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L.A.'s Very Be Careful follows own beat

The quintet's Colombian roots are fully in play, but the talented musicians don't buy into the 'world music' label. Their new album, 'Escape Room,' is made of darker stuff.

July 27, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Art Guzman, left, his brother Richard Guzman, Dante Ruiz, Craig Martin and Rich Panta are members of the vallenato band, Very Be Careful.
Art Guzman, left, his brother Richard Guzman, Dante Ruiz, Craig Martin… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

As you're cruising into the second or third hour of a typical Very Be Careful show — tequila scorching your tongue, perspiration drenching your torso, accordions and cowbells rattling your ear drums — it may not occur to you that you're actually listening to some pretty savvy and skilled musicians.

This isn't something that band founders Arturo Guzman, a bassist, and Ricardo, his vocalist-accordionist brother, necessarily want to publicize. Such awareness might compromise the Eastside quintet's image as an easygoing, good-times bar band, dispensers of irrepressible dance grooves for midnight mobs of well-lubricated party animals.

Since forming in the late 1990s, Very Be Careful hasn't discouraged such talk, which is underscored by the brothers' passionate, even obsessive devotion to the frantically danceable traditional vallenato music of their Colombian forebears. Though it's practically mandatory for clued-up modern music ensembles to boast of their "exotic" world influences, Very Be Careful, which will be playing at downtown's La Cita Bar on Wednesday night, remain defiant purists.

Eschewing the genre-mashing approach of so many of their peers, the group hews to a funky roots esthetic that somehow feels utterly contemporary. Comprising Ricardo's brawny vocals and aggressive three-button accordion, Arturo's cunning bass lines, Dante Ruiz's cowbell taps, Craig Martin's guacharaca (a wooden scraper) and Richard Panta on the compact African slave drum known as the caja vallenata, the band makes music as suitable for a Barranquilla dance hall, circa 1960, as for an Echo Park club packed with bicultural bohemians.

"We've seen too many groups do like an eclectic mix of everything, putting in a mix of Latin and rock," says Ricardo, the younger Guzman sibling, during a lunchtime interview at Langer's deli across from MacArthur Park. "We were like, 'Let's funnel our interests into a simpler thing and do it to a limit, and hold back the cheesy side of it.'"

Arturo, a master of the dry-humored rejoinder, takes his cue.

"He said the word 'restraint.' I think," Arturo says in a mock-puzzled tone. "Sometimes I want to jump and get angry on the bass. It's sort of like the yin and yang."

Ruiz, taking all this in, adds, "I think it's good that we show some decorum."

With the band's release this spring of its sixth full-length album, "Escape Room," it may be hard to escape the conclusion that Very Be Careful's music is more than simply a soundtrack for marathon sessions of drinking and hooking up. After a decade of slaving away in virtually every retro-funky watering hole from downtown to Koreatown, the band achieved a breakthrough with the strong critical response to its 2007 album "Salad Buey."

Then a 2008 tour brought positive notices from Britain's famously hard-to-please pop press. ("Top-grade organic dance music, a South American alternative to James Brown's funk," quoth the Independent of London.) By good fortune, the band's blooming reputation coincided with the Latin Grammys' decision to add vallenato and its kissing cousin, cumbia, to its awards categories beginning in November 2006.

With "Escape Room," released by independent Barbès Records, the band aimed to make a disc that would sound tight and polished but not over-produced, "like an old Motown feel," Ricardo says. A couple of tunes, "La Alergia" and "El Hospital," were penned by the Guzmans' mother, Deicy, who helped instill in her children a worship of vallenato legends such as Calixto Ochoa, Abel Antonio Villa and Alejo "El Negro Grande" Durán.

Olivier Conan, owner of Barbès Records, approves of the band's disinclination to market itself as a "world music" outfit aimed at urban sophisticates. Even so, he says, "There's no sense of them playing anything folkloric or revivalist. It's completely modern and completely authentic and people grasp that."

Characteristic of vallenato, which originated on Colombia's Caribbean coast as a hothouse folk varietal, the songs on "Escape Room" combine pulsating rhythms with a rueful undertow, a back-draft of mystery and danger. Of course, you might guess that from the CD cover image of a bartender cat warily serving drinks to a rifle-toting fox.

"It's kind of a dark record," Arturo said. "The melodies are more sinister, minor key, but not lazy-sounding. It's an energetic sort of darkness, not a depressing one."

"Like you're drowning," Ricardo adds, "but not giving up."

This persistence helped Very Be Careful persevere as the odd-man-out of L.A.'s post-punk Spanish-language music scene. The group's genesis dates to when Ricardo and Ruiz met at the Peace and Justice Center, a short-lived but impactful nonprofit arts and community facility. In those years, surrounding the 1992 civil disturbances, L.A.'s politico-cultural tectonics were shifting. Ozomatli, Quetzal and Aztlán Underground were among the bands that arose from the aftershocks.

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