East Los Angeles is in the middle of a new chapter in its storied musical history, becoming the epicenter of an ever-growing, internationally recognized reggae, ska and rocksteady renaissance. Leading the charge are reggae brothers-in-arms The Delirians and The Steady 45s, who recently embarked on a 15-day European tour that brought soaring harmonies, true-to-the-era melodies and an energetic live show to Germany, France and even the Czech Republic.
“The reception overseas has been overwhelming,” Steady 45s singer/guitarist Joe Quinones writes via email. “Some people memorize the songs and lyrics as if they had been singing ‘em for years. I think there's a big appreciation for the musicians that come from America who are true to the revival.”
The scene at the European shows — or any show featuring these bands — was not unlike what you’d find at a Sharon Jones tribute or an opening set for The Aggrolites: seven guys in their 20s and 30s, often in suits, playing original, complex arrangements and love songs in the easy, grooving style of rocksteady legends like Alton Ellis or The Skatalites. Their shows include both soulful ballads (The Delirians' “I Really Love You”) and heavy, early ska sounds (The Steady 45s' “Love Can Be”); you might even see them join forces for a cover of The Wailers’ “Simmer Down.”
The music of these two East L.A. bands is studied, energetic and performed with passion that has gotten nods from original rocksteady artists such as Pat Kelly, as well as gigs with The Debonaires, foundational ska legend Charlie Organaire, The Selecter and Daptone Records’ Saun and Starr.
“The most beautiful aspect of this music is that it is infectious and uplifting. One of the few genres left where people actually dance to a live band. We have never played a show without people smiling and dancing,” Steady 45s guitarist/vocalist Joe Nieves writes.
There’s a huge scene for 1960s Jamaican rhythms overseas, says Delirians singer and rhythm guitarist Angel Salgado. Germany, which accounted for 10 of 15 shows on the tour, including a stop at the ska- and reggae-focused Freedom Sounds Festival, is particularly passionate about reggae — and style.
“One thing I could really appreciate as a growing musician and artist is the brutal honesty of the fans,” Quinones writes. “In one very memorable instance a man in Hamburg had complimented us on our sound and performance after the show but suggested we clean our shoes and ‘spiffy up.’”
A European promoter dubbed the tour “Ska From the Ghetto,” a name neither band particularly cared for. “They don’t know what the ghetto of East L.A. is,” says Salgado of European reggae fans. “We grew up on the streets, but none of us grew up in the ghetto. East L.A. is not the ghetto. Look at the rest of the world … [by comparison] East L.A. is paradise.”
East L.A. has always had a different vibe, Quinones notes. “There's a big sense of pride and respect for the community and it shows in the music, the food, the art.”
The founding members of The Delirians went to rival high schools and first came together in a punk band before becoming a rocksteady group in 2007. The band, which originally included Quinones on bass and featured 45s saxophonist Ian Jax and trumpet player Alfredo Barrios on its first album, Get Up!, recently released Mezcla de Musica y Amor on Angel City Records, an EP engineered by Aggrolites organist Roger Rivas. The Steady 45s formed in summer 2013 with the intention of being a tribute band but quickly started performing and writing their own numbers. Their new album, Trouble in Paradise, was released this month on Grover Records.
While East L.A.’s reggae bands have built their own community and sound, their success has roots in the explosion of ska/reggae bands that shook L.A. in the ‘90s.
“I think there’s this lineage where everyone knows everyone and kids learn from other guys. Before you know it, there’s a nice melting pot,” says promoter and Steady Beat Recordings founder Luis Pulido Correa, who’s worked with both The Delirians and The 45s. Reflecting this melting pot, many of the musicians coming out of East L.A. and surrounding cities are Latinos and Chicanos who grew up listening to ska revival and third-wave bands with diverse lineups.
“Reggae music is working class music, I think that’s how we relate to it,” Salgado says. “We’re all children of working class people and we grew up watching our parents suffer just to try to keep us fed. I think with us, with Latinos, anything that has a good rhythm to it, we like it automatically. Rhythm is in our blood.”
While life can be challenging for Latinos stateside, traveling abroad comes with its own issues. “Everybody in Germany thinks all Americans are pro-Trump. In Germany the anti-fascist movement is so huge and that was one of most inspiring things for me,” Salgado says, adding that when fans would ask where he was from, “I said Mexico because I didn’t want to say I’m from the U.S. with the current administration.”
Quinones echoes this sentiment. “We definitely had a lot of explaining to do … it's hard for people outside of the U.S. to understand what's really going on inside. We work hard and I think that translates into respect from others, despite how twisted our country's politics may be.”
While traditional rocksteady and ska leans heavily on love songs and can generally be apolitical, Salgado hopes to write and record songs with a stronger message. The Delirians have about 50 originals that they could set to wax, the next of which will be on a second volume of Mezcla. In the meantime, the band has multiple shows lined up in Southern California and will also perform at the Lightning in a Bottle festival on Sunday, May 28.
“They have perseverance. They’re nonstop,” Correa says of The Delirians. “They’re the ones who are actually carrying the [revival] torch aside from Hepcat. These guys are the next guys in line.”
The 45s are planning a full U.S. tour and will back reggae legends Keith and Tex at the Victoria Ska Festival in British Columbia and Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Boonville, Calif., both in June. “For so long I think we all just kind of wanted to be a part of [the reggae scene] and now that we are, we have this responsibility to push its boundaries,” Quinones writes. “I would like to see more local bands take their chance and get out on the road. I think traveling and touring is very important for young bands, artists and musicians. You'll never know how good you and your mates are until you all pile into a van and drive cross country.”