Two Minute Interview: Las Cafeteras

One of the first licks I learned to play on the guitar was the opening riff of "La Bamba". As soon as I got home from the used CD store with a copy of the Ritchie Valens Greatest Hits album, I listened to it over and over until my fingers knew their positions on the fretboard. Which is one of the reasons why I liked what I heard when I tuned in to All Things Considered late last year. On the show a group called Las Cafeteras was about to release their debut album, and by the time their version of the song ("La Bamba Rebelde") ended, I wanted more. More, I learned from NPR, of Son Jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz, Mexico. My wish was granted about a month later; the ten track recording is now available on iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, and the band's own website. In my seventh Two Minute Interview, Las Cafeteras made time to share their thoughts on performing live, musical activism, and the cultural diversity of Los Angeles.
  1. How has travel influenced the music of Las Cafetaras? Do you or other members of the band have an especially poignant travel memory (music-related or not)? Our travel experience has really allowed us to recognize the importance of our musical trajectory. We have been really supported here in East Los Angeles, but we were somewhat nervous about taking our music outside of the Mexican capitol of the United States, Los Angeles. When we visited places like Chicago, northern California, Tejas, New York, or Arizona, we were truly honored by the young folks at our shows, considering us representatives of a newer generation of young people of color. We began to view our role as cultural ambassadors. Folks all over the country, and the world, have an image of what Los Angeles, or East Los Angeles, represents. We want to represent our communities in a more positive light, to remind others of the rich cultural diversity that we represent. And there is great responsibility in that. As Chicanos, we also try to represent an alternative image of cultural pride. We are a unique people, from both sides of the border. We feel we’ve been given a unique opportunity to build bridges.
  2. What are some of the most memorable places you've performed so far, and why? Where do you hope or look forward to playing later this year? Where to begin! One really great example how we ideally would love to be sharing our music and message was when we went to Philadelphia. AfroTaino invited us out to Philly to share our music at the amazingly beautiful Longwood Botanical Gardens. While we were there, we were able to sneak away and do a mini-performance for parent and youth organizers of three non-profit organizations like Juntos doing really great cultural and immigrant rights work in Philly. A really great exchange of social change agents. Also, we were able to hook up with a dope muralist, Michelle Angela Ortiz, who was working on a public art project that explores the impact of immigration through the lives of immigrant youth. The “aqui y alla” public art project connected youth from South Philly and youth in Chihuahua, Mexico. Again, we exchanged stories of how we are trying to effect social change. In the future, we hope to play bigger venues, with bigger names, but we also look forward to connecting with other folks on the ground, sharing, collaborating, and dialoguing on the issues effecting our communities day to day. We’re interested in collaborating internationally as well. 
  3. Do Las Cafeteras have aspirations to play in Veracruz or elsewhere in Mexico at any point? Las Cafeteras have aspirations to share our music and message all over the world, and Mexico, in particular. Here is where we have to be strategic about the bridges we are building and the walls that we want to bring down. Chicanos and Mexicanos are brothers and sisters with a shared history. There is a fragile line that we walk on, and we have to be careful. However, music has a powerful way of healing.
  4. What about Son Jarocho music spoke to you as individuals and made you want to form the band? How did you choose the four traditional songs that are on the album? We always say that we didn’t find Son Jarocho, Jarocho found us. The music has endured so much, it’s gone through colonization, slavery, AND the Bush era. Las Cafeteras was not born from a group of musically trained artists, we were born out of a struggle. During the eviction of the largest urban farm in the United States, Son Jarocho was the soundtrack of that struggle. In South LA, organizers and activists were trying to protect a community farm and were willing to camp out and stay around the clock. An essential piece of the movement was music and dance: hip hop, Danza Azteca, spoken word, and Son Jarocho were elements of the struggle. One night, Son de Madera, a prominent Son Jarocho group from Mexico collaborated with Zack de La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. It was a perfect wedding of Mexico and Los Angeles, united to create beautifully diverse music. It wasn’t folk music, but it had the essence of folk music, it was telling the stories of migration, struggle, and the indigenous population in Los Angeles. Folks were already playing Jarocho in Santa Ana. So, our maestra, who was also learning in Santa Ana, decided to share what she knew at the EastSide Café, a community arts and action space in El Sereno, and the Cafeteras were born.
  5. Which bands or musicians in the US or elsewhere have influenced your evolution as a group? Are there other bands putting a contemporary take on Mexican folk music that you identify with? As a seven piece group, we have all kinds of influences. We’re influenced by music from all over the world, and gravitate towards music with a message. Folks like Calle 13 telling a story about Latino America, to Gogol Bordello, to the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90’s, to the soul of Nina Simone. We’re all over the map.
  6. Are you looking forward to touring, seeing cities through the eyes of working musicians, or would you rather be performing locally, writing new songs, and recording at home? Las Cafeteras are super excited about touring. Not only are we excited about sharing this beautiful music inspired by the campesinos of southern Veracruz, Mexico, but also the stories of East Los Angeles, of Chicanos, of love, and of struggle. We have heard that the touring circuit is a bumpy ride, but one that we are gearing up for!
  7. The press you've received so far has made news out of your decision to cover/remake "La Bamba". What does this song mean to you as a band and why do you think it still speaks to people? David, our lead guitarist, playing the requinto Jarocho, went traveling in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, at one of the many karaoke spots, two songs were constantly requested of him: "Hotel California" by the Eagles, and "La Bamba"! Most folks around the world know La Bamba, but folks know the rock 'n’ roll version, by another Chicano, Ritchie Valens. Most folks don’t know that the song is over 300 years old.  There is something about its indigenuity, we believe, that spoke to us, and speaks to others. We just gave it a Chicano twist. 
  8. As musicians (or as artists in general) what do you find most exciting or inspiring about Los Angeles and Southern California? We love that the whole world is right here in Los Angeles. We are spoiled. The cultural diversity is somewhat of a challenge, but it also offers infinite possibilities. We look forward to all folks expressing their stories through all forms of art, food, cinema, whatever. The Zapatistas have a saying, “we want a world where many worlds fit.” Although we have a long way to go, I think Los Angeles provides a hint of the possibilities.
Photo courtesy of Piero F. Giunti.

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