Some collaborations in music are just perfect. Not only is the music magnificent but the collaborators give each other new energy so that the final creation is far more than the sum of its parts. Such a collaboration is the union of the Latin-Grammy nominated rock guitarist and singer Alih Jey and the Latin Alternative/World folk band Cuñao. Jey and Cuñao headlined at the famed Hi Hat in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles last week, previewing some songs from their upcoming Soy De Peña album. It was the best performance I have seen either of them do. The energy level was above and beyond the simmering nuclear-powered guitar and vocals that earned Jey a BMI Award in 2016, and Cuñao’s global range created a musical environment that glowed and glittered and powered through every second of the stunning 10-song set.
Swirling onstage in a flame-red, skin-tight tropical dance costume, Jey’s morning sun-smile and sparkling eyes clicked with the crowd and raised the temperature in the hall to the heat of fan passion, as audience members yelled out their affection and appreciation before the music even started. And they kept it up until the last note.
Jey is one of LA’s most exciting and accomplished Latina fusion musicians. A native of the Dominican Republic and the daughter of one of that nation’s most distinguished musical families, she is the first Dominican artist to be nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Rock Solo Vocal Album, she also won a BMI award in 2016 for co-writing Ricky Martin’s hit single “Adrenalina” and has placed songs with JLo, Ednita Nazzaro, and Wisin among others. Jey smoothly blends English and Spanish rhythms, forms, and language using her world-class guitar chops, stunning voice, and generous stage presence to conjure love to and from the stage. The Hi Hat concert was all of that and more.
Jey, fresh from playing with Cuñao at SXSW, was headlining the second episode of chido/chevere/cool, the Hi Hat’s new monthly showcase. The night was packed with talent, including the amazing opening trio El Manana, the Columbian singer Loyal Lobos (Andrea Silva) who closed the night, DJ Jose Calvan from the Santa Monica-based NPR music leader radio station KCRW, and performance artists The Bumbys who silently assessed fans’ physical appearance using typewriters to produce sharp commentary.
Jey opened her set with “Los Olivos”, a traditional song from her native Dominican Republic, and moved on to “Déjame Beber” from the upcoming Soy De Peña. As the crowd relaxed, she told them about the Soy De Peña project she is finishing up now with Cuñao as a tribute to her family’s music from her dad’s songs in the 1960’s to the love song “Esperanza”, written in the 1930’s by her grandfather to her grandmother. While she strummed the opening notes of “Experanza”, Cuñao violinist Tom Moose sensuously bow-caressed the strings and then attacked them with a vengeance as Craig Shield set the pace on the Cajon, Severein Behen added spice with the accordion and Josel Cruz laid down bass tracks behind Jey’s and Julio Monteros’ guitars.
The energy crackled across the stage as musicians moved through “Esperanza” to “Tu No Tienes la Culpa”, originally an Alih Jey duo with her dad and slated for the upcoming album. Jey’s voice soared, growled and cajoled attracting notes and chords from Cunao’s instruments like a Tesla coil drawing electricity.
The energy continued as Moose shifted between electrified violin with wah-wah pedal effects and rapid-fire mandolin building a shimmering curtain of sound behind Jey’s luminescent lyrics. In “A Mi No Me Interesas” Jey reached down deep into her emotional core as Cuñao spun a folkway forest of heartbreaking violin and heartbeating Cajon behind her, encouraging the audience to sing along. The room practically elevated. It was like nothing I have ever heard before.
Founded in 2016 and known widely for its ability to absorb and enhance music from around the world, Cuñao’s multi-ethnic compositions create excitement and emotionally evocative music that transfuses a primeval blood flow into Jey’s songs. The result is music that transcends time and place, enabling Jey to bring forth the music of her Dominican ancestors as well as the lyrics of today. As Jey’s voice soars condor-like, Cunao creates the lush melodic and rhythmic landscape she surveys from above. It is a musical match made on Mt. Mount Olympus and Montaña Pico Duarte.
That match lit a bonfire in “Mi Debilidad”, the single released from the upcoming Alih Jey/Cunao album. Tom Moose set the mood with a gut-wrenching violin intro, hushing the room for Jey’s soft, beguiling vocals that started almost as a cry and then ascended into bolero power before Jey and Cuñao gently brought it back down to earth.
Cuñao treated the audience to two of their songs, “Minutos” and “El Compas” before laying the musical groundwork for Jey in “A Mi no Me Interasas” and “Mi Debilidad” and gliding to a landing with “Enriquillo”, which will appear on Soy De Peña.
Jey’s career has racked up many firsts and many accomplishments and shows no sign of going anywhere but forward fast. The collaboration with Cuñao on this project has sparked a new level of power and harmony for both of them. At times Cuñao and Jey merge almost psychedelically, strewing sparks and lightning bolts in their wake. The upcoming album, Soy De Peña, should add rocket fuel to her career and theirs. A perfect musical collaboration.