Waking Up Aztl

La Banda Skalavera and Los Lobos offer rousing Chicano rock

By Phillip Serrato
Published on LatinoLA: June 27, 2002

Waking Up Aztl

As Shakira and Paulina Rubio lead a second wave of Latin artists pursuing mainstream pop music success in the United States, La Banda Skalavera and Los Lobos are making Chicano rock that has not been crafted to receive Top-40 airplay. Especially refreshing is the two Southern California Chicano bands? ability to inspire Latinismo at a time when the two Latina divas are looking more and more like sexed-up real-life Barbie dolls.

Of course, the mainstream, pop-in-English musical directions that Shakira and Rubio are presently taking are, on several levels, productive artistic and commercial avenues to follow. The two women are accessing the kind of profit and popularity that other Latinas/os such as Ricky Martin. Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez have only recently begun to attain. Moreover, their explorations of ?non-Latin? musical forms contribute to the expansion of the parameters of ?Latina/o pop music.?

Nonetheless, with songs such as ?Whenever, Wherever,? ?Underneath Your Clothes,? and ?Don?t Say Goodbye,? Shakira and Rubio are really only making the kind of non-racially-specific ?art without thorns? that Chicano performance artist/critic Guillermo G?mez-Pe?a says is the only kind of Latino/a art that can be expected to have mainstream appeal in the United States. Like previous hit songs by Martin, Anthony, and Lopez, the latest English-language singles by Shakira and Rubio are catchy and kind of exotic, yet they are ultimately not significantly different from the other Top-40 fare that stations such as KIIS recycle.

In contrast, La Banda Skalavera and Los Lobos unabashedly frame themselves as Chicano bands and indulge their affinity for playing with traditional Latin rhythms. Oblivious to mainstream Top-40 popularity contests, the two bands unapologeticaly roll around in Chicanismo/Latinismo.

I saw and heard La Banda Skalavera for the first time at the Festival Latino at UCLA a few months ago. They offered an energetic fusion of ska and punk that got a lot of people to get up and dance 'con ganas'. Touches of traditional rhythms, along with a playful horn section, made the performance particularly exciting and enjoyable. Because the majority of the song lyrics were delivered in Spanish and driven by Latin rhythms, the band also managed to appeal to the attendees? Latino pride, and this rendered the performance even more inspiring.

As occurs with many artists, the band?s 15-track debut release, "No Est? Mal", doesn?t convey the same energy that the band manufactures live. Nonetheless, the CD offers a fascinating and fun listening experience. It contains animating ska/punk fusions that feature gestures toward cumbia and 80?s-era hard rock. While the title-track comments on finding beauty in life, most of the other songs revolve around the travails of love. Among the more successfully hyperactive songs are ?Hip?crita,? ?Veinticuatro,? ?C?mo Jodes,? ?Ya No,? and the title cut. Other songs such as ?Vamos a Bailar? and ?Cumbia del Loco? are especially alluring because they are built on rich Latin grooves.

?Crushed,? ?I Love You So,? and ?T?? are endearing yet by no means syrupy songs of romantic yearning that keep the CD (and the band) musically and thematically interesting. ?Memories,? however, comes across as a throwback to overwrought ?80s power ballads that some listeners may find beautiful but, because it is not as interesting as the other songs on the CD, musically and thematically stalls the disc.

The horn section gives songs such as ?No Est? Mal? and ?Sue?o pa? M?? a playful and exhilarating vibe that complements the Latinismo that the songs simultaneously provoke. Electric guitar blazes on ?Hip?crita,? ?Veinticuatro,? and ?Ya No? remind one of anthemic ?80s power rock and reflect the musical playfulness that the band likes to indulge. At times, though, the hard-rock riffs disrupt the musical cohesion of a song. ?Mala Cabeza? is a Spanish-language hard-rock rap track that reminds one of Molotov that doesn?t fully fit within the musical trajectory of the disc. It does reflect, however, the band?s investment in exploring various musical forms in a way that suggests the extent to which post-modern Chicano identity and experience have been hyper-crisscrossed by different cultural influences. The post-modern Chicano fun of ?Todo Cambiar?? is rooted in the shifts between multiple musical genres that can occur in the span of three minutes. As this song documents the band?s boundless love for diverse types of music, it simultaneously invites listeners to share in this love.

At times the vocals and/or music remind one of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Madness, and Sublime, but La Banda Skalavera mostly manages to maintain an appealing and respectable originality. The dominant impression of this CD is that the guys genuinely enjoy making music and playing with musical forms. In the future they will hopefully maintain their vitality and daring spirit and continue to offer up music that is interesting and exhilarating and that stimulates Latinismo.

Los Lobos most obviously signal their unwavering commitment to Chicanismo through the title of their just-released CD. ?Good Morning Aztl?n? brings into 2002 a term and concept that activists and cultural workers used during the Chicano Movement in the 1970s to nurture a sense of raza consciousness amongst Chicanos and Chicanas in the U.S. Southwest. By referencing Aztl?n, Los Lobos defiantly announce that even in the new millennium, as other Latino/a artists pursue ?crossover? appeal, they will continue to position themselves as a Chicano band from East L.A.

At the outset of the CD it is clear that Los Lobos are not going to offer up formulaic Top-40 fare. ?Done Gone Blue? resembles not the polished production of Shakira?s ?Whenever, Wherever? or ?Underneath Your Clothes,? but raw garage rock that grabs a listener on a visceral level. One can easily imagine this song and the other garage rocker, ?Good Morning Aztl?n,? causing a live audience to explode. Track two, ?Hearts of Stone,? is comparatively more cleanly produced, but it follows a slow, funky vibe that distinguishes the song as a product of a Los Lobos jam session.

While ?Malaqu?? sounds like an indigenous hymn bemoaning the mass flight of migrants from their Mexican homes and mesmerizes the listener with its harp work, ?Luz de Mi Vida? and ?Maria Christina? engage the listener through methodical percussion work. The Spanglish that is used in ?Luz de Mi Vida,? however, feels more forced than an instance of the bilingual code-switching that Latinos and Latinas often perform naturally as they try to express themselves. The electric guitar solo in the cumbia-driven ?Maria Christina? teases out wonderfully the sensuality that the sultry Spanish vocals and percussion collaboratively create.

Thematically, the songs on Good Morning Aztl?n are not as restricted to East L.A./Chicano Studies concerns as the cover art and the title of the CD might lead one to expect. ?Luz de Mi Vida,? ?Good Morning Aztl?n? and ?The Big Ranch? do depict life in Southern California barrios while ?Tony y Maria? narrates the experiences of a migrant Mexican couple in Los Angeles. The lyrics of other songs, though, betray an obsession with human community and the fate of the world.

Some music reviewers have suggested that the themes of love, loss, anguish, and uncertainty that suffuse the CD reflect Cesar Rosas? devastating loss of his wife. It also seems possible, though, especially since Rosas penned the lyrics for only a few songs, to read several of the tracks as responses to September 11.

In ?The Word,? for example, Rosas voices uncertainty about the current state of world affairs when he sings, ?The word?s out on the street/?round everyone you meet/?Things are not the way they used to be.?? Later, in ?What in the World,? Rosas, in an apparent nod to John Lennon, begs with a latent sense of despair, ?Imagine, oh imagine what this world/oh what this world could be.?

Even ?Tony y Maria? is less about Mexican immigration as a social or political issue than it is about a couple?s love and commitment to each other. Lines such as, ?We promised that we?d care for one another/said his wife/now and for the rest of our lives? render the song exceptionally beautiful. It?s unfortunate that this stunning song is followed by the solid rocker ?Get to This,? for the energy of the latter track quickly blows away the appreciation of interpersonal love and commitment that ?Tony y Maria? nurtures.

By the final song, though, the listener has another chance to contemplate how beautiful interpersonal love and commitment can be. With a hypnotic background of distorted electric guitars, the song explores the terror that one can experience when facing life alone. Ultimately, Rosas concludes the song and the CD with the optimistic idea, ?Heart to heart we can?t be wrong/soul to soul in this small corner of the earth/we can be strong.?

Whether the ?small corner of the earth? that is referenced is Aztl?n, our homes, or the various other spaces we share with the many people in our lives, the song points toward the importance of companionship and mutual support at a time when the world is getting more and more violent and full of hate, everyday.

About Phillip Serrato:
Phillip Serrato can be reached at pserrato@fullcoll.edu

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