Though it’s a debut work in the eyes of the world, Villarreal has long been a widely known and beloved character on the Chicago music scene. On almost any night of the week, you’ll find him DJing at atleast one spot on bustling 18th Street in his home neighborhood of Pilsen. (The decadent track “18th & Morgan” is an homage to that strip, with its lowrider meets Roy Ayers vibe, vividly depicting Villarreal’s daily life driving to a gig in his classic baby-blue Mercedes sedan, wearing a beaver-skin Stetson and tinted aviators.) If he’s not there, he’s playing drums with Dos Santos, Valebol, The Los Sundowns or Ida y Vuelta (all bands he co-leads), or sitting in with Wild Belle or Rudy De Anda.
Villarreal may be most known for his big style and magnetic personality, but to musicians on the scene, it’s as much for his talents as a malleable and reliable drummer, with a deep pocket in many styles and sounds. Through Dos Santos and Ida y Vuelta, he’s demonstrated a range of knowledge and skill in various stripes of folkloric Latin music; but, ironically, he didn’t really play traditional Latin music until he moved to the States from his hometown Panamá City. His deepest roots in drumming are from the progressive punk and hardcore scenes of Central America, where his bands NOHAYDIA and 2 Huevos 1 Camino were active in the late 90s. Those formative experiences are the foundation of his career in music.
After his teen years thrashing on the punk scene, Villarreal started a life-changing tutelage with Freddy Sobers, the drummer of El General and Nando Boom (both known for pioneering reggaeton music in Panamá). “He taught me how to play all kinds of rhythms and told me I didn’t have to just play punk music,” Villarreal told the Chicago Reader in 2021. “He played everything from Rush to reggaeton to Chick Corea to salsa music… He told me if I wanted to be a good drummer, I had to learn all the styles. He took me under his wing, and I learned a lot from him.”
Villarreal evokes another Panamanian legend in “Patria,” a tribute to the organist and composer Avelino Muñoz. “My father, who also played the organ, used to listen to him growing up. I was always curious about its haunted sound. This recording is a total obeisance to Muñoz, my father and my country.”
Villarreal migrated to the US in the early 2000s. His first decade was spent living on a farm near Woodstock, Illinois, where he was a social worker, connecting migrant laborers with community health clinics. He also spent that time raising his two daughters, Estelle and Fania. But all his spare time went to nurturing his passion for drums. As he found more collaborators, played more gigs and became more embedded in the music community, in the early 2010s he moved down the highway into the City of Chicago, determined to grind it out as a full-time musician.
After another decade of non-stop sideman work, which included the growing national awareness and success of Dos Santos, Villarreal began to imagine what his own solo record could be. A handful of studio experiments in 2017 and 2018 got him close to the sound in his mind, but it wasn’t until he traveled to Los Angeles for a gig in 2019 that he caught a lasting spark. A simple stereo recording of Villarreal improvising with a first-time ensemble of friends – including Elliot Bergman, Jeff Parker, Kellen Harrison, and Bardo Martinez – inspired him to go into album-forming mode. The songs “Bella Vista” and “Activo” are excerpts from that first session, with added layers of auxiliary percussion, edited and shaped by Villarreal with engineer Dave Vettraino.
As Villarreal and Vettraino dove into post-production, the need for more material to fill out the album became clear, so more sessions were scheduled with players from Villareal’s and International Anthem’s shared circles. Guitarist Nathan Karagianis, who also plays with Dos Santos, joined them at Jamdek Studios in Chicago along with organist Cole DeGenova, and bassist Gordon Walters. In Los Angeles at Chicali Outpost (aka the garden behind International Anthem co-founder Scottie McNiece’s home), Villarreal recorded again with Bardo Martinez on bass and synths, Kyle Davis on keyboards, Anna Butterss on bass, and Jeff Parker, again, on guitar.
The Chicali Outpost session was recorded by engineer Ben Lumsdaine outdoors in open air, mainly because of safety precautions (it was in October 2020, and even the smallest of gatherings were still rare then), but also because the climate and context of the garden was ripe for music-making. One of the most electric tunes from that session is “Uncanny,” a psychedelic funk dub with spacey William Onyeabor-style synths. Villarreal recalls that “we were jamming in Bardo’s little garage studio the night before we did the recording at Scottie’s house. I remember starting the main groove and Bardo jumping in with a wacky bass line. We celebrated how weird it was even though we weren’t playing the same groove together, it came out in a strange, wonderful way that surprised us.”
Another highlight from those recordings is “In/On.” The base track is built around an improvisation by Villarreal, Butterss, and Parker, which was one of the first bits of music the three of them made together. It was also one of the first times Parker had played in person with other musicians in the almost 6 months since the pandemic began, and the joy of collective improvisation can be felt emanating from every note he plays. As Villarreal describes it, “for me, the song is about how we are all IN and ON. As if we are about to start something so you walk in and turn an ON switch. No one knows what’s going to happen after that but we are all into it. We are all IN. I also think it’s a fun reference because in Spanish there is only one word – ‘en’ – for both of those English words ‘in’ and ‘on’.”
Villarreal spent much of 2021 adding layers of percussion, editing and piecing the music together with Vettraino at International Anthem studios in Chicago. Other additions made in the final stages included Aquiles Navarro (of Irreversible Entanglements), who recorded horns for “Uncanny” at his family’s home in Panamá. Marta Sofia Honer wrote string arrangements and recorded a Curtis Mayfield-style symphony of violins and violas for “Cali Colors” and “18th & Morgan.” And back in LA for a final overdub session at Martinez’s garage studio, Villarreal and Martinez added backing vocals and synths to “Uncanny,” and even more synths to “18th & Morgan” and “Parque En Seis.” As the album took its final form, Villarreal named the collection Panamá 77, an homage to his birth place and year.
Villarreal says: “This album is an affirmation of both my origin story and who I am today. I see my life and my music as a collaboration of improvisation and intention all in the spirit of community and joy.”