Music News & Reviews

After living in China, songwriter returns to Wichita

MariaElena spent time in Beijing before returning to the U.S. in February. Her band El Cuco plays at the Artichoke on Friday.
MariaElena spent time in Beijing before returning to the U.S. in February. Her band El Cuco plays at the Artichoke on Friday.

Songwriter and singer MariaElena honed her craft in an unusual spot for someone interested in the Americana genre – Beijing.

“Beijing is very multicultural,” she said. “They have a really incredible scene over there.”

MariaElena performs Friday at the Artichoke as part of El Cuco, which she formed before returning to the United States last February. The band’s current incarnation includes fellow singer-songwriter Jenny Wood, bassist Brody Wellman and guitarist Jason Teubner.

MariaElena, who uses first name while performing, grew up in Wichita in what she describes as two artistic households. Her father was a guitar player who opened for Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond. Her mother and stepfather were both involved in the visual arts, as are two siblings.

“I think I wanted to be a painter, but I was absolutely terrible,” she said. “I can’t draw to save my life.”

Instead, she gravitated to music, first as lead screamer in a punk band called the Horror. She also recorded and toured with another band, Kind of Grey, which included Wellman and Teubner.

MariaElena moved to China as a 21-year-old to teach English as Second Language classes. She ended up staying seven years.

“I was just kind of ready for adventure, I guess,” she said.

In China, MariaElena partnered with a Canadian musician, Sam Harrison, in El Cuco and another band called the Great Plains, playing at the Hot Cat Club, 69 Cafe and other Beijing venues.

“I played at mostly Chinese bars,” she said. “We had a really good following there. We had two standing gigs, playing each place once a week.”

With Harrison’s visa expiring and MariaElena already planning to return home, the pair moved to Kansas, playing shows here and in New Mexico. MariaElena kept the name of the bands going after Harrison went back to Canada.

In addition to Wellman, Teubner and Wood, the group’s membership has included Wichita performers Tom Page and Mark Horton. MariaElena writes most of the band’s material, although she expects Wood to perform several of her own compositions as well on Friday.

MariaElena said her songwriting has evolved over the years. According to her website, the Great Plains “portrays the post-apocalyptic concept of robot holocaust and the demise of human civilization throughout its music,” which is heavy on atmospheric guitar, brooding melodies and “borderline metal” choruses. MariaElena and Harrison often pose for photographs in gruesome masks, although she said she’ll leave those at home Friday.

El Cuco took its name form the Latin American version of the boogie man “that I grew up with and was terrified of,” MariaElena said. She describes the band’s music as Americana.

For that group’s self-titled first CD, “Sam and I kind of had an idea to do a record about serial killers. It didn’t turn out that way at all. That was what our ‘too many drinks idea’ was. It turned out far prettier, which were totally happy with.”

MariaElena said she’s now at work on several more recording projects, including joint efforts with Page, Horton and Wood. Several songs were inspired by a trip to New Mexico, which she describes as “very spiritual.”

“The stuff with Tom and Mark is a little more rootsy, Americana, it’s definitely less gloomy than the original” El Cuco, she said.

This story is part of an occasional series in which the spotlight is put on local bands. If you’re interested in having your band considered, e-mail aharris@wichitaeagle.com.

If you go

El Cuco

Where: The Artichoke, 811 N. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Friday

How Much: $5

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