Made for each other

Times Staff Writer

She is a New York-born Dominican who found her way to L.A. via Miami. He's the Chinese/Peruvian son of a U.N. diplomat who bounced around the globe before settling here too. She's an aspiring singer raised on salsa and merengue. He's a budding producer who creates hip beats but still gets goose bumps when he hears Peru's traditional musica criolla.

It's only a coincidence that their names are so alike. He's Marthin Chan, an alt/Latino rocker with a scruffy beard, red pants and a hint of shyness. She goes just by Chana (short for Rosanna), a svelte and glamorous extrovert who studied modern dance and wears chic knee-high leather boots, a wool scarf and earrings made of feathers dangling down to her shoulders.

Chan and Chana are part of L.A.'s burgeoning cultural collage, bringing pan-Latino sensibilities to the local music scene. Their sound comes straight outta Echo Park -- an infectious fusion of Caribbean rhythms, cool electronic vibes and sharp, satirical lyrics. She calls it trop-electro-hip-pop.

Their collaboration has led to Chana's inaugural album, an upbeat five-song EP titled "Manos Arriba" (Hands Up) on her own Patacon Records. On Thursday, they unveil their music live at downtown's Bordello Bar (formerly Little Pedro's), during a record release party she promises will be "this crazy multimedia thing" with dancers and DJ Ane of Automatico, a local party promoter.

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Detached passion

I met the artists this week at Chan's home on a hilly street in Echo Park, where he stays up late these days not partying but changing diapers for his newborn baby. In a detached shed, he's set up his modest studio, using those quilted mats from a moving company for wall acoustics.

They act like old friends who dig each other despite their different personalities, or perhaps due to them. Chan is more thoughtful and reserved. Chana is effusive and spontaneous, often breaking into song to make a point. He creates the moody music tracks; Chana adds the words and melodies in perfect sync with his beats, her soulful inflections alternating with an electronic staccato phrasing.

The combination yields songs of personal passion delivered with cool detachment -- tormented and catty jealousy in "A Veces" (At Times), a cold kiss-off to a stubborn ex-lover in "No Me Mandes Flores" (Don't Send Me Flowers) and mocking disdain for street-corner wolves in "The Whistler," featuring Chicano rapper Malverde as the wolf.

Chana (nee Rosanna Tavarez) grew up in New York's Washington Heights, where her mother did piecework as a seamstress at home, constantly playing tropical music on a little stereo while she cooked. She started singing as a child, but it wasn't salsa. "I was obsessed with 'Annie,' the musical," she says, hitting a high note from "Tomorrow." "Obsessed! Like, I'd play that record all day long."

After moving to Miami when she was 9, Chana studied at the New World School for the Arts, a magnet school that holds auditions for admission. She went on to study dance at the University of Michigan and choreography as a graduate student at Ohio State. She tried to break into a dance company in New York, but was soon back in Miami, where she was noticed by top producers in the Latino music industry.

They wanted to groom her as a Latin pop singer because, as she recalls them saying, "she's got the look." But Chana wasn't sure she had the voice.

"I never took vocal lessons and I had a huge insecurity that was holding me back," she admits. "I was doing a lot of karaoke in college as a way of just getting the courage and getting it out there."

Besides, Chana didn't want to be "just another girl doing Latin-y pop." "I wanted to do something new and fresh, in Spanish," she says. "I wanted to come up with something distinctive, even if the crowd would be more niche."

Enter Marthin Chan.

Chan had seen the inside of Miami's Latin music business, first working with a record label as a member of Volumen Cero, an alternative band that represented the city's new wave of young, multinational Latino acts. He also wrote hit songs for Miami's teenage sensation JD Natasha and Puerto Rican pop singer Luis Fonsi.

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Combination clicks

He met Chana while recruiting vocalists for an English-language side project, Popvert, which also included Jose Tillan, moonlighting from his job as senior VP for MTV Latin America, and studio musician Brendan Buckley, who has toured and recorded with Shakira. "The girl's got perfect pitch," he says, brushing aside her insecurities.

Chana clicked with Chan. Their childhoods had overlapped during the 1980s in New York, where they developed a love for British bands like the Cure and Depeche Mode. ("We're '80s kids, come on!" she says.) He then spent his high school years in the Dominican Republic, where he gained an appreciation for the syncopation of the guiro, and her Caribbean roots.

But the biggest sign of compatibility was their mutual admiration for Velocity Girl, a '90s band from Seattle "that hardly nobody likes," says Chan, who has an autographed picture of the band. Chana calls it "definitely one of those really crazy references" that provoked the scream of realizing someone else shared your obscure passion.

Chana was the first to move here to L.A. three years ago with her husband, a producer for Univision. Chan soon followed with his bandmates from Volumen Cero, who are about to release their fourth studio album, a bilingual set titled "I Can See the Bright Spot."

Chan and Chana are promoting their new album just like it was made, independently. They plan to play the local party circuit, a hip series of happenings hosted by promoters such as Turn Off the Radio, Hang the Deejays, Remezcla and Automatico.

Chan raves about the stimulating scene that has developed in and around his neighborhood, populated by musicians, producers, artists, "East L.A. noise makers" and "the French guy up the street who makes guitars." Also nearby is the home and studio of alt-Latino superstar and Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla. ("We love Gustavo," exclaims Chana. "We're going to stalk him.")

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Club action

The party scene is in constant motion, at clubs like Echoplex, literally underground, and at hangouts with no signs at the entrance like speak-easys. There's Mucho Wednesdays, a Latino dance night, at La Cita, a historic downtown Mexican bar, and party nights on weekends at Short Stop, a former cop hangout on Sunset. "You can go the whole week listening to great shows in this part of town," says Chan. "That musical/cool/hipness/scenester thing you have to a 1% degree in Miami, it's such a small community. Here, it's in your face."

But Chan reverts to an old-school reference to describe the do-it-yourself style of today's young musicians. It's like "the guy who discovered Ritchie Valens," he says, referring to Del-Fi Records owner Bob Keane, who auditioned the young singer from Pacoima, considered the first Latino rocker, in the basement studio of his home in nearby Silver Lake.

"This is a journey," says Chan, "just like any kid in a garage is dreaming about."

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Chan's album-release party and special performance, Thursday, 10 p.m., at Bordello Bar, 901 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-3766.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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