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Tubas become horns of plenty

Fidel Bernabe, a talented trumpeter in Mexico, is among the brass band musicians who are part of Southern California's 'tuba revolution.' They're showing their chops on an instrument whose 'thunk thunk' attracts dance-minded partygoers.

November 15, 2011|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
  • Tubist Santiago "Shagi" Mata, left, who lives in Maywood, warms up for a gig at El Bukanas, a restaurant in La Puente. A whole cadre of young tuba players are revolutionizing Mexican brass bands with their playing. We were in a little box before. Now theyve set us free and were able to show what were capable of, Mata said. Now the girls want us to play near them and take photos with us.
Tubist Santiago "Shagi" Mata, left, who lives in Maywood, warms… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Before he came to Southern California in 2002, Fidel Bernabe played trumpet in a small town in Mexico and believed himself to be very talented.

Los Angeles had many bandas — Mexican brass bands that play dance music at parties and nightclubs — that worked year-round. Surely there must be a band that could use his gifts, he thought.

But once here, he found competition intense. Bernabe rarely found two nights of trumpeting work and had to take a day job in a sewing factory.

"You come to get out of the hole," he said. "You think you're going to grab money in piles. You get here and you realize it's not as easy as you imagined."

Then, by accident, Bernabe found the tuba. He saw a deal for one in L.A. and bought it for his brother, a tuba player in Chicago. When his brother couldn't pay, Bernabe kept the instrument and decided to learn it on his own. For more than a year, he practiced for hours after his sewing job.

Tubas were in growing demand. By 2007, he was playing five gigs a week — sometimes two a night. He found all that he'd imagined in America. He quit his job, got married, had three kids and supported them with his tuba.

"The tuba has radically changed my life," he said.

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Bernabe is part of what he and other banda musicians are calling Southern California's "tuba revolution." The mania for the instrument arrived from Mexico several years ago and is fueled by the large number of house parties that occur here every weekend. Immigrants who once were too poor to hold such parties in their homeland now view a tuba-equipped banda as a sign of having arrived.

Tuba players say partygoers now throw wadded dollar bills into their instruments — sometimes so many that they clog the pipes.

"We have millions of people in Southern California of Mexican origin," said Jesse Tucker, a banda tuba player in Pomona. "They all throw parties. They all have quinceaneras; they all get married. And every group can use a tuba."

At one of these parties recently, on a patio outside a modest stucco house in Huntington Park, guys with gold bracelets and black dress shirts and girls with too-tight miniskirts danced to the tuba-driven polka beat of Tucker's trio, Los Hermanos Carrillo con Chikilin y su Tuba. To the side, a woman cooked carne asada on a propane grill.

Tucker, who stands 6 feet 4, gyrated and blasted his horn into the ears of dancers, sounding as fast as a heavy-metal guitarist and as wild as a free-jazz man.

Watching it all was Jesse Chavez, hosting his own 25th birthday party that night. Chavez said the success of his party was dependent on a tuba, which has a reputation for attracting dance-minded partygoers — especially women, he added.

"I had to have a tuba," he said. "There's more thunk, thunk. Also, they bring girls."

These days, clients won't hire a band "if you don't have a tuba," Jose Davila, singer and accordionist for the norteno band Grupo 5.7, said between sets at another backyard birthday, this one in South Los Angeles. Norteno groups almost always use bass players, but Grupo 5.7 fired its bassist and replaced him with a tubist to keep partygoers happy.

This newfound popularity and economic power has unleashed a kind of liberation movement among Southern California banda tuba players.

No longer forced to the back of the banda, tuba players are out front, standing next to singers, leading lines through parties. They are showing their chops with wild improvisation while keeping time and bass to traditional three-chord Mexican songs.

"We were in a little box before. Now they've set us free and we're able to show what we're capable of," said Santiago "Shagi" Mata, a tubist who lives in Maywood. "Now the girls want us to play near them and take photos with us."

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When it comes to inspiration, the Los Angeles area has long served as muse to the tuba player.

Disneyland, movie studios and schools with large marching bands have provided formally trained tuba players with work and teaching opportunities and created a vibrant tuba scene in Southern California.

"L.A. is the tuba capital of the world and has been for many years," said Bill Roper, a jazz tubist in Altadena.

Two players, in particular, made it that way. Tommy Johnson, a tuba professor at USC who died in 2006, almost single-handedly populated the tuba world with his students and played on more than 2,000 movie soundtracks, including the shark music on "Jaws." (Three top tubist jobs in America — at the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles symphonies — are filled by students of Johnson.) Roger Bobo, who now teaches in Japan, was a tubist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 25 years and made solo recordings that expanded the instrument's role, said Gene Pokorny, a tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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