Saving Damsels carries fans away

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Oct. 3, 2011

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(Courtesy photo - Nate "UNEK" Smith)

The members of Saving Damsels are, left to right, Doug Bellen, Chuck Hawley, JJ Otero, Pax Garcia and Joe Pacheco.




Although it didn't seem like it at the time, the best thing J.J. Otero's girlfriend ever did was take their daughter and leave him with an empty house.

It not only inspired the song "Empty Rooms" and the eventual CD of the same name, but it motivated Otero to get some much-needed counseling and turn around his wastrel life of drinking, gambling and womanizing.

And, while many songs are written around the aforementioned wastrel life, the now 41-year-old Dine singer-songwriter found his inspiration in the climb back up.

"Therapy forces you to learn all kinds of things about yourself," Otero said in a telephone interview from his Albuquerque home. "It's great material."

Even the name of his band, "Saving Damsels," came from therapy: He was diagnosed with "Hero Syndrome."

"Basically it means you do nice things for people," explained Otero, who is Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan), born for Kinlichii'nii (Red House Clan), "but you always have an ulterior motive."

But lest you think this is going to be preachy music with a mission, take a listen at http://savingdamsels.com/. For songs about addiction and recovery, they're pretty danceable.

Otero attributes the band's eclectic brand of "Native soul rock" to his childhood in Torreon, N.M., listening to KTNN and KNDN.

"I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers," Otero said. "They'd be sitting around playing games or weaving, and the radio was always on."

The Navajo stations were just as likely to play a country-western classic as they were to spin a new release by Native artist Paul Ortega or an old Beatles tune. The young Otero lapped it all up.

"I didn't really know the difference," he said. "I just liked music."

By his teens, he was writing "little songs here and there," but didn't really get serious about it until in 2007.




At age 35, one year sober and still in therapy, he decided that music was one thing that gave his life direction and he was going to go after it.

He asked Carlo Johnson, lead guitarist with the NAMMY-winning band Red Earth, if he'd like to do a duo gig. They played a couple of small shows to moderate acclaim, and eventually added bassist Joe Pacheco.

Johnson eventually left the band, but by then Otero had met other musicians whose sound he liked. His present ensemble of Pacheco, Pax Garcia on drums, Chuck Hawley on lead guitar, and Doug Bellen on keyboard brings the depth of styles and ideas that give Saving Damsels its unique sound.

"I really appreciate my band mates," Otero said. "When I first got into this thing, I insisted on weekly rehearsals. I know a lot of bands don't do that, but I think it's really important to be constantly perfecting your sound. I wanted people with a work ethic, and I got them."

Otero and Pacheco, Isleta Pueblo, are the only Native Americans in the five-piece ensemble, but Otero says the guys don't mind playing songs with Native themes.

"In fact," he said, "It was Chuck who encouraged me to write a song in Navajo."

That song, "Protection - Beauty all Around" turned out more interesting than expected when Otero consulted his father, Chester Otero, on some of the lyrics and the elder Otero started to sing a Dine traveling song. J.J. Otero recorded his dad and wove the song around his own melody and lyrics, which were sort of a blessing song.

The result is a nice rendering of saa'a naghei bik'eeh hozhoon - the Navajo philosophy of balance between male and female, protection and beauty.

"And it's all put against a psychedelic rock beat," Otero said with a chuckle.

He worried that the band's mostly non-Native following would respond with a shrug, but it's turned out to be one of Saving Damsels' most requested hits.

"Non-Natives seem to get it even though they can't understand the lyrics," Otero observed.

It's going to be the centerpiece of the band's second CD, due out in December or January.

The band is gigging two or three times a week in the Albuquerque area, but Otero has been frustrated in his dream to break into the Navajo Nation. That's one reason Saving Damsels took a gamble two weeks ago, offering to play at the Navajo Chamber of Commerce gala for gas money.

"There were a lot of influential Navajos there who heard us," Otero said. "While we were happy to play for the (scholarship) benefit, obviously we're hoping it gets us noticed."

It hurts Otero that the very radio stations that were such a big influence on him growing up don't play much local music, while KUNM in Albuquerque and KSFR Santa Fe have whole shows devoted to the Native music scene.

Recently, Otero tried to get the Damsels a gig at the Northern Navajo Fair.

"They asked me what kind of music we played, and I said 'rock,'" Otero recalled. "They said, 'We're sorry, there isn't a market for that.'"

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