Culture Market is a new arts and culture feature underlining and profiling the idiosyncrasies of Eastside art communities and their inhabitants.
By Nicholas Mestas and Cori Salinas
We sat down with Las Cafeteras‘ guitarist Hector Flores before their opening gig for Lila Downs at the Luckman at Cal State L.A. Formed in 2005 at the Eastside Café in El Sereno, the critically-lauded seven-piece Son Jarocho inspired band hails from the diverse communities of East Los Angeles. Hand-picked by Lila Downs, this was part homecoming, part backyard jam session, and part major debut. With an infectious energy and enthusiasm for their craft, Las Cafeteras keep alive the cultural heritage of their roots while being sonic ambassadors for the social issues that affect their community.
What is the mission of Las Cafeteras?
The mission is to inspire folks to tell their stories. We come from a Zapatista-inspired community center based in El Sereno – it’s an arts and action space that believes in autonomy, self-determination and each-one-teach-one. There are a lot of projects that are run out of that space and one of them that started in 2005 was the Son Jarocho Project. The mission was to teach folks the history, the culture, and the beauty of Son Jarocho. But not only that, it was also to teach folks how to sing, dance, and play music using this beautiful art form.
There were no pre-requisites, you did not have to know how to sing, know how to play an instrument. And throughout this whole process, I think what’s been the most beautiful thing is that the music demands that you tell your story. And the music demands that you share your reality and your experience. We’re very proud of who we are and where we come from, and also how we learned: that someone actually taught us – for free – in a community center, because she wanted to teach music. We are very proud of that, and that is what we want to share with folks. We want to inspire folks to tell their story because ain’t nobody else gonna do it.
You’ll hear a lot of original songs written by us about immigration, about love, about devastation. There’s “Trabajador-Trabajadora” – it’s an homage, it’s a working-class song. “La Bamba Rebelde” is a Chicano anthem basically calling out for us to be free in many different ways…and to inspire people to cross borders, all kinds of borders.
How did it all start?
We are still students of this music, and it started off in our space where we were learning how to play this type of music – Son Jarocho. A lot of us were organizers or activists even before we started learning how to play music. I met Daniel French (Vocals, Jarana, Zapateado, MC) with the South Central Farm Movement. I met José Cano (Cajon, Flute, Requinto, Harmonica) at a march against budget cuts here at Cal State LA, when he was a student here and I was a student at Cal State Long Beach. I met Denise Carlos (Vocals, Jarana, Zapateado, Glockenspiel) while doing Zapatista-inspired work at a center called Casa del Pueblo. We’ve all connected because we are all organizing, or we’re family, and because we’re all active.
When we started learning how to play, we’d go play at marches, we’d play at protests, and we’d go to all these different places and we’d play anywhere and everywhere. People would say “Oh here come the cafeteros from the Eastside Café” – basically they just called us the cafeteros. There used to be 20 of us, we used to roll deep, with 20 folks. Over time people went to school, had other priorities and it just dwindled down and we became very serious. People started asking us, “Oh, can you play at this venue?” We said, “Oh, shit……we should practice!” And so we actually started creating strict regiments of practice. If you’re gonna play publicly, then you need to come to three practices. And we started setting things like that. If people didn’t come to three practices, they couldn’t play. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. We started being very focused on playing much better and learning how to be musicians.
We’re already activists, and we’re already just playing music, but we were learning how to be musicians and play much cleaner. Eventually Las Cafeteras became a solid group of nine that stuck around….kind of like last people standing.
How did the Las Cafeteras begin to find their voice?
We began playing Son Jarocho music – which is traditional music – and then we started really wanting to write our own. And so with the traditional music we started writing our own verses. We started messing around with the structure a little bit – but not too much. And then we started writing our own songs. That was the breakthrough for us, the biggest breakthrough. And I think when we did that, then everything changed….everything changed.
Las Cafeteras are currently on tour throughout the U.S. Catch them alongside L.A.’s very own Ozomatli at Hollywood Forever’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration on Saturday, October 27.
Nicholas Mestas and Cori Salinas are freshly appointed contributors to The Eastsider LA the producers of Culture Market, a new feature that explores the sights and sounds that make up the Eastside’s cultural landscape.