Music of a love affair with San Francisco: An interview with Makrú musician Raúl Vargas

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Upon arriving in San Francisco in 2002, Spanish multi-instrumentalist and composer Raúl Vargas did not intend to stay.

In his hunger to explore different cultures and music from around the world, Vargas had spent the past four years away from his hometown of Madrid, traversing the globe — the musician had visited Thailand, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, to name just a few of his previous stomping grounds. Next, Vargas had his eyes set on the United States. With no specific U.S. destination in mind, Vargas chose based on flight costs, deciding on Los Angeles because of the relatively affordable flight there.

It wasn’t until a chat with a friend about his future travels that Vargas shifted his focus north. “She was like, ‘No, you have to go to San Francisco, to the Mission District, which is a Latino neighborhood,’ ” Vargas recounted in an interview with The Daily Californian.

It didn’t take him long to appreciate the sagacity of this guidance — like fairy-tale stories of love at first sight, Vargas’ infatuation with San Francisco was immediate. Vargas could quickly tell that the city was different than anywhere he had previously resided, most prominently in terms of San Francisco’s vibrant music scene.

“I didn’t even have to think if I wanted to stay. The plan was to keep moving, but I was like, ‘I’m staying here,’ ” Vargas said.

In many ways, Vargas flourished artistically once surrounded by the Bay Area musical community. Just as he had hoped he would when he first learned to write chords as a 16-year-old in Madrid, he now makes music for a living. Most prominently, Vargas is a founding member of genre-defying, five-piece Bay Area band Makrú.

Makrú began in 2008. At the time, Vargas was playing in what was then an eight-piece circus, music and theater troupe called La Malamaña, when he and a few other members of the multifaceted performance group decided to shift their efforts more explicitly to music. When searching for a short, powerful title for the new band, the group eventually thought up “Makrú,” inspired by the quick-paced traditional West African rhythm of the same name.

In 2018, as the band celebrates its 10th anniversary, Vargas’ participation in the group — as a vocalist, composer and instrumentalist — remains vital to Makrú’s success. But in order to support himself financially, Vargas explained that he cannot completely dedicate his time to performing with Makrú. Instead, he regularly juggles an amalgam of additional projects, from performing with Bay Area musical collective Istanbul Connection to doing rumba flamenca duets to taking care of management, booking, promo and music writing for his gigs.

Even with his many responsibilities, Vargas dedicates all the time he can to Makrú. With the group, he exercises his passions not only for music, but also for community engagement and social justice. According to Vargas, the band revolves around the tenants of creating authentic music, bringing all kinds of people together and communicating weighty messages. By way of Makrú’s music, Vargas explained, individuals can come together and show up for the causes in which they believe.

The musicians of Makrú use their voices to advocate for a range of issues, particularly those pertaining to their own lives — namely, issues of gentrification and immigration. Released earlier this summer, the group’s latest album, Tu Mission, addresses these topics explicitly. The album’s titular track, for instance, tells a story of a longtime resident of the San Francisco Mission District who is evicted. Throughout “Tu Mission,” Vargas raps about this man visiting his favorite parts of the neighborhood and processing the difficult reality of his situation.

“He’s accepting that, even though it wasn’t totally fair … he needs to accept it and move on,” Vargas said, later adding, “It’s the story of one of many individuals.”

Unfortunately, Vargas himself has experienced the pressures of gentrification, and he can relate personally to the song’s chorus of “Ya no es su Misión” (“It is no longer his Mission,” in English). “I’m realizing that (San Francisco) is not the place that I fell in love with years ago when I came here, and it’s time to move on,” he said.

As a musician, Vargas uses the pain of falling out of love, so to speak, as further inspiration for his craft. In the most simple sense, he said, his artistic duty consists of expressing himself through music. And for Vargas, from this basic responsibility stems another — to stand for his community. This is the mission statement of Makrú, and Vargas voiced his aspirations for widespread communal benefit as a result of the band’s growth, rather than merely personal gains for the members themselves. “The bigger that the project can get in every way, the bigger than net impact, the positive impact, can be all around,” he said.

“And at the same time, people can have fun,” Vargas smiled. “I think (Makrú is) something pretty magical and important.”

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.