Las Cafeteras tells compelling Chicano stories through music

In Artist Profile, Arts & Entertainment, Music
Courtesy of Las Cafeteras
Courtesy of Las Cafeteras

UPDATE: 11/5/2013 12:30 p.m. This story has been corrected for clarity of who organized the performance.

The stories of seven Angelenos, along with the stories of countless others, are currently being told on stages across the country.

On Thursday, the East Los Angeles-based Chicano band Las Cafeteras will perform in the Quad as part of MEChA de CSUF’s Dia de los Muertos celebration.

The stories are told through lively performances using beats with rhythms and rhymes.

The band’s buoyant sound is complemented by members dancing off and on the stage.

On stage they dance zapateado, a type of indigenous folk dance that consists of rhythmically stamping one’s feet.

The stamps punctuate every hit of the cajon, a percussive instrument whose name translates to “crate” or “drawer.”

The song is familiar to those in the audience, even to those who have never seen the band before.

It’s a rendition of the popular “son jarocho” song, “La Bamba,” with a rebellious touch of their own.

The band and audience sing:

“Yo no creo en fronteras/Yo no crea en fronteras/Yo cruzaré/Yo cruzaré”

(“I don’t believe in borders/I don’t believe in borders/I will cross them/I will cross them”)

The performance is a melding of past, present and words of hope for the future.

Every performance by Las Cafeteras is a cultural manifestation—an interplay between art and activism. They reshape tradition to fit modern needs; they embrace the past while looking forward.

Each of the seven members contribute differently to their unique sound, playing an instrument one time, and another when the occassion calls.

Hector Flores, Denise Carlos and Daniel French play one of the signature instruments in son jarocho, the jarana, which looks like a ukulele but has a fuller sound.

The three also share vocal duties. Jose Cano, a percussionist, maintains the beat by banging on the cajon.

Annette Torres plays the marimbol, a wooden box resembling a piano that is used in some Caribbean music, and dances on stage.

Leah Rose Gallegos and Denise Carlos sing and dance in the zapateado style.

Las Cafeteras, named 2013’s “Best Latin-Alternative Band” by LA Weekly, met during son jarocho lessons at the Eastside Cafe in El Sereno.

The cafe is a community space that offers workshops on subjects such as folklorico and yoga, as well as English classes.

Son jarocho is a centuries old percussive style of folk music out of Veracruz, Mexico that draws from the relationship of indigenous, African and Spanish cultures during the time of European colonization in Mexico.

“The way we were taught in son jarocho, it’s like the music is a ceremony and the music is to be shared, with friends and families to be celebrated and through that you can build community, you can build love, you can build ‘confianza’ (familiarity and trust),” said Flores, who sings and plays the jarana.

An integral part of son jarocho is the impromptu jam sessions known as “fandangos.” They exemplify the participatory nature of son jarocho, where anyone can join in to sing, dance and play.

“Music has a powerful place to play in that kind of movement building,” Flores said.

Las Cafeteras embody the participatory and communal nature of son jarocho interacting with the audience.

“What’s really special is when there is that connection,” Cano said. “Everybody who is a vocalist in the band are really good at addressing and connecting with the crowd. It’s a really, really beautiful thing.”

Las Cafeteras fuse son jarocho with other genres such as hip-hop, ska and other Latin beats.

With instruments such as the jarana and the marimbol, it is no surprise that some are stuck on the aesthetic element of their performance.

“They are not sure what to make of us,” Cano said.

But soon after, upon hearing the messages delivered through the infectious beats, it’s obvious Las Cafeteras are more than just their music.

“We think that music is medicine, and if music is medicine it can heal then it needs to go to people who need to be healed. A lot of the times that’s communities of color, working-class communities, immigrant communities,” Flores said.

The band gets their message across any way they can—English, Spanish, even Spanglish.

The merging and fluidity of language is a natural way of communication for Chicanos, Flores said.

“For us, that’s how we are, that’s how we talk, that’s how we think, that’s how we dream, and that’s also how we sing and write our music,” Flores said.

The title track off their album It’s Time asks the listener “When is it time for you?” Flores said. “It’s also a call to people to do whatever they have to do … It’s time for people to do what they need to do to feel free.”

The lyrics cast accounts of rich settings and characters, reflective of those on stage and in the crowd.

“Ya me voy” tells the struggles of families when faced with the decision of leaving home and taking the excursion to the United States for a better life.

The spoken-word hip-hop hybrid “It’s Movement Time” recalls influential people and events in the history of people of color.

The song incorporates the stories of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata fighting in Mexico for independence and the Mendez family in Westminster, who fought to end racial segregation in public schools in 1946.

A sense of celebration permeates through every song, whether it is the ballad “Luna Love,” “El Chuchumbe” or the crowd favorite “La Bamba Rebelde.”

“After a Las Cafeteras show, I want people to leave with more questions than answers coming in,” Flores said. ”We want people to leave feeling proud about who they are. We want people to leave wanting to tell their story.”

Las Cafeteras’ music is moving. It is forceful without being forced.

It compels the audience to move along with it not because the band is asking them to, but because they simply cannot help it.

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