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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Latin pop, Madison-style
Kali Kalor plays a unique mix of cumbia and rap
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Kali Kalor represents the future of local Latin-influenced pop.
Kali Kalor represents the future of local Latin-influenced pop.

It's past eight o'clock on a Friday night, and all 10 members of Kali Kalor are crowded into a two-room basement studio at the Martinez house in Fitchburg.

They're about to play "Mi Nuevo Amor" ("My New Love"), the song that's currently number eight on the Top 10 Hit List of Madison's Spanish language radio station, La Movida. On this chart, Kali Kalor stands in the company of major-label Top 40 artists like Shakira.

The next four minutes reveal why Kali Kalor represents the future of local Latin-influenced pop music. Backed by traditional instrumentation like timbales and a keyboard programmed to sound like an accordion, the band is fronted by two rappers, a sultry lead singer and three underage, high-energy dancers.

The backgrounds of Kali Kalor's three core members explain this unique fusion of influences. William Martinez, 30, his sister, Claudia, 25, and his brother-in-law, Juan Garcia, 37, are near-lifelong residents of Madison. Each grew up in families that immigrated here in the late '70s and early '80s. William and Claudia's parents moved them from Colombia (the band's name partly references Cali, the Colombian city where William was born). Juan was born in Mexico.

Their families first met at a quinceanera (a coming-of-age 15th birthday party for Latino girls). They spoke Spanish, learned English, spent their childhoods on Bram Street and off South Park and eventually graduated from area schools. Juan and William have diplomas from West. Claudia attended Verona Area High School.

They've been making music together for more than a decade.

"When we first got together, we were more of a garage band," says Garcia. "William had a keyboard, Claudia had the voice and I got a drum set. Now it's like we're in our second generation."

Kali Kalor's 10 members include two of Garcia's children. Andy, 14, is one of the bands' rappers. Anthony, 10, has learned an intricate series of synchronized dance routines that he performs along with William's 10-year old son, Alejandro.

Kali Kalor plays cumbia, a style of Colombian music known for its danceable rhythms and regional variations. The lineup includes a percussion section consisting of timbales and drums. The only other instrumentation is William on keys and Mauricio Hernandez on bass. That leaves 6 of 10 band members who entertain by voice and by dance.

With her lace-up boots, velvet cap, sequined belt and abundance of exposed skin, Claudia Martinez is Kali Kalor's lead singer and visual centerpiece.

She's also the band's choreographer and dance instructor.

"My sister used to have a dance group, so I've been dancing ever since I was little," says Claudia. She's taught Alejandro and Anthony how to synchronize dance routines, providing lessons three times per week.

Kali Kalor's three dancers typically form a triangle of synchronicity. The two younger boys share stage front, backed by 14-year old Javier Martinez.

The Spanish raps by Luis Martinez (Javier's older brother), 25, and Andy Garcia punctuate Claudia's singing throughout much of Kali Kalor's music.

The band's hit song, "Mi Nuevo Amor," is part of a three-song disc the band recorded itself at Madison Media Institute. Garcia says they sold 1,000 copies of the disc at local shows. A full-length CD release is on tap for next year.

The band's most popular performance venue is the Palace Latin Club on University Avenue. Their next Palace show is scheduled for October 28.

"Every time we play there, it's packed," says William Martinez. "Cumbia music attracts all types. People can relate to the rhythm."

Building from the foundation of that rhythm, cumbia can be a mixture of "everything else," Martinez says. He points out the diversity of influence even from within this band, noting that brothers Luis and Javier are from Argentina.

Kali Kalor's local success rises from their fusion of cumbia with elements of U.S.-style hip-hop. It's a brand of music that's energetic and accessible.

At the band's practice last Friday night, junior members Alejandro and Anthony weren't showing any signs of school-week fatigue. Donning baseball caps worn sideways, an earring, a bathrobe and striped pajama pants, they were so enthusiastic that you couldn't help thinking that Latin-influenced pop fusion will figure in the future of Madison music.

"We're just trying to kick it up a little more," says William Martinez. "We want to be a little more creative."

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