Chicano Batman is not just another band from L.A. The tropicalismo-influenced ensemble is composed of three guys, an ironing board (which may be the perfect keyboard stand) and a fictional cartoon character — named, natch, Chicano Batman — a superhero who spends his days rescuing fruit and ice cream vendors from la migra.
They recorded their most recent LP, the self-titled Chicano Batman (Unicornio Records), in leader Bardo Martinez's bedroom through the same mixer one's uncle used for his backyard band in the '70s. A vintage, mother-of-pearl-plated accordion sits in the corner next to a stack of dog-eared records by Los Babys and Caetano Veloso. On one wall, their logo — also the logo of Chicano Batman — is painted so big that his wings span the width of the room.
"Chicano Batman is a character who represents all these social identities in L.A.," Bardo explains — social identities such as "Chicano," "Latino" and "Hispanic," which still operate in contrast with what certain learned circles would call "the normative expectation of 'whiteness.' " Or, in Bardo's words: "There are a lot of white people in my area, so I grew up being put down for what I look like and who I am.
"In my life, at a certain point," he adds, "I became conscious of the worth that my parents have and the people around me have, just in the way they are. We are all who we are — we're all proud of who we are and where we're from. Michoacán, Colombia, Mexico. We want to portray that through the music."
The goal is to draw from pan-Latin rhythms and movement in an atypical way. "I really appreciate the rhythmic stuff that also really challenges the idea of what a Latino is," Bardo says. "In general, the idea is to complicate the notion of where music comes from, the notion of race, the manifestation of music from different races, the fact that there's no race in general. People see Latinos as just Mexican, Spanish, Spaniards or whatever, but there's definitely a lot of Afro roots in that. The whole idea is to put it out there — my work with cumbia is to throw that out there."
Cumbia originated in Colombia's Caribbean coast and spread quickly to other regions of South and Central America, shifting along the way to capture various nuances of local artistic expression. Playing these complex and catchy rhythms requires dexterity, skill and devoted study.
Chicano Batman's drummer, Gabriel Villa, was born and raised in Colombia, and studied cumbia rhythms, as well as salsa. When he met Bardo and Eduardo Arenas, the band's bass player, everything just clicked. They were able to take traditional Latin musical forms and put them in a blender.
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Pride certainly comes billowing from the band when they don their vintage blue tuxedo shirts and get onstage. The ensemble mixes English, Spanish, Portuguese, rumba, cumbia and Norteño with ice cream chord progressions and killer keyboard riffs; the result is music that sounds like a contemporary take on something your parents would have made — if your parents were into both Caetano Veloso and Television, that is.