Photo: Jeremy Cohen
Mexican Singer/Songwriter Caloncho Is On A Mission To Give Back—In Music And Beyond
Caloncho loves life. The tattoo on his left arm—a mom-heart-style illustration with "Vida" written in the center—is just one way he makes that known. The 33-year-old Mexican singer/songwriter, born Oscar Castro, has very much built a reputation around his optimism and zeal for living. Even when he forgoes his love-soaked lyrics with words of disillusion, his guitar-heavy reggae, rock steady pop sound keeps the mood warm and light, making it easy to forget you’re hearing about heartbreak; it transports you to a tropical island and makes you want to get up and dance.
The curly-haired singer exudes a calm warmth in person too. His vibe is as sunny as the city he finds himself in on the last days of February: Santiago de Queretaro, a small colonial town in North-Central Mexico.
Caloncho is in Queretaro to perform for an intimate group of fans on the last stop of the Live At Aloft Hotels Homecoming Tour, a partnership between the new Marriott hotel in the city and Universal Music Group, which features artist performances in their home countries.
The popular singer doesn’t mind the positive associations with his music. “If I die tomorrow, I'm glad, I'm happy,” he says hours before his performance, sitting in the hotel lobby wearing yellow high socks with a smiley face printed on them. "I think I’ve done something for people through my music because they’ve told me they like it and that it actually helps [them], so that's useful.”
Being helpful is equally important to Caloncho. It’s “a mission” for him. More than making people feel happy, Caloncho, who studied international relations in college, wants to make a genuine difference in the world. Optimism gives people faith, he believes.
The day before, he swapped his guitar for a pair of gloves, rubber boots and a face mask to do something beneficial outside of music.
The tour stop has enabled him to build a partnership with a local nonprofit in Queretaro raising awareness on the pollution called Habitantes del Rio. The singer brought together locals, Aloft employees and media to clean a section of Queretaro’s polluted river. The historic river, which at one point provided water for many to use, has become extremely contaminated over several years. You’ll find soccer cleats, television parts, glass and even human waste flowing in or around the river.
The river’s state reflects a greater problem the country faces; six out of every 10 rivers are polluted in Mexico.
Queretaro’s river, flowing across most of the state like a belt, has caused local townspeople health problems and has overall become bothersome, not just because the water is a sewage green color but because it emits an extremely toxic smell.
Local authorities have initiated plans and programs to clean the river, but to no prevail. Habitantes also set up cleaning dates throughout the year to help solve the issue. So far, they have taken 15 tons of trash from the river.
Caloncho learned of the organization while at a music festival. He thinks it’s important for people to know what’s going on in the country and feels a responsibility to do good not just through music, but everywhere else, too. "Music is a great vehicle for sharing issues," he says as he gets ready to pick up trash with the nonprofit.
Cameras and photographers follow the singer around as he gravitates towards one part of the river, a muddy corner that looks like a small landfill in the making. The green water flows by behind him.
Back in his hotel lobby a day later, Caloncho reflects on his river experience.
“I love to travel. I love to do what I do. It was just a great opportunity to visit Querétaro with Habitantes del Rio," he says. "I admire the job they do, what they think. I was really excited to clean the river, to be part of it and to let the people know that they have something vital that's actually a treasure."
The singer hopes the cleanup, now documented on his social media, can inspire local fans to help out as well. "They have a river, their place, and this is an example for [what can be done for] the rest of the rivers throughout Mexico and the planet," he says.
Humans have been the cause of the river’s unhealthy condition since the mid 17th century. In college, Caloncho faced one of the most debated questions related to the actions of human beings: "Are human beings good or bad?"
Caloncho still isn’t sure how to answer that question. For him, though, there is power in choice.
"We have to protect [rivers] and we have so much power as individuals to do that. Every choice of consumption that we get to get every day, everything we choose, is going to have an impact and environmental weight," he says.
Photo: Jeremy Cohen
The singer will begin working on his forthcoming album in a few days and feels strongly about including songs that will make people think. Caloncho wants to include more of his thoughts on society and human emotional intelligence, even incorporating discourse, something he says is not easy to do.
"Ideology is not an easy thing to get into a song," he says. "But I'm trying."
The love songs he’ll include, though, will be Classic Caloncho. He’ll include a special message to his daughters, who he didn’t have when he began making music.
“I want them to be independent and intelligent,” he shares. “[The album will have] a letter to them. I think it's kind of personal in that way.”
Fatherhood has only added to the singer’s love for life. While he loves to make music and going on tour, he admits leaving his children at home is tough.
“I feel so full when I'm home playing with them and just existing, watching them grow. I think that everything is primitive and easy and as simple as that,” he says. “There's nothing else to do other than enjoying our existence … I could be doing nothing at all, just sitting, watching, and that's beautiful … I'm in love. I love existing, I love my daughters.”
Caloncho released an EP titled Pa with his youngest baby girl on the cover last year. Evidently, his determination to make a difference in and out of music is also tied to fatherhood.
"Everything is okay in terms of creating music. I could just relax and do love songs and chill but I want to be useful. Maybe it's related to being a father now, I don't know," he says.
Caloncho released his first EP, Homeotermo, in 2011. A series of EPs titled Fruta and Fruta Vol. II followed before he released his latest album Bálsamo in 2017.
Fruta earned him a Latin GRAMMY nom for Best Alternative Album in 2014. That year he was also nominated for Best New Artist.
His journey into music began thanks to his late grandfather, who also gave him his nickname, "Caloncho."
“My grandfather, my father's father, he used to play norteña. He used to play mostly with an accordion. And he gave me my first guitar too,” he says. “He had a Yamaha Electone his living room, which I now have, so it was like going to my grandparents' house was just discovering music through this Electone and another synthesizer he had.”
The Beatles were another early influence; their CD is the first he ever purchased.
“I love them. They created pop music and it's always a reference when recording. I love their sound. We actually studied the process of how do they get to that voice and guitar and drum sound,” he says.
When he’s not creating music on his own, he’s collaborating with Latin GRAMMY-nominated singer El David Aguilar in a band called Vacación. The band is influenced by a variety of Mexican and Latin American musical styles and genres including boleros. Together, they combine some of the most praised songwriting in the Spanish language. After his intimate performance in Queretaro, Caloncho will continue a spring tour with the side project.
The singer/songwriters share an album, Tiempo Compartido, and Caloncho has learned a lot from Aguilar.
“He's an amazing musician, an extraordinary human being,” he says. “I've learned to not be afraid of having a discourse, even though it doesn't rhyme, even though it's not sexy.”
Of making an English album, Caloncho says he’d love to someday, but the language hasn’t come as naturally to him.
Whatever happens, Caloncho is content with taking it slow. “I'm just finding myself. I'm getting to know myself as composer, and as a human—like everybody else.”