Polyglot rockers Chicano/Son stopped by the KCET Studios for a lively session of their son jarocho-flavored songs from the East side of Los Angeles. Artbound caught up with bandmember Marco Amador to find out more about the group's origins and their political message.
How do you think the cultural landscape of Southern California is reflected in your music?
When you think about the Southern California cultural landscape, you have to think about the impact that the Mexican immigrant community has had here; it would be an incomplete perspective not to include that. Mexican and Chicano culture have always been a part of the culture here. Our experience, through the communities that we create and our various forms of art, has influenced Southern California as well the broader music scene, including rock, folk music and Americana. Our experience also includes marginalization and political repression.
We bring all of that into Chicano/Son. The band is a grouping of musicians who have been in Los Angeles their whole lives and have experienced what many Chicanos have experienced in this city -- segregation, economic challenges, political misrepresentation, and cultural resistance. So, Chicano/Son not only wants to create new cultural practices but also reflect the history of our people. We want to create new forms of music that are very Chicano and very deliberate, and that will form a part of Chicano history.
Did you come from a musical family? What role did your environment play in the way you learned to play music?
No, I don't come from a musical family. I think I was always musically inclined but I always learned songs my own way and sang them my own way. Ultimately, what pushed me to make my own music was a feeling of misrepresentation and oppression. So I started playing music as a teen in punk and rock bands that reflected that feeling of marginalization. In the mid-90s, my experience was rooted in my process of identifying as a Chicano. That process led me to be part of the political punk scene, especially the punk bands that were singing in Spanish, which was a form of resistance to the white supremacy that existed in punk. I was in a band, Subsistencia, that was one of a number of other bands doing that here -- Los Crudos, Huasipungo, and Kontra Attaque, for example.
What was our environment? We saw the expansion of neoliberal globalization, the economic destruction of Mexico, the uprising of indigenous peoples with the Zapatistas, and also the growth of a transnational U.S. militaristic machine. That was our environment. That's basically what formed me politically and artistically. I saw that music had to be used to make people talk about that, reflect, and ultimately make people feel something other than apathy about the situation.
There's a second wave of son jarocho bands arising from California these days. Why do you think this is happening now?
It's important to understand that the son jarocho phenomenon that is happening right now is not a spontaneous occurrence. It stems from an idea that was cultivated back in 2001 of inviting traditional Son Jarocho musicians to Los Angeles to facilitate music workshops and exchanges with Chicano musicians and community groups. That project, which I founded, was called Fandango Sin Fronteras. The idea sprang from my experience of going back to Veracruz, where my family is from, when I ended up at the Encuentro de Jaraneros in Tlacotalpan, on the suggestion of a family member. This is one of the biggest encuentros of son jarocho musicians in Mexico. This was the first time I saw the fandango. I saw how people from all ages and economic classes came together to play music as a community, in a public space, outside, and all night long. It blew my mind. The first thing I thought of when I saw it was, "how can I bring this back home?" So, on the second night of the encuentro, the son jarocho group Mono Blanco had a concert at one of the theaters in town and they talked about how they were opening an independent music school and needed people to support their project. I spoke to Mono Blanco, explained that I was a Chicano from Los Angeles and I wanted to bring the fandango to L.A., and at the same time do a tour so we could raise money for their school. The group agreed and some months later, we had the Fandango Sin Fronteras tour in L.A.
What this started was an ongoing exchange with son jarocho communities in Veracruz, that ranged from organizing large son jarocho concerts in Los Angeles, to music workshops, and Chicano-Veracruzano encuentros in Mexico. This is the foundation of what we see happening now with son jarocho in the U.S. Individuals and community groups that participated in these exchanges would take what they learned and their instruments to other communities, and son jarocho spread this way. Chicanos have incorporated son jarocho into their music for years, as far back as Ritchie Valens, and that's an important part of our music, but the Fandango Sin Fronteras project was not just about making music but about bringing the fandango here. The fandango creates community, and as Chicanos, we needed a tool to build community. That was the purpose behind Fandango Sin Fronteras. So, we can't look at the current wave of son jarocho as happening in a vacuum because it comes from a deliberate cultural fomentation project that now spans over 12 years.
Chicano/Son fits into this because we believe a fundamental truth of son jarocho is that it is a living, breathing cultural expression. It's a living practice carried out by campesinos in Veracruz. Chicano/Son exists because we believe that our own cultural expression cannot be stagnant, dead or unoriginal. For Chicanos playing son jarocho, it's not just about learning and playing the traditional Mexican music that is a part of us but also about expressing our living Chicano experience.
For this reason, Chicano/Son is invested in the creation of a new cultural practice that uses elements of traditional Mexican music but also our not-so-traditional Mexican experience like punk, rock, and jazz. That's doesn't necessarily mean we're playing any of that music. We're not. But we're basically trying to create a new category of music. Son Chicano. The word son comes from the word sonido, which means sound. There should be a place for that Chicano sound and that's what this second wave of son jarocho music in the U.S. should be about.
What are some of the underrated East L.A. punk bands that you listen to, and how do they fit into your sound?
In general, punk rock is underrated. It's always been looked at as created by people who don't know how to play or structure music. But it's important within American and international culture because its sophistication lays within the way it resists pop culture. The same can be said of Chicano art and that's why punk fits into our sound. A couple of my favorite Eastside bands right now are Thee Commons and Chicano Batman.
How do you describe "cruising music?"
Unfortunately, I drive a 1971 Datsun that doesn't have a stereo. No cruising music for now.
Being in a band isn't just about creating music, it's about working with artists to create posters, and filmmakers to create videos too. What artists and other creative have you collaborated with, and who are some of the most exciting up-and-coming Chicano artists that you think people should know about?
Nico Avina, Ricardo Estrada, Alfonso Aceves, Joe Galarza, Jose Ramirez, Melanie Cervantes and Shizu Saldamando are some of the Chicano/a artists that have maintained a presence and continue to document the struggles and beauty of our community. But they're not the only ones. In any barrio, you'll find people putting out their art. Their motivation isn't necessarily to be commercially viable but to be our documentarians and storytellers.
We're excited that one of these very important artists, Chaz Bojorquez, collaborated with us to design the cover art for our upcoming album.
Obviously, the Chicano experience plays a huge role in your band. What kind of reactions do you get from show bookers, labels, etc, about having the word "Chicano" in your band name? Has it caused you any trouble?
Chicano/Son's purpose from its inception was to defend and redefine Chicano music and culture. We were very deliberate in naming our band Chicano/Son because we wanted that message to be clear. Really, what's defined the band though is the message in our music. Our songs call out what we see as neo-assimilation and the acceptance of militarism by our community. Our music deals with these contradictions and we don't shy away, for example, from talking about the military component within the DREAM Act, from saying the first 20% of soldiers killed in the Iraq invasion were raza. We address gentrification. We talk about the fear of challenging traditional culture. And although some have criticized us for having these political points of view, we've attracted people who continue to believe these issues should define us as Chicanos. So it's helped us solidify who we want to work with as a band.