The Eastside is in the midst of a cultural renaissance with musicians among those leading the way. Along with bands like Las Cafeteras, Buyepongo and Chicano Batman, the four-year-old group La Chamba Cumbia Chicha has been making a name for themselves, incorporating traditional Peruvian Chicha and Cumbia with deep-rooted communal messages advocating for social justice and equal rights.
The band began with singer and conga player Jason Zepeda, guitarist Alejandro Araujo and timbalero Arturo Blanco jamming-out in between classes at UC Santa Cruz. The trio soon moved back home to Los Angeles and decided to recruit other musicians. “We were talking about bringing back some of that live spirit that we had going on in Santa Cruz back to L.A. Soon after, we started recruiting people and we started talking about how we wanted to try to forge a sound, a unique sound – we didn’t want to replicate something that was being heard out here though,” Araujo said.
La Chamba, which means to put to work, is rooted in various causes throughout Los Angeles, spanning immigrant rights to environmental issues. Zepeda met percussionist Mario Gonzalez while Gonzalez was organizing for “Proyecto de Jornaleros,” a community program at UCLA. “Music is another tool to organize. It’s a tool to raise consciousness and to educate people,” Gonzalez said. “In the end of the day though we’ve always had the intention of using the music as a tool to promote that message of social justice, immigrant rights and whatever issues are currently out there.”
With their EP “Araña,” or spider, on shelves and even in demand in Japan, members of La Chamba feel like they are on the right track. The feel and prowess of the band for this psychedelic genre dubbed Chicha has even fooled Peruvian natives. No member of the band traces their roots back to Peru, where Chica originated. Yet, bassist Carlos Zaragoza, who met Zepeda while doing a hunger fast for UCLA workers, says he wasn’t even aware of the band’s Chicha influence.
“As a player, I was playing Cumbia or Blues, but what really hit me was when we played a party once,” Zaragoza said. “These two Peruvian promoters were there and they came up to me and said ‘you guys were playing Chicha!’ They were so excited, and that’s when I realized that we were playing Chicha.”
The title song of “Araña” starts off with a psychedelic guitar plucking that Araujo says came to him in a dream. “I woke up and I heard this melody and then I got the guitar that was in my bedroom, and I just started playing this melody and recorded it with this cheap little recorder that was next to me,” Araujo said. “I was looking for a sound that would sound like what an araña would sound like … if it had rhythm.”
Identifying with nature and the various animals that inhabit the Earth is just one part of their musical inspiration. “(The music) has a universal message about working folk. It’s about love, anger, looking for food and kicking it with friends,” Zepeda said. “That’s what we kind of try and represent – our families and our communities. That’s the message that we want to bring, a message of the working folk, a message that’s popular and something that’s fun to dance to. It makes you think at time and that’s the balance that we have been trying to work on.”
The band ties in their message to the renaissance they have been thrust upon.
“What we’re experiencing in East L.A/ and Boyle Heights is like a new renaissance and it reminds me sort of like the Harlem Renaissance and how everything occurred back then,” Araujo said. “It started getting oppressed, because gentrification was going on back then as well, just like it’s happening right now in Boyle Heights.”
The band is grateful for the bands that have accompanied them in this daunting challenge of getting the Eastside some further recognition.
“We just have to be conscious of it, learn from the past and be artists for our sake and just have control of it,” Araujo said. “That’s what I think we – Las Cafeteras, Buyepongo, Chicano Batman and what have you – are trying to do. We have had that conversation that we need to be able to work with each other as artists, promote each other and work with each other. That’s the message of this renaissance.”