Las Cafeteras at Eastside Cafe
Las Cafeteras at Eastside Cafe
PHOTO BY BRANDON SHOWERS

Las Cafeteras Defy Tradition

For more, read "Las Cafeteras on the Strict Rules of Son Jarocho Music."

Outside the Eastside Café on Huntington Drive in El Sereno, the late-evening traffic mutes the staccato sounds of nylon-stringed guitar and the stomping of hard-soled shoes.

Inside, under the glare of bare white walls and fluorescent lights, the seven members of the Café's namesake band, Las Cafeteras, are rehearsing for a summer evening show at MacArthur Park's Levitt Pavilion. Teeming with energy, the attractive members of the Eastside ensemble — each in his or her late 20s or early 30s — fall along the spectrum from hipster to hippie. And though they play Son Jarocho, a centuries-old form of Mexican music from the eastern state of Veracruz, they are staunchly nontraditional.

In L.A., that's a fine line to walk. As relative newcomers to the music — none of the members traces his heritage to Veracruz — the band first incorporated miniature eight-string jarana guitars a little more than five years ago. A mainstay of Son Jarocho music, the jarana has the higher pitch of a ukulele but, because it has twice the number of strings, it has a fuller sound.

Popularized in 1958 by L.A. native Ritchie Valens' rock & roll adaptation of the traditional classic "La Bamba," Son Jarocho has a syncopated, toe-tapping, bright and cheerful air. And since the early 1980s, it has steadily developed a dedicated following in Latino hubs around the United States, including L.A.

The Cafeteras have applied a punk-rock philosophy to the genre; for one thing, they don't believe you need years of dedicated training to perform it. As soon as they learn the basic tenets of a new song, they'll play the hell out of it for hours, making up new lyrics and even freestyle rapping over it.

To some local longtime Son Jarocho musicians, this style is just too bold. But their ability to meld timeless stories with modern, danceable beats? The hundreds of sweaty fans at Cafeteras shows can't get enough.

The ensemble learned to strum jaranas and dance the traditional zapateado steps as 20-somethings here at Eastside Café, a politically driven "space," as they call it, for community organizing. Denise Carlos and fellow band member Jose Cano founded the spot with a group of activists nine years ago.

Contrary to what its name suggests, Eastside Café isn't a restaurant but rather a gathering place for neighborhood residents, furnished with lumpy recliners, plastic folding tables and a whiteboard. Since the center's launch, members of Las Cafeteras have helped program a weekly schedule of English classes, activist group meetings, Son Jarocho classes and the occasional baby shower.

Angela Flores was an early Son Jarocho instructor at Eastside Café. After a couple of years of weekly lessons, workshops with visiting experts from Mexico and late-night jams (called fandangos), Flores and students Carlos, Cano, Leah Gallegos, Annette Torres, Daniel French, brothers David and Hector Flores and now–former member Cristina Torres started booking gigs as a band.

The members of Las Cafeteras are community organizers and nonprofit workers who set aside $100 of their band's earnings every month to pay a portion of Eastside Café's rent. Their activism also seeps into their songwriting, in which they put a political spin on traditional lyrics, which they sing in Spanish, English and Spanglish. Two Cafeteras originals, "Ya Me Voy" and "Trabajador/a," are stories of the migrant worker experience that hit close to home for many of the band's members.

But make no mistake: If you go to a Las Cafeteras show, you will seriously get down to their political folk music.

Take their early August concert at Levitt Pavilion. As the sun sets and the heat breaks, the group performs its songs for some 1,300 people. Daniel French and Hector Flores feverishly strum jaranas while Cano, seated, smacks the front face of the box drum between his legs. Gallegos' voice is simultaneously sweet and severe as she flicks a stick up and down a dried-out jawbone.

To close things out, French invites Jarocho players from the crowd to come up, and the stage is quickly packed. The crowd pushes in, and everyone's bouncing and singing along to "La Bamba."

After countless verses — some standard, some invented on the spot — they conclude "La Bamba" with revolutionary-style fists in the air, singing several rounds of their favorite verse: "Yo no creo en fronteras/Yo no creo en fronteras/Yo cruzaré, yo cruzaré."

I don't believe in borders. I don't believe in borders, I will cross, I will cross.

There's no direct translation of that famous song's title, though "bambollero" describes someone who likes to toot his own horn. For many in L.A.'s small Son Jarocho community — which is maybe 10 bands deep — this is precisely where Las Cafeteras have crossed the line.

Quetzal Flores, of the Mexican-American fusion band Quetzal, says performing Son Jarocho onstage goes against tradition. "The Cafeteras represent a growing problem in communities both here and in Mexico," he says. That is, "people learning the Son Jarocho through the fandango ... and in turn undermining the movement by taking the music out of the context of community practice and onto the stage as authorities."

While the group members insist they have made a strong effort to demonstrate their respect for the genre — even traveling to Veracruz early on to learn with the masters — they don't deny doing nontraditional adaptations of it.

Ricky Garay, a promoter who has booked Las Cafeteras for his Mucho Wednesday parties at La Cita and the Echo, says the band has been a hit since its first nightclub show for his series back in 2009. "It's universal. Hipsters, Latino hipsters, they seduce every audience into tapping their heels," Garay says. "You don't have to know the songs or the music, you just start moving."

The group has released only one album so far, a live 2009 concert recorded at Mucho called Las Cafeteras Live at Mucho Wednesdays. But it wasn't received how band members had hoped; in fact, it's precisely what drove the still-sensitive rift between Las Cafeteras and L.A.'s Son Jarocho community.

Alexandro Hernández, an ethnomusicologist and musician who knows many of the band members, says several of the city's more experienced musicians asked Las Cafeteras to a meeting shortly after they released their live album. "There was this moment where [Las Cafeteras] were told, 'You should respect the music,' " Hernández says. "And I think they felt shunned."

Hector Flores believes the band's naysayers simply don't want the traditional music to be lost, which he understands. "We need those folks holding the line to be, like, 'You can't allow people to do this, you need to play like this, in an accent like this,' which is legit."

Still, that doesn't mean they have to listen. "We're a new age and a new space and a new set of ideas and beliefs," Gallegos says.

"We're DIY," Hector adds. "We're fucking punks, dude, we do shit on our own."

It's now late August, and Las Cafeteras are returning from a show in the coastal Baja town of Ensenada. There's a three-hour wait at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Torres, Carlos, Hector Flores and French are crammed into French's little Yaris.

Amid the stinky, exhaust-clouded throng, Carlos' jarana is being passed around the car, with each band member taking a turn playing. The songs go on for 15 minutes or more, as Carlos and French invent an endless stream of new verses.

Their road trip was a brief, 36-hour affair. The group was invited to play a show called "From Son Jarocho to Hip-Hop" at Ensenada's WorldBeat Cultural Center. The gig covered their travel costs. Late that Saturday evening, the Cafeteras took the stage, after a rapper from Mexico City and before another Son Jarocho group from Santa Ana in Orange County. After the show, the two groups led a fandango jam into the early morning.

Drowsiness sets in, and as the car approaches the border station, Carlos, with an edge in her voice, instructs Hector to put the jarana away to avoid any extra questions.

But he fails to do so, and the agent — head-to-toe in government-issued tan — asks about the reason for their trip. Then he spots the jarana and says, "Why don't you play me a song?"

Hector obliges with the opening chords of "La Bamba." It's hard to guess what the agent might make of the band's signature verse — "Yo no creo en fronteras" — but before you know it everyone is wildly clapping and yelling, "Hey!" on the downbeats.

"Para cruzar la frontera!" French improvises. "Para cruzar la frontera/Se necesita una poca de paciencia." (To cross the border, it takes a little bit of patience.)

It's a typical Las Cafeteras response to a sticky situation: Don't think, just play. Faced with their share of conflict over the last two years, that attitude has served them well.

After the jam goes on probably 30 seconds too long, the border agent finally cuts it off and waves the car through with a laugh. "You guys just made my night," he says.

Las Cafeteras play the Nepantla New Year's Eve Party, with Chicano Son and La Chamba, Saturday at Salon de la Plaza in Boyle Heights.

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