On the rare occasion that I cross the 101 into the San Fernando Valley, I think of the same things that I assume everyone thinks about: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, strip malls, The Karate Kid, porn, and (only because my valley friends won’t shut up about it) sushi. On this night, my cliche expectations would be shattered in two respects. First, I had some bomb chicken shawarma at the Pita Pocket. That alone made the excruciating rush hour journey from the westside almost worth it …. almost. Second, the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge is stunning. A dramatic modern concert hall with great acoustics, it feels vast in scale yet intimate in vibe. That intimacy would prove crucial for the evening’s show because a band like Las Cafeteras moves beyond the aesthetics of their sound.
Democratic and roots to the core, they demand a palpable engagement with their audience. Las Cafeteras is literally and figuratively a family up on the stage and that family’s purpose is to build community through the transmission of knowledge, history, humor and socio-political criticism. If the dynamic of a seated show threatens to filter that transmission, the show might be nice, it might be pleasant, but it wouldn’t achieve its purpose. Thankfully, on this night, full engagement was achieved. On this night, the metaphorical aux cord between artist and audience was in full effect as Las Cafeteras whispered stories and knowledge straight into our collective ear hole. Of course, a Cafeteras whisper is about as soft as a sledgehammer. It’s more like an energetic wall of rhythm blasting from a chorus of jaranas, requintos, and zapateados. (NOTE: if you’re not a seasoned veteran of the son jarocho scene and don’t know what jaranas, requintos, and zapateados are, well, welcome to the party. I had to look it up too. Jaranas and requintos are like badass Mexican ukulele-sized guitars and a zapateado is the rhythmic percussion created by dancing on a wood floor or a raised wood platform. Kinda like flamenco.)
The prominence of these more traditional instruments in the Cafeteras sound is an important key to unpacking the title of the evening’s performance: “Beyond La Bamba: A New American Sound”. The homage and adherence to tradition in their music makes clear that to move beyond does not mean to abandon. It means to build upon. The first set opened with “La Bamba Rebelde” their remake of Richie Valens’ iconic hit. The song exemplifies how the only rupture with the past is the need to repurpose tradition to move beyond itself and transform into a more powerful mechanism for social justice. The addition of “rebelde” to the title punctuates the self-conscious effort of Las Cafeteras to infuse old songs and traditions with a renewed sense of urgency and a more transparent acknowledgement of protest, struggle, history, justice, and pride as integral to Las Cafeteras as an experience.
I arrived at VPAC near the end of their opening rendition of La Bamba Rebelde (I blame the shawarma for slowing me down), so I missed what I’m told was a really intense multimedia video display that accompanied the song on the massive projector screen behind the band. That screen would be used to tremendous effect later on when Las Cafeteras paid respect to the many victims of police violence over the past several years. Behind a chilling spoken word homage to Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, among many others, were images of the victims projected 20 to 30 feet high at the back of the stage. It was both super intense and representative of how delicately Las Cafeteras are able to weave together the aesthetics of sound, dance, still frame, and moving image, with themes that cut to the core of our darkest and saddest failures as a society. One moment the crowd is speechless as we’re forced to see our nation’s reflection in the images of pain and suffering projected on the backdrop. The next moment, everyone is cheering as the Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles dances across the stage. The linkage between pain, suffering, joy, and comedy plays out seamlessly. Sorrow explains the need for levity. Joy (or maybe love) is a necessity to triumph over pain.
One of the challenges of reducing this performance to a written synopsis is that it was so multifaceted. Community building as a spirit and an ethos played out in the numerous collaborations and cameos that occurred throughout the night. Seti-X showed how anyone who grows up with and among an art form can embrace and express themselves through it. His poetry slam style of spoken word and hip hop beats traced lines of commonality and distinction “from East India to East LA”. To be “brown” or in “exile” is a shared condition as much as an individual inheritance. Artist Damon Turner was a revelation. Built like a power forward for the New York Knicks, dude is enormous and yet he carries himself with a confident humility that allows those more vertically challenged to take the spotlight. Until he takes the mic. Then it’s a high velocity fuselage of rhymes coming at you in three dimensions. Did you know a bear running at full stride can reach speeds of over 30 miles per hour? Usain Bolt maxes out at 27.5 mph. Just saying. When you’re around DT, cuidado. And then there is Maria del Pilar. She stepped in to sing with Cafeteras throughout the night and it was a blessing. Another bright light in the transnational Chilean alternative / electronic pop scene, Pilar’s voice is in no need of a synthesizer to shine. Analog might even be her true calling. With the acoustics at VPAC highlighting the subtlety and power in every note, she almost stole show. Her cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire was simply epic.
The tapestry of collaborations created an echo chamber of game recognizing game. I know from posts on Las Cafeteras’ Facaebook page that months went into rehearsing and preparing for this one night. But in the moment, you feel like this community of dancers, musicians, and poets could have stumbled into each other by accident and the result wouldn’t have been that different. The collective awesome on that stage was inevitable.
What might have surprised me the most though, was learning that I might be a dance fan. I mean, I’ve always been down with the Laker Girls, Rerun from What’s Happening, and the occasional episode of So You Think You Can Dance. But buying a ticket to an actual performance by a legit dance troupe? Nah. That’s never been my thing. But LA’s own Contra Tiempo dance company may have changed that. Throughout the course of the evening, I repeatedly found myself captivated by the gracefully convulsive and fluid eruptions of movement. A sort of punch drunk pinpoint precision and synchronicity that put into movement the narratives of migration, nomadism, survival, exhaustion, and perseverance. So much balance and control but never so much that it stifled the sensation of organic spontaneity that translated into physical motion the mezclado of Afro-Indigenous and Hispanic “beats rhymes and life” being played out on stage.
When you move beyond Contra Tiempo’s performance to learn about the community engagement and social justice projects that the troupe is involved in, you get why the collab with Las Cafeteras makes so much sense. Because you can kinda tell the difference between art that tries to decorate a political cause and art that is beautiful because it expresses – because it IS – a political cause. It’s a difference between the superficial and the intrinsic. The performance by Las Cafeteras, Seti-X, Maria del Pilar, Damon Turner and Contra Tiempo was intrinsically political. There was an ode to paleteros – an acknowledgment of beauty and dignity in bringing small joys to the people. There was an ode to the color brown – a celebration and affirmation of cultural and genetic inheritance as the ultimate fuente de poder. Then there was “Mr. Presidente”. A playful, maybe even joyous indictment of the healthcare system, tuition hikes, oil pipelines, immigration policy …as many things as you can think of, just add a verse. The song could’ve gone on for hours! But it was the timing of “Mr. Presidente” relative to recent political developments that made it really interesting and perhaps more provocative. One month after Trump’s election, it was humbling to be reminded that these are issues that predate the impending Trumpocracy. These are issues that festered under 8 years of Obama. Barry might be excoriated by mainstream conservatives for being soft on immigration but he’s known to the National Council of La Raza and other immigrant advocacy groups as the “Deporter in Chief” for having overseen the deportation of more undocumented migrants (over 2 million) than any other president in US history. Just a gentle reminder that a lot of the problems and failures in our political landscape transcend the personalities of individual leaders and are truly institutional in nature. Which can seem daunting and intractable. But the undercurrent of the performance was not one of pessimism. Undoubtedly the message was one of encouragement, a recognition of the powerful capacity for growth and change that already exists among us. A message summed up in the encore when the entire ensemble chanted in call and response with the crowd:
“El pueblo vive, La lucha sigue!”
“The people live, The struggle continues!”
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