Editor's note: This week Erica E. Phillips tells the remarkable story of Los Angeles group Las Cafeteras, a seven-piece who play a traditional type of Veracruz music called Son Jarocho. But they're controversial because they put their own spin on it — merging a punk ethos, improvised verses, and even freestyle rapping.
It's going over gangbusters with fans, but the city's Son Jarocho old guard are far from thrilled. Here are some outtakes from Phillips' interviews with Las Cafeteras' members, in which they discuss Son Jarocho's strict rules and how they got into playing it.
On the rules of Son Jarocho:
Hector Flores: If someone's singing, the volume should drop down and the dancing should not be hard. Someone cannot get on the tarima when someone is singing. That's just something you don't do.
Leah Gallegos: There's some songs that only women can dance to, or can only be danced by partners, male-female. [Some] spaces are very strict on enforcing all those rules, [but] some spaces are more lenient.
David: To us the tradition is obviously important and the music is very beautiful. But also, to us, it's really important that youth are involved — that folks who have never been part of any space like this. So if someone kind of goes against the rules, we're not going to knock them very much. We want people to participate and we want people to feel good. If something makes you feel good we want you to express that feeling. That sometimes isn't so popular, you know, but that for us is important.
On attending a Son Jarocho “band camp” in Mexico:
Daniel French: Most of us went to a yearly sort of Son Jarocho band camp — minus the flute — which members of Los Cojolites put on at their ranch in Veracruz. The ranch is called Luna Negra, on the Isla de Tacamichapan. This 'Seminario de Son Jarocho' is a weeklong band camp/Woodstock encampment next to a beautiful river in the savannah of Veracruz. There we played every night for hours after workshops with master musicians, dancers, cooks, anthropologists — learning the culture of the land.
On how Hector coerced Annette Torres, his and David's aunt, to play Son Jarocho:
Annette: Hector met up with Angie and then he mobilized the whole family to go and that became our Saturday for the next four years. We went to the Eastside Café and we just started showing up every Saturday. They said, 'We won't start classes unless you get six people to show up,' so Hector was just, like, on it, hitting up everybody.
Hector: My aunt [had] never participated in EastSide Café. But because there was an actual project to get plugged into — music, something [she] wanted to learn — that was the way. Que no?
On why folks joked that Annette was in a gang:
Annette: When I was younger I used to hang out with a crowd that Luis Rodriguez used to hang out with. You know who Luis Rodriguez is? He wrote the book Always Running. It's his story.
Hector: You know how people read classics like Huckleberry Finn or some shit? His book, a lot of L.A. schools have adopted his book as like a classic.
On the origins of the Eastside Café:
David: The EastSide Café, first of all, was an idea before anything. Denise [Carlos] and [Jose] Cano are founding members who are in the group. It was just folks talking and it was that idea of community, the Zapatista philosophy. Folks just started meeting at peoples' houses. Roberto [Flores], who's one of the elders at the EastSide Café — a lot of it was going down at his house.
Hector: And it coincided with the Zapatista uprising [in Chiapas, Mexico] in 1994. There was a delegation of people who had gone down to Chiapas, I know Roberto was one of them. Angela [Flores, Roberto's daughter,] went very soon after. The idea is Zapatista philosophy is based on autonomy, self-determination, very DIY, right? So the idea was: How do we bring that sort of philosophy to an urban environment with different conditions? How can we try to exist in an autonomous way in a capitalist society?
On burning out and living off unemployment:
David: We don't get paid for what we do and that's crazy.
Hector: In many ways the movement has stopped because people get burned out, people can't do the same amount of work without getting compensated. We have to talk about that because it's getting to a point where, like, people have families, people have friends, people have work —
David: — or don't have work.
Hector: Haha, yeah the goal is to have the majority of the band on unemployment by 2012. We're doing pretty good right now.
David: Hey, someone's gotta take the lead.
On playing Occupy L.A.:
Leah: Some of us went in the daytime, on day one for the first rally. We pretty much were like, 'Let's play, let's play tonight, let's play whenever we can.' And that's how it was.
David: We went back there that night and found a corner and just played, and then the following day we organized a bit more and invited the larger base of jaraneros in L.A. to participate and bring some musical spirit to the space.
Hector: It's not like playing for people. It's like, we are the people.
On playing an impromptu, improvised version of “La Bamba” for the border agent on their way back from Ensenada, Mexico:
Denise Carlos: That was, like, part cool? And part minstrel show.
On choosing Son Jarocho over, say, Mariachi music:
David Flores: That was a dope thing for us. My brother [Hector] started playing a little bit before and he would just be like, 'Come on and play with us.' And I would just be like, 'Dog, I don't know how.' But it's such a participatory space and you can jump in, participate or not and just enjoy it. It's very welcoming.
I've told this to a lot of the Jarocho cats. Like, we grew up very Chicano, very Mexican, we grew up with Mexican music. But, like, the Mariachi never stuck so much and it was a battle for me to pretend that I liked the Norteño music. But Son Jarocho did that for me and I don't know why.
On recording their first studio album:
Hector Flores: So, like, it's time, right? The universe is calling and it's saying that, 'It's time to tell your story.' I feel like Michael Moore in the '80s when he did Roger and Me — tell your story. We wanted to finally put out the stuff we've been playing — our arrangements, our new stuff as well. We hit up a sound engineer [Eugene Toale] and that fool said 'bada-bing bada-boom.' He's a really dope character, really dope guy and really great at his craft. He's the one that did our first recording, Live at Mucho Wednesdays.
Next we needed someone who could help fuckin' direct us, and produce it. Someone who knew Son Jarocho, who's knowledgeable in the culture and sounds of the instruments and who's also knowledgeable and supportive of our message and our storytelling technique through Spanish, English and Spanglish. And that's slim pickins. So we identified a homeboy Alexandro [Hernández] who has this band Aparato. He's fuckin' cool peoples, man.