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Vibrant in a fading East L.A. scene

January 12, 2008|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

It's Wednesday night on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. At 8 p.m., the lights are still on at Jesse's Barber Shop, but the botanica is closed and so is the orthopedist whose sign says "Doctor de los Huesos" (bone doctor). The sidewalks are empty as a police cruiser glides down the street in the heart of this historic immigrant neighborhood.

A screen door cracks open in the middle of a mysterious building covered by a wall-to-wall mural depicting twin serpent figures, as if the painting were beckoning a passerby to come inside. Through the door, which is painted as a large guitar, appears Randy Rodarte, sporting a pointy goatee and dressed as nattily as a zoot-suiter -- vest, suspenders, pleated pants and two-tone, black-and-white shoes. "Welcome to the compound," he says, closing a chain-link gate behind me.

The compound -- home in the back, work space in the front -- is actually one rambling, creaky building that takes up almost the entire lot near Evergreen Cemetery. This is the headquarters of Ollin, a Chicano band founded in 1994 by Randy and his twin brother, Scott, "recovering punk rockers trying to play [Mexican] music we used to make fun of," as Randy puts it.

The '90s were a heady time for Chicano music from East L.A., witnessing the rise of groups bent on expressing barrio culture while exploring other genres in a new fusion, switching between styles as naturally as they switched languages. Inspired partly by the Zapatista revolt in the Mexican state of Chiapas, socially conscious groups such as Ozomatli and Quetzal mixed politics and partying as they created a new chapter in Chicano music history, with a tip of the hat to predecessors such as Los Lobos and Tierra.

Today, that musical movement has all but vanished. Many bands have moved on or broken up and the venues they played have shut down (the Peace and Justice Center) or scaled down (Self-Help Graphics). Ozo's success lifted it out of the barrio and into the ozone. Quetzal's uncompromising vision has taken it to Xalapa, Veracruz, for a year-long immersion in the jarocho culture of southern Mexico. Meanwhile, many mainstays of the scene have either disbanded or retreated, including the Blues Experiment, Quinto Sol, Aztlan Underground and Slowrider.

"People say it's dying, but I think it comes in waves," says drummer Joshua Duron, formerly with Blues Experiment. "It's like we need a Chiapas uprising every 14 years."

He's kidding, sorta. The truth is that East L.A. seems to need a sociopolitical jolt to reawaken the charged artistic environment that fueled those previous waves of creativity. East L.A. still has some good young groups, such as the rousing, brassy Upground, and plenty of Chicano rappers and anonymous punk bands playing in backyards every weekend. What it doesn't have anymore is a real music scene.

"In the old days, we had the Eastside network and the club circuit and it's just very different now," says Steven Loza, a UCLA professor of ethnomusicology and author of "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican-American Music in Los Angeles." "It's a different world and it's not as visible at times as it used to be. We're in a digital age now, and a lot of these young musicians are communicating through YouTube."

The world may have changed, but this historic neighborhood looks much the same as it always has. Long ago, I used to run a record shop in a strip mall near First and Soto, walking distance from Ollin's home studio, and little appears to have changed in Boyle Heights, with its mom-and-pop businesses, fast-food joints and family atmosphere.

The Rodarte brothers, 37, have invited me to a rehearsal on the eve of their debut performance at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, a rare date on the Westside. The gig is especially welcomed by the band's banjo and accordion player, Kurt MacInnes, who lives on that side of town and won't have to commute -- "for once."

The rumpled and bespectacled banjo-picker used to play in a bluegrass band before he "got caught up in world music." As one of four non-Latino members in the nine-piece outfit, MacInnes brings a flair for an Irish gigue. "There really is an Irish-Mexican connection and I don't think it's just because of the Catholics," he deadpans.

That connection is delightfully displayed on "San Patricios," a spirited instrumental from the band's latest album of the same title, inspired by the Irish soldiers who fought for Mexico in the war with the United States. During rehearsal, the group weaves through a musical bazaar of styles, from corrido to country-rock, frequently stopping to refine a percussion break or perfect a multi-part harmony. There's even a Klezmer-inspired piece called "Boyle Heights Boogie."

Fusion is the hallmark of what Randy calls neo-Chicano music, reflected in eclectic instrumentation including banjo and jarana, maracas and marimba. But it wasn't always politically correct during the culturally chauvinist Chicano Movement of the 1970s.

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