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Unbound by Tradition

Today's alternative Chicano bands may sing in English and play music that twists traditional strains with punk, blues and ska. But the native cultural impulse still runs strong.

January 11, 1998|Yvette C. Doss | Yvette C. Doss is editor and co-publisher of frontera, a national Chicano/Latino music and culture magazine

It's the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, and a few hundred people are watching a series of Latino bands at Self-Help Graphics, an East Los Angeles arts center on Cesar Chavez Avenue.

Those in the audience who aren't in costume for the occasion--which pays homage to the spirits of the dead--are wearing their hair in long ponytails and braids and sporting other symbols of indigenous and Latin American culture, from jewelry and traditional guayabera summer shirts to embroidered peasant blouses.

A similar scene could be found in almost any southern Mexico town on this night, with one main exception: the brand of music.

The evening's bands--Blues Experiment, Quetzal, Aztlan Underground and Ozomatli, among others--are mostly singing in English and playing music that is as influenced by punk and ska as by mariachi and salsa.

They are part of an underground Los Angeles scene of about a dozen core bands and another dozen on the fringes. It has been created by a generation of fans and artists whose cultural and musical sensibilities haven't been expressed by other movements--not Latin America-oriented rock en espan~ol, mainstream U.S. rock or the popular Mexican sounds of banda and mariachi.

The songs represent an urban blend of traditional and modern, retro and futuristic: turntable scratching and conga beats, animated folk-sones jarochos alternating with rock and soul, manic, punk-tinged ska and blues. The themes often speak of frustration and heartbreak in a city many young Chicanos call "Lost Angeles."

"We may be wearing guayaberas, but we're also wearing Doc Martens and nose rings," says 25-year-old Flavio Morales, host and co-founder of "Illegal Interns," an hourlong television program devoted to contemporary Chicano music and culture that airs Wednesdays at midnight on the independent Channel 38. "The fact that we were born here makes our use of the imagery, sounds and symbols of Mexico 100% American."

There have been other bands in this progressive tradition over the years, notably the Plugz and Los Illegals in the late '70s and early '80s. But few recognizably Latino musicians have been able to survive the record industry's marketing machinery, which many musicians say attempts to fit groups into existing slots, such as "Latin" or "alternative." The industry has never been able to make sense of a group that can be categorized as both.

This discouraging history hasn't been lost on the leaders of this new Chicano underground. Indeed, many of them feel that most of their talented predecessors had to compromise their music and identity to conform to record company stereotypes about Latinos and their viability in the mainstream marketplace.

Not wanting to make futile compromises, these new bands operate for the most part outside the parameters of the industry. They play at downtown art galleries, the old city jail north of downtown or restaurants and cafes in Little Tokyo. They produce their own records from money scrounged from fund-raisers. It's a living for some of the musicians, while others keep their day jobs.

The bands appeal to hip, young Latinos who appreciate the subtleties of the Chicano cultural subtext in their music. It's a sensibility shaped by negatives--the feeling that they are neither Mexican nor mainstream American.

"These bands speak to the soul of our Chicano community," says Consuelo Flores, a writer and performance artist who has been following the scene for years. "They have an intelligent and relevant message that transcends race and gender boundaries. It's a message of perseverance, community involvement, inclusion and hope."

Though the scene is largely defined by its grass-roots support and its independence from the industry rat race, it has already caused at least one high-profile record label to take notice.

Ozomatli--a bilingual band with salsa, hip-hop and jazz overtones that regularly draws as many as 1,000 fans to its shows--has been signed to Almo Sounds, the label started by A&M Records founders Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert and whose roster includes the hit rock group Garbage. An album is due in late spring.

Lysa Flores, one of the scene's few female lead vocalists, signed with Geffen Records as musical director of the soundtrack for the recent movie "Star Maps," which featured her track "Beg, Borrow and Steal."

"When Ozomatli plays 'Como Vez,' I'm singing right along with them," said Andy Olyphant, director of West Coast artists & repertoire at Almo Sounds. Olyphant believes the band's music has appeal across racial lines. "They're all about the rhythm, all about the groove."

But the bands are determined not to let this growing interest cause a loss of independence.

Gabriel Tenorio, guitarist for the band Quetzal, seems to speak for most of the musicians when he says he's not likely to compromise his style to get the attention of the record industry.

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