Rubén “Funkahuatl” Guevara is a kind of Renaissance man from East Los. He’s one part musician, one part poet, producer, a father, teacher and the list goes on. The 68-year-old Boyle Heights native has written extensively about Chicano music, arts and culture. Now, the veteran on Eastside arts is releasing a new album, “The Tao of Funkahuatl,” that bridges the art of spoken word and music, and moves the listener from sensual poetry to funk and blues-infused sounds. Tonight, Ruben Guevara will celebrate the release of his new album at Eastside Luvin Boyle Heights. Here’s a peek at my recent conversation with Guevara.
Q: “The Tao of Funkahuatl” is your new album. It’s got a really funky sound with deep bass lines, kind of bluesy and moody. Can you tell me about the process of recording? How long did you work on the album? Who’s on the record?
A: It took about a year and a half to do it—to finish. I’ve been working with Eastside Luv booking shows. We’ve worked out songs there, too. It took a while and we recorded at John Avila’s studio. He engineered and played on the album as well. The saxophonist is quite an amazing player … George Duke, nice player. On guitar is Bobby Robles. He’s worked with people like Jackson Brown. He’s also touring with The Midnighters. I’ve also got Juan Banda in the group. He’s a long-time percussionist with Poncho Sanchez and now has his own group. I put the band together and I decided to use that place as a venue to develop the band and it’s worked out.
Q: You had a “soft” release of the album release in August, right?
A: I put it [“The Tao of Funkahuatl”] out digitally in August and I did a listening party at Trópico de Nopal a couple weeks ago, but this is the official release party with the band. I printed a limited edition album and we will have less than a hundred for sale. We printed a lithograph on the cover and it’s a signed and numbered by artist, John Valadez. He’s a very famous Chicano artist whose work sells for much more, so people will get my music and an original art piece; and design and calligraphy by Joel “Rage One” Garcia. I won’t have CD copies until the beginning of the year….
Q: Describe your writing process or what we will hear on the album?
A: There are a couple of spoken word pieces that were inspired from a woman I dated. One of them is a slow ballad. It’s [the album] a prayer, really. These are jazzy spoken word pieces that were recorded in the studio. All the other songs I wrote first too, except for one, that I took it in the studio. The band helped me with a couple of tunes and I gave them credit for arranging…
As far as the process, I had some music and words, and the rhythms of the words dictated the rhythms of the bass line. The poems were already written. The songs were all written during the year too but the last song was interesting. One day at sound check at the Eastside Luv, John [Avila] played a different bass line and we played it again that night.
Q: What’s your connection with the venue Eastside Luv?
A: Well, I live in Boyle Heights. I used to walk by that place all the time and one night I decided to walk in there and it blew me away. I didn’t expect to see it in Boyle Heights. I asked the owner if I could play there. I decided to develop a band and the venue has a good reputation and a good vibe, so it worked out. Being from the Eastside, it’s great to see it happen. And yeah, most of the liner notes talk about the club and I thank the owner and staff. It seemed fitting to have the party at Eastside Luv, so I decided to do the release party there.
Q: You come from a musical background. Your father was a musician too, right?
A: My father was a musician who was in a famous band called Los Porteños. I started singing with him when I was a little guy, and I eventually was classically trained in the trumpet. Since I was doing pretty good on trumpet, I started singing R&B and doo wop with the Apollo brothers …. after that I went solo. I have a long history in music and theater … direction of theater, performance art, writing history … my last concert was with a band called Los Safros and we played at Cal Plaza in Downtown. At one point I went back to school … marriage, raised a kid and all that ended in ’96. I was teaching for a long time out here on the Eastside as a substitute teacher, and in 2008 I decided I wanted to come back to music. It’s getting late … and I want to die in the stage, not in a rocking chair. I started writing some serious tunes about a relationship with sex and spirituality, I wanted to combine all that … with soul music and get back into it again. That’s where I want to stay. I recently started a music school called “Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory.” It’s over there at the old legendary Paramount Ballroom on Cesar Chavez and Mott. In the late ’30s, famous folks like Count Basie and Benny Goodman played there. The new owner called me years ago and we finally opened up a school. He wants to have international booking there eventually.
Q: What kinds of artists inspire your sound?
A: Most of the songs on the new album actually come from a woman—a young woman who I became romantically involved with, so some of the songs are based on her. But as far as musician-wise, player-wise, artists that inspire me: Fela Kuti is an inspiration, James Brown, Bobby Brandt, all the soul singers … Sam Cook, the basic people in the soul and funk world. I’m also inspired by the work of Frank Zappa in terms of theatrics. He’s very theatrical and how he used to put together ideas … like the idea of mixing music with theater. By the way, this album is intended to be listened to from beginning to end. It’s a mini opera. It’s composed as an opera, very cinematic.
Q: I think it’s interesting that you say the album is intended to be listened to from beginning to end. To listen to it in its entirety, from start to finish, is kind of a throwback to how LP’s were meant to be heard, right?
A: Yes, especially Zappa. He composed and layed out, from beginning to end. In the ’60s and ’70s, you listened to the whole albums. Some of the better ones were concept albums. Those worked best for me. I guess it’s also the experience working in theater. I’ve been involved in the music scene and film. I’ve chosen soundtracks from films and I had that element in mind as well when I constructed the album…transitions in and out.
Q: Do you have any Eastside spots you could recommend to our readers?
A: I love Mariachi Plaza at night. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place especially architecturally at night; with all the lights. El Mercado has an old Mexico feel still there. La Parilla is a really good restaurant on Cesar Chavez. Oddly enough I like Evergreen Cemetery. I love the different tombstones. The Lankershims and Van Nuys families’ tombstones are enormous there. It’s really a trip, maybe a little morbid. Oh and I like Ciros Restaurant and of course, the Eastside Luv bar. As far as further east, Belvedere Park is cool. They just remodeled it. I walk a lot and I like to go to Hollenbeck and walk up Boyle. lt has a lot of Victorian homes. That’s a nice walk.
Q: What are you listening to now?
A: Actually I like the new Los Lobos album. Some Mavis Staples, Tinariwen…kind of bluesy, Arabic, desert music. They’re [Tinariwen] a band of nomads. The music is pretty interesting. Oh and Leela James, she’s on Stacks Records. She has a classic, classic soul voice … check her out, she’s incredible … kind of Macy Gray-ish but more classic. I like Rafael Saadiq, he’s cool. I like those neo soul guys.
Details: Eastside Luv, 1835 E. First St., Boyle Heights | 9 p.m. | $5, 21 + over
Jennifer Cuevas’ In the Mix appears weekly. Please send press releases or story ideas, at least two weeks in advance, to [email protected]