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Musique a la Rez! French Filmmakers Turn Lens on JJ Otero's Native-Soul-Rock

Two French filmmakers went looking for American music, and discovered the "Native-Soul-Rock" played by Navajo artist JJ Otero and Saving Damsels.

They say that music is a universal language—well, JJ Otero and Saving Damsels is proving it's at least international. The Albuquerque, NM band was chosen for a French documentary series titled Music On The Road, which chronicles a meandering New York-to-San Francisco road trip that explores the crazy quilt of underexposed American music. Writer/directors Benoit Pergent and Yoann LeGruiec sought to "give a face and a voice to this music, and let the artists guide us through their towns, these artists who have so much to tell us but who are not as yet known by the wider public." The 20-minute segment that focuses on Otero is titled "Reservation Boy." 

"The filmmakers were in the U.S. doing research on a bunch of different bands," Otero recalls. "They were looking to profile bands all across the country. We came up in their research through the Native American Music Awards. I got an email from them, they were interested in profiling Saving Damsels. They were interested in the origins of the music—not specifically American Indian music, just music, in general." The filmmakers were drawn to Saving Damsels because of "the different sound, and the Native perspective, in terms of song writing. We call our music Native-Soul-Rock." The film featured three of Saving Damsels' most popular songs: "Protected (Beauty All Around)," which is sung completely in Navajo; "Reservation Boy;" and "Me and the 99." "They were really interested in seeing who was doing music, and developing their own sound," Otero says. Filming took place in Na' Neelzhiin (Torreon, NM) and downtown Albuquerque. "They started out with me on the Navajo Reservation. And, then they talked to my mom and dad, and my sister, Winona, about reservation life, and how growing up on the reservation influenced the music." From there, the band and the crew traveled to ABQ for a rooftop performance at the Sunshine Theater parking structure.

Kings of the Duke City: Otero and bandmates play a few tunes on top of a parking garage in Albuquerque. Source: facebook.com/musicontheroadproject

Otero did a couple of performances in Paris, in conjunction with the film's premiere. He was backed by a few different local musicians. In an update from Paris, Otero described a a show at which "We (2 Parisians, a Senegalese, an Italian, and a Navajo) played for a little over 3 hours. Wow, people danced, clapped, yelled bravo, gave a bunch of euros, and shared their good energy." He noted a difference between the French and American performance scene—at one venue, he was approached by a couple of musicians out of the crowd, and "they came up and we started to jam. And, wow!! The vibe and energy was very different. It was a standing crowd. And people started to dance after a little while. Everybody was kinda involved with the vibe of the evening and the music." 

Behind the scenes: French filmmakers capturing Otero and rez life. Source: facebook.com/musicontheroadproject

Saving Damsels will be back in the studio this winter, working on the new album. "We have three or four songs recorded and mixed," Otero says. "We've been prepping three or four more songs. Those are pretty much ready. We just need to rehearse them, and book studio time. We're looking at a late spring, early summer release."

The docu-series will be released on the internet, in the immediate future, with a planned release on French television, later on.

For more information:
Crowdfunding campaign for Music on the Road at Kiss Kiss Bank Bank
Music on the Road on Facebook
JJ Otero on Facebook
Saving Damsels official site

Poster for one of JJ Otero's concerts in France. Source: facebook.com/jj.otero