Growing up Jewish in Southeast Los Angeles with Communist parents who worked alongside the Black Panthers, Wil Abers never seemed to fit in.
“I struggled with my identity living around Mexicans and African-Americans, while being white and seeing my parents fight against people in power,” says Abers, the co-founder and bass player for Ozomatli, an L.A.-based Latin-fusion rock band.
Since seeing The Clash perform in concert when he was six, his dream was to make it as a musician. Now 39, he looks back at his struggles overcome, which inspired his latest work, a Mexican banda side project called El Gavachillo. They cover classic American punk-rock songs, but remixed in Spanish, and play at Grand Performances tonight.
His mom would come home with torn shirts from being beaten at rallies, and he was always afraid of police and other authority figures, recalls Abers. “They gave me fictitious names. I was always scared and felt like I was in hiding my whole childhood.”
His parents divorced when he was in middle school and Abers started using drugs. Crack hit Los Angeles hard in the '80s and he was a victim. “At any given time, there were drug dealers on every corner,” he remembers. “Nothing right now in L.A. can compare to what that looked like. Maybe Skid Row, but even that is less extreme.”
He moved in with his mom who was literally living in a school bus, one that was retrofitted into a home that she bought for $600. It was parked it in a lot south of Rose Avenue in Venice Beach. His friends hanging out on the boardwalk started to get suspicious.
“Nobody knew I was homeless living in a bus, but I would use the showers on the beach.”
His mother married a homeless Rastafarian man she met, and, sans Abers, they drove the bus to San Francisco. She would drive into Berkeley to be street vendor on Telegraph Avenue selling hats and incense.
Back in Los Angeles, Abers was living in a car he bought, and began robbing and stealing from friends. He eventually dropped out of Fairfax High School. “I became that guy nobody trusted,” he says.
He hit a point where he felt his life was out of control, and he needed to get away. At age 18 he drove to San Francisco and joined his mom. After over a year of hustling as a street vendor, Abers bought a bass guitar and was inspired to come back to L.A. “My calling was to move back and make it like I said I would ever since I saw The Clash.”
After playing with different bands and reconnecting with old friends, Ozomatli was formed. In 2002, their second album Embrace the Chaos won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock/Alternative album. At the same time, however, he was still battling his addiction.
“Instead of going to the after-party with the band, I went to buy crack and be by myself,” he remembers.
In December of 2002, just two days before leaving on tour to open for the Black Eyed Peas, he was arrested for purchasing drugs. The next month he entered rehab and has been sober since. He frequently speaks to youth about battling addiction. “I've basically been high since I was 13. It's how I escaped my upbringing of always being in hiding.”
Currently recording an album as El Gavachillo, Abers calls the brass-based traditional Mexican music known as banda the most overlooked popular music in America. “It's music of the immigrant service community that continues to be invisible in our society,” he says. “As a white guy making this music, I'm the bridge.”
El Gavachillo plays today, August 24 at Grand Performances in Downtown.