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The Punk Rock Kids in the Hall

Young musicians find a home in northeast L.A., where a popular guitar teacher insists on good grades and dedication.

March 21, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

It's a two-story, tan stucco building with a Spanish tile roof, and yet Ramona Hall in Highland Park, by the sound of it, may as well be a grimy loft deep in industrial downtown Los Angeles.

Music -- mostly punk and rock 'n' roll -- barrels off the walls during after-school hours, echoing deep into the Arroyo Seco.

The low-cost guitar and drum lessons for children offered there are so popular that the community center's director is dealing with waiting lists.

And the bands that have formed at Ramona Hall now claim all the unused rooms as rehearsal space, resulting in a constant cacophony of rock.

"We used to be the Black Powder Biscuits," said Nicolas Carbajal, 16, lead singer of a hard metal group that was practicing in a dim room on a recent Monday afternoon.

"Now we're the Runts, or the Wankers, we don't know," said Andrew Cabarrubias, 15, the group's rhythm guitar player. "We play backyards, garage parties and stuff."

Where did their knack at being such rockers come from?

"From the master," Carbajal said, with some joking flair in his voice. He was pointing to a small-framed, 40-ish guy in a bright shirt standing nearby. "Raul."

Raul Martinez can't help but smile. Since 2000, when he started teaching guitar at Ramona Hall on North Figueroa Street, he has built a veritable farm for budding roqueros in northeast Los Angeles.

He starts with 9- and 10-year-olds who are pushed to Ramona Hall by parents eager to get their children's hands on something useful when they are not in school.

Once they master enough chords and demonstrate even a mild enthusiasm for the rock 'n' roll dream, Martinez fours them up, lets them pick up some classic rock sheet music from his library and, three power chords later, you've got yourself another rock band.

"They come up with weird names, it's funny," Martinez said. "They have another one called the Tigers."

And, he adds -- pretty often in reference to several bands -- "Actually, they're pretty good."

The teacher insists on good grades and some degree of dedication ("I just lay it on them," Martinez said, "the rules.... The parents like that.").

Some students become so devoted to Martinez's firm yet easygoing teaching style that they stay on through the end of high school. They bounce among bands with ever-changing names and ever-shifting lineups, and live the rock star dream in backyards, garages, community fairs and, for some, hip L.A. clubs and private parties.

"I teach them everything ... a bit of every style ... classical, jazz, country. But once they get older, they start playing what they like -- mostly punk and rock," Martinez said.

He said he can't tell exactly how many bands have come and gone or currently rock at Ramona Hall. But the center has been so productive in band- making that it has its own interior lore, full of big successes and big breakups.

The all-girl Sirens, for instance, have played at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater in Hollywood, the Echo in Echo Park and Spaceland in Silver Lake, where the band members were confined to a cramped storage room before taking the stage because they are several years below the drinking age.

Martinez said "pretty good" band Foreign Policy, on the other hand, crumbled after its members depleted the cash from their first paying gig ($25 a head) on such luxuries as 1-gallon tubs of ice cream. That's rock 'n' roll, he explained.

Martinez looked over to the Black Powder Biscuits (or the Runts or the Wankers) and chuckled: "They're all taller than me now. I used to be taller than these kids."

Martinez is what you might call a true Eastsider, a product of the region's rich punk and rock music heritage, despite being born in Brownsville, Texas.

His parents moved to East Los Angeles when he was 9 or 10 years old, and now he lives in City Terrace. He learned guitar when he was about 13, he said, "I guess from seeing people play."

Martinez took some private guitar lessons as a teenager, then studied music for a while at East Los Angeles College. Martinez held a variety a jobs, including car alarm installer, and always played his original material here and there in the Eastside scene. "They used to call me Little Man," Martinez said.

The director of Ramona Hall, Jorge Ramos, saw Martinez play once and asked him to perform at a Christmas benefit show, one of many fundraisers the center puts on to buy musical equipment. Ramos soon offered him a job as a guitar teacher.

Ramona Hall is not the only city Recreation and Parks Department community center where music is taught. But because the center doesn't have sports facilities, it is limited to teaching mostly arts and cultural classes. The setup is fine by Ramos and his staff.

The drumming teacher, Randy Rodarte, is a member of the respected Chicano rock band Ollin. He said Ramona Hall's identity suits the fabric of life east of the Los Angeles River. Music, he asserted, is always in the air in a place where Latin America has met Americana for generations.

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