These Border Bands Have No Time for Walls, Just Moveable Musical Feasts
In the music of Las Cafeteras and Orkesta Mendoza, presented by Fundarte at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center Saturday, the border is no place for walls but rather, a moveable feast.
Founded by singer and guitarist Sergio Mendoza in 2009 just to play a 20-minute tribute set honoring Cuban mambo king Dámaso Perez Prado, the sextet Orkesta Mendoza, based in Tucson, AZ,is a killer outfit that plays a high-energy blend of Afro-Cuban and Mexican styles with indie rock. Stay in your seat if you feel you must, but these guys rock.
Las Cafeteras offers a different, but no less intriguing mix. Rooted in East Los Angeles, this eight-piece acoustic folk-roots band is both pointedly political and fun. The group anchors its music on Son Jarocho, a style from Veracruz, Mexico. They use traditional instruments such as the small guitar-like jarana, the requinto jarocho and a quijada de burro (donkey´s jawbone), but also sing in a mix of Spanish and English and are not afraid of mixing in a bit of rap and hip hop.
Check their version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” their “If I Was President,” or their remake of perhaps the most famous son jarocho, “La Bamba,” as “La Bamba Rebelde.”
The bands are part of the GlobalFest: The New Gold Age of Latin Music tour and Artburst spoke with Las Cafeteras’ singer and dancer Denise Carlos at the beginning of the tour, which included “about 25 shows in seven weeks going to different states, different communities, and learning about those communities.” We spoke in a mix of English and Spanish about music, politics, social work and a very punk, do-it-yourself attitude.
Artburst: How did the group start?
Denise: There was a bunch of us that went to this community center in East L.A. called the East Side Cafe. It was just a space where you went to learn English, had music classes, Zumba. … We all were in our early 20s, in college, doing community work in different ways, and the East Side Cafe is where we learned how to play music — but it all evolved in a way that we never thought would happen. All of us had full time jobs, some of us went to grad school and, somehow, the music kept us together.
You are all children of immigrants but raised in East L.A., with Mexican styles but also rock, jazz, pop, and hip hop. How did you decide on the Veracruz-style son jarocho as the basis of your music?
Most of us didn’t grow up playing music. We all learned in the cafe and it was because somebody that we knew, loved teaching us music. [Son jarocho] was just what was there. And then we learned about this African roots in Mexico that we hadn’t been taught and that was really intriguing. As chicanos and chicanas this was information we didn’t know. This is music that we can play even if we didn’t grow up playing music, and we can sing it even if we don’t sing great, so what a beautiful way of liberating your spirit. Once you start playing son jarocho you’re free in a way that’s different from any other kind of music form.
It’s a punk attitude: you don’t have to be perfect, just go and do it.
If we had waited for anyone to give us permission to do this we would still be stuck in an office somewhere.
You have a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work; requinto player David Flores (who is not on this tour) has a Master’s Degree in Social and Cultural Analysis of Education, vocalist Daniel Joel Jesus French has a degree in Sociology. In a recent interview, David said: “We’re organizers. We’re movement kids, but we don’t say we’re political. We say we’re storytellers. It’s just not the mainstream story.” Do you see Las Cafeteras as a group of social activists that play music, a group of musicians who are interested in social work or something in between?
(laughing): Somewhere along the way it all got mashed together. We are political musicians. We just talk about our lives. We talk about what we want to see in the world. And so we’re all of that, all at once. We’re not just Chicano activists, we’re not just community members, we’re not just first generation [Mexican-Americans] here in the United States, we’re not just musicians, we’re all that and I think that what’s interesting to people, but for us it’s natural.
Fundarte and South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center presents Las Cafeteras & Orkesta Mendoza in concert, Saturday, February 24 at 8 p.m.; South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 St., Cutler Bay. Tickets: $20-$40, $60 VIP; www.smdcac.org; 786-573-5300 and 786-348-0789.