Thursday, September 11, 2014

Las Cafeteras’ smart party fuses tradition and 21st Century street sounds

Every 15 years or so, a rowdy bunch of Chicano musicians rises up on the east side of Los Angeles with a game-changing sound, a must-see live show and a political message embedded inside everything they do. In the early ‘80s, it was Los Lobos. In the late ‘90s, Ozomatli took the crown. Now, it’s Las Cafeteras’ turn.

“Even in L.A., where we’re from, man, our music is so different,” says Hector Flores, who sings, plays the guitar-like jarana and provides zapateado percussion. “So I can only imagine how people are going to take it once we hit these different markets,” he laughs. “Our take on it: we remix roots music, we do hip-hop and cumbia and ska, we do this mélange, man, this great buffet of sounds. It’s stuff you heard before you were born mixed in with melodies that you hear today.”

Their current tour – their longest to date, 31 shows in 13 states in 51 days – is taking the seven-piece band across the middle of the U.S., moving beyond the biggest cities into the heartland, south and northeast, expanding their worldview as they also take time out to teach others. In addition to their Clifton Center concert on Wednesday, September 24th at 7:30 p.m., the septet – which includes several community organizers – will also lead a gathering at Farnsley Middle School at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, with an in-school performance happening earlier at Field Elementary School.

“Many of us grew up doing community and social justice work,” Flores says. “Youth development, anti-racism work … and so the music became a way for us to really talk about different cultures, different communities and peoples in a really empowering way.”

Formed in 2005, Las Cafeteras’ name was inspired by the Eastside Café, a community space where they first learned about the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico and the Son Jarocho music from Veracruz that fuels their sound today (they use the feminine “Cafeteras” to honor the struggles women have faced). But while such a venerable style – best known in America as the backbeat behind “La Bamba” – is where they begin, they update it to the current day with a fusion of acoustic and electric instruments, rapping and poetry, and percussion instruments like … well, their own feet. In addition to string instruments like a donkey jawbone, Las Cafeteras also utilizes the tap dance-like zapateado tradition to add percussion to their mix of Mexican, Spanish, African, Arabic, indigenous and American music.

Speaking of “La Bamba,” their 21st century update of that internationally beloved tune has helped them build a bridge to people otherwise unfamiliar with their cultural roots. “Everybody in the world knows ‘La Bamba,’ Flores says, noting friends’ encounters with the song as far away as Vietnam. “It’s such a universal song … but people don’t know it’s a 400-year-old Afro-Mexican song.”

He says Las Cafeteras are storytellers, and part of their message is that it’s important for all people to share their unique stories. It’s the best way for a melting pot nation to overcome their fears, work together and, sounding like a more swingin’ version of Howard Zinn, Flores says we need to “create a new history of the United States… one that’s much more inclusive.”

Their first full-length studio album, It’s Time, was released in 2012. “While the studio album is a great representation, this is definitely a band you have to experience live… and if you have a jarana or jawbone lying around, bring it,” wrote Jose Galvan of Los Angeles’ trendsetting public radio station KCRW.

“Our album is a history book,” says Flores. “Hopefully, 50 years from now people will listen to it and be, like, ‘This is what L.A. sounded like 50 years ago.’”

The band is working on their second album and hopes to see its release in 2015. “I think it’s going to take us to the next level,” Flores says. “The new sounds, I think, will be moving more from traditional to more who we are as L.A. immigrant kids. We’re creating this new immigrant sound in the United States – it wouldn’t happen anywhere else but here.”

Las Cafeteras
Wednesday, September 24
Clifton Center
2117 Payne St.
$10; 7:30 p.m.

c. 2014 Clifton Center

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