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CULTURE MIX

Made for each other

Their names are alike, but Chan and Chana's differences are what fuel their music.

March 22, 2008|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

She is a New York-born Dominican who found her way to L.A. via Miami. He's the Chinese/Peruvian son of a U.N. diplomat who bounced around the globe before settling here too. She's an aspiring singer raised on salsa and merengue. He's a budding producer who creates hip beats but still gets goose bumps when he hears Peru's traditional musica criolla.

It's only a coincidence that their names are so alike. He's Marthin Chan, an alt/Latino rocker with a scruffy beard, red pants and a hint of shyness. She goes just by Chana (short for Rosanna), a svelte and glamorous extrovert who studied modern dance and wears chic knee-high leather boots, a wool scarf and earrings made of feathers dangling down to her shoulders.

Chan and Chana are part of L.A.'s burgeoning cultural collage, bringing pan-Latino sensibilities to the local music scene. Their sound comes straight outta Echo Park -- an infectious fusion of Caribbean rhythms, cool electronic vibes and sharp, satirical lyrics. She calls it trop-electro-hip-pop.

Their collaboration has led to Chana's inaugural album, an upbeat five-song EP titled "Manos Arriba" (Hands Up) on her own Patacon Records. On Thursday, they unveil their music live at downtown's Bordello Bar (formerly Little Pedro's), during a record release party she promises will be "this crazy multimedia thing" with dancers and DJ Ane of Automatico, a local party promoter.

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Detached passion

I met the artists this week at Chan's home on a hilly street in Echo Park, where he stays up late these days not partying but changing diapers for his newborn baby. In a detached shed, he's set up his modest studio, using those quilted mats from a moving company for wall acoustics.

They act like old friends who dig each other despite their different personalities, or perhaps due to them. Chan is more thoughtful and reserved. Chana is effusive and spontaneous, often breaking into song to make a point. He creates the moody music tracks; Chana adds the words and melodies in perfect sync with his beats, her soulful inflections alternating with an electronic staccato phrasing.

The combination yields songs of personal passion delivered with cool detachment -- tormented and catty jealousy in "A Veces" (At Times), a cold kiss-off to a stubborn ex-lover in "No Me Mandes Flores" (Don't Send Me Flowers) and mocking disdain for street-corner wolves in "The Whistler," featuring Chicano rapper Malverde as the wolf.

Chana (nee Rosanna Tavarez) grew up in New York's Washington Heights, where her mother did piecework as a seamstress at home, constantly playing tropical music on a little stereo while she cooked. She started singing as a child, but it wasn't salsa. "I was obsessed with 'Annie,' the musical," she says, hitting a high note from "Tomorrow." "Obsessed! Like, I'd play that record all day long."

After moving to Miami when she was 9, Chana studied at the New World School for the Arts, a magnet school that holds auditions for admission. She went on to study dance at the University of Michigan and choreography as a graduate student at Ohio State. She tried to break into a dance company in New York, but was soon back in Miami, where she was noticed by top producers in the Latino music industry.

They wanted to groom her as a Latin pop singer because, as she recalls them saying, "she's got the look." But Chana wasn't sure she had the voice.

"I never took vocal lessons and I had a huge insecurity that was holding me back," she admits. "I was doing a lot of karaoke in college as a way of just getting the courage and getting it out there."

Besides, Chana didn't want to be "just another girl doing Latin-y pop." "I wanted to do something new and fresh, in Spanish," she says. "I wanted to come up with something distinctive, even if the crowd would be more niche."

Enter Marthin Chan.

Chan had seen the inside of Miami's Latin music business, first working with a record label as a member of Volumen Cero, an alternative band that represented the city's new wave of young, multinational Latino acts. He also wrote hit songs for Miami's teenage sensation JD Natasha and Puerto Rican pop singer Luis Fonsi.

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Combination clicks

He met Chana while recruiting vocalists for an English-language side project, Popvert, which also included Jose Tillan, moonlighting from his job as senior VP for MTV Latin America, and studio musician Brendan Buckley, who has toured and recorded with Shakira. "The girl's got perfect pitch," he says, brushing aside her insecurities.

Chana clicked with Chan. Their childhoods had overlapped during the 1980s in New York, where they developed a love for British bands like the Cure and Depeche Mode. ("We're '80s kids, come on!" she says.) He then spent his high school years in the Dominican Republic, where he gained an appreciation for the syncopation of the guiro, and her Caribbean roots.

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