently studying for her bachelor’s in biology as a pre-med student at UNCG.
Irving, who is black, has adopted Mama’s credo with enthusiasm.
“A lot of it, from what I get, is anti-conformist, anti-societal [feeling],” he said.
Gardea cut in to clarify: “But positive social deviancy.”
Cognitive dissonance is the strongest emotion in the music, stemming from frustration over issues like inadequate public transit and fast-food culture, she said.
“I find cognitive dissonance in having to adhere oneself to society’s standards to be successful, to be able to live well and provide,” Gardea said. “I don’t want to say there are a lot of little traps and pitfalls, but sure. For me, it brings a lot of sadness, sometimes anger, but I don’t know how to handle that because I’m not particularly aggressive.”