On an ordinary Tuesday night the crowd at club Harvard and Stone came together to hear a new Latino sound from L.A. With a simple "We are Chicano Batman," the band took to the brick-backed stage under a soft glowing red light and kicked off the evening by playing two new tunes. "Cool Blessing" is an instrumental track with a funk-meets-psychedelic feel that sounds like a song waiting for a Tarantino film cool enough to showcase it. Next, the band moved into track "Existential Rhymes" which unlike many Chicano Batman songs featured English lyrics in lead singer Bardo Martínez's trademark legato croon.
The overall set proceeded to explore a range of grooves with their appropriate responses from the multicultural audience, from grab-the-one-you-love slow jams to allegro samba interludes and cumbia breakdowns. They played that feel-good music we all want to hear at a good party.
Stand out songs of the evening were "A Hundred Dead and Loving Souls" a track off the 2010 self-titled debut album that has a 1950s "Sleepwalk" feel in Bardo's wah infused guitar soloing. The crowd belted the songs chorus at full volume like a classic oldie: "in the sea of a hundred dead and loving souls." Without missing a beat the band and audience shifted with cumbia interlude "Lizandro" reorienting both to the next set of grooves.
Flowing through their set Carlos Arevalo's demure rhythm guitar, Gabriel Villa's summoning of Bambuco and Sonongo rhythms on drums and Eduardo Arena's bouncy bass lay down the textured canvas to Bardo Martínez's virtuoso paint strokes on the keyboard, guitar and vocals. The grain of Bardo's voice carries longing and a subtle vulnerability. His wah propelled guitar and keyboard riffs musical daggers to the soul that kept the dance going all night. When the party ended, their music remained in our memories. And that name: Chicano Batman. It's unforgettable.
Chicano Batman is the sound of local Latino music in the 21st century. In 1993, when Los Lobos released the now classic "Just Another Band from East L.A.," the band was paying homage to -- and locating themselves within -- the legacy of Chicano and Mexican music coming from "East Los" going all the way back to icons like Lalo Guerro and legions of other more anonymous working musicians. Twenty years, later East L.A. is still an important hub of Chicano/Latino culture in Los Angeles but the cultural map of music making has also significantly shifted. Suburban sprawl, real estate prices and the changing nature of the Latino community have all contributed to a re-mapping of Latino L.A. Today, that map would have to include the San Fernando Valley, east through the San Gabriel Valley to the Inland Empire, the south harbor communities west through South L.A. and spilling over into North Orange County. Add to this the growing diversity of the Latino community as Central Americans, new generations of Mexicans and other Latin Americans have immigrated to the greater Los Angeles area. Plus, identity politics are also in flux as national identities meet ethnic constructs such as Chicanismo and Latinidad.
Chicano Batman -- comprised of Bardo Martínez (vocals/keyboard/guitar), Eduardo Arenas (bass), Gabriel Villa (percussion) and Carlos Arévalo (guitar), exemplifies this new geographic and cultural reality. Only one member, Eduardo Arenas, grew up in East L.A. The band, the brain child of lead singer Bardo Martínez began to form at a fundraiser for KPFK's Soul Rebel Radio where he met Arenas and bonded with him over a similar interest in the music of Caetano Veloso and the tropicalia movement. Drummer Gabriel Villa who emigrated from Colombia to the U.S. at the age of eighteen met Bardo at a show for cumbia group Very Be Careful. Guitarist Carlos Arévalo met Martínez through mutual friends in local music scenes and eventually joined the band in 2010.They were brought together by music not geography. Indeed, one of the earliest hurdles for the band was playing together despite having members in San Dimas, West L.A., Pico Rivera and Rialto.
The band simultaneously exists in the local and transnational spaces of Latino music, a sonic space of past, present and future Latina/o sounds reaching for something new. The band is in tune to local eastside musical histories dominated by Chicano bands but also in tune with Latin American and South American sounds that echo the band mates' diverse interests and personal histories. Bardo is half Columbian, half Mexican, Eduardo is Mexican-American, Gabriel is Columbian and Carlos is of Salvadoran and Mexican descent. More importantly, the band claims, is their shared musical eclecticism that is heard in the bands mix of funk, R&B, Latin soul, bossa nova, psychedelia and pop.
"Yes, you can categorize us as different genres but more than anything it's a feeling, we all put all of our energy into it and try to meld each other's sounds together," says Bardo. Pressed on the specific genres they incorporate into their sound Eduard added "we keep expanding our genre and it's hard to say what we are doing right now. We'll do romantica feel songs, we'll do funk type songs, some Columbian rhythms, Mexican cumbias, Columbian cumbias. We do a lot because we're fans of so much music. We'll do Brazilian stuff like samba and bossa feels so it's hard to say what we are doing." Like any good artist, they resist being handcuffed to particular genres because it implies limited growth and experimentation. However, Bardo did agree with a critic's description of the band as having a warm, summertime feel. He joked that he has no qualms being placed in the "high humidity" section/genre of a record store. Gabriel quipped that in trying to explain the band's sound to friends he has resorted to saying it's "música para planchar," music to iron to. Given that the band originally used an ironing board as a keyboard stand the description is not entirely without merit.
Besides the band's sound, the Chicano Batman logo is also a fusion of different worlds. The clever logo which combines the UFW's eagle iconography with the Batman logo is a testament to the band's creative re-mixing of pop culture and political movement legacies. The name originally served as Bardo Martínez's songwriting moniker. "The whole point was that both Chicano and Batman are very iconic names so when you combine these two iconic names it creates a whole different thing. The whole point is combining a pop-cultural symbol and a cultural-political symbol. It's like a play on words," explained Bardo.
Although the band has no overt political messages in their music, theirs is a pop-cultural politic of championing older styles of working-class music from Latin America and U.S. Latino communities, of choosing to record mostly in Spanish, and of generating a multicultural dance floor. Bardo noted that Chicano Batman follows the example set by the Brazilian tropicalista movement of the late 1960s, which was as dangerous to authorities for the music they played as what they said. "It's not necessarily what you are saying but how you are saying it or what you are doing," concluded Bardo. Chicano Batman is not interested in political ideologies, instead they care more about performing a musical hybridity that highlights the richness and complexity of their backgrounds and influences -- which is a political commitment in its own right. "That's our stance. That's how we hold our ground. Like hearing Bardo's lyrics about mazapán in a song; that's our experience right there of going to the market and paying 25 cents for one. Or I wrote a song called 'La Manzanita' which is about a homeless man on Slauson and Paramount. Or we write a song 'Itiotani' about danza azteca or 'Soniatl' using the Nahuatl term," said Eduardo.
As L.A. Chicano/Latino bands like Quetzal and Chicano Son have emphasized returning to traditional Latin American music (in much the same way Los Lobos did a generation ago) Chicano Batman does so as well but in a different way. While bands like Quetzal and Chicano Son have made it their mission to (re)introduce indigenous or folk music to Chicano/Latino audiences, Chicano Batman mines the rich pop repertoire of cumbia, romantica and topicalia hits of the 1960s and 1970s to create a new sound -- what Eduardo playfully called "modernizing what our tios taught us." This music "speaks to a whole generation of people that grew up in Los Angeles," added Bardo. Their ruffled tuxedo shirts, soulful croons and recombinant Latin grooves played on vintage instruments pay tribute to bands like Los Bukis, Los Angeles Negros and Caetano Veloso. But they are not simply a tribute band to a bygone era. "People will call us a retro band but I think we're a progressive band. We have that nod to vintage, timeless music from all over the world -- including Latin American and American soul music -- but at the same time we put our own spin on it and try to keep it modern and moving forward," said Carlos.
Whether its nostalgia, familiarity or musical appreciation Latino L.A. likes what it hears.
Their main audience is young bilingual Latinos who appreciate the fusion of Latin sounds, the throwback look and the band's accessibility. But, Chicano Batman has also cultivated a scenester following playing venues like The Standard, The Echo and Harvard and Stone. The band has also recently played several music festivals including Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and has toured the Southwest. While they recognize Latinos -- "eclectic brown people," as Bardo called them -- as their core audience they also must negotiate the lack of venues in the Eastside and the need to build a wide audience. "The band circuit does revolve around places like Silver Lake, Echo Park, etc. so we have to try to get into these venues because that's where the shows are at. That's where the big population of people going to see live music is at," lamented Bardo.
The band, however, sees an opportunity to diversify the hipster circuit. Recalling their first night in residency at Harvard and Stone Bardo remarked: "the last time we played Harvard and Stone there was a lot of Raza there and I was like damn this is changing the space, flipping it [from a typically white space] and that's a good thing. The mostly Latino audience in attendance was not unusual for a Chicano Batman show but may be more significant in the wake of recent allegations that Harvard and Stone's anti-hip hop policy is racist.
This is of course not the first time in L.A. history that dance floors and concert spaces became contested spaces. To cite one example, in the late 1970s Los Lobos was breaking similar ground by being one of the few Eastside bands invited to play punk clubs in Hollywood. On the merit of their music they were able to overcome prejudice. Now Chicano Batman has taken up the struggle and pleasure of bringing L.A's diverse sounds and faces together.
As they pick up that torch, they are careful to acknowledge their East L.A. predecessors for what they accomplished for a new generation of musicians, yet Chicano Batman also see East L.A. as only one part of their experience, one piece of a wider L.A. Latino experience that grows to a global East L.A. that subsumes Rialto, San Dimas, La Mirada, Cali, Colombia and Brazil into a thriving multicultural melange with a beat to keep it boiling.
Chicano Batman currently have upcoming shows at La Cita, The Echo, and the Levitt Pavilion Summer Music Festival in August. Their second full length album is expected in the fall of 2013.