Las Cafeteras are the real deal. A product and reflection of the diverse, hard-working, politically active neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Las Cafeteras present songs of activism and celebration on their second studio album Tastes Like L.A., which will be released on April 14. The album offers a powerful counterpoint to the current dominant news narrative, while encouraging people of all backgrounds to cherish both what makes them unique and what unites them all. With open hearts and open minds, Las Cafeteras offer a timely and affirmative statement to confront a troublesome time.
Since they were formed in 2005 by a group of students learning traditional Mexican music and dance at the Eastside Café, an East L.A. gathering spot for politically active youth, Las Cafeteras has brought their infectious energy and positive spirit to rapturous audiences around the United States. Their spectacular live shows have earned them a devoted following, indeed one might call it a grassroots movement of engaged fans from all walks of life.
Over the past decade, Las Cafeteras have demonstrated that in art as in life, borders are meant to be crossed. They have collaborated with indie darlings Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Mexican rock icons Cafe Tacuba, Colombian pop star Juanes, singer and songwriter John Legend, hip hop activist Talib Kweli, and even the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. They have been profiled on CNN, their music has been featured on numerous popular TV shows, and they have performed at Lincoln Center in New York, Montreal Jazz Fest, and Art Basel in Miami among many other high-profile venues.
With all due respect to Los Lobos, Las Cafeteras is not just another band from East L.A.. Their music draws on a wide range of influences that reflect the playlists of their immigrant households mixed with the eclectic soundscape of Los Angeles. Like most people, the first songs the members of Las Cafeteras were exposed to came out of the stereo systems controlled by their working class parents. In this case, that meant countless hours of Mexican rancheras, Latin America ballads and ample amounts of Motown, oldies, church music and soul. In their teen years, LA’s vibrant punk and ska scene, the social commentary of Rage
Against the Machine, Tupac and NWA, and the angst-ridden rock of bands such the Cure, the Smiths, and Nirvana expanded their musical horizons. Eventually, they discovered the globalized sounds of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello, and Lila Downs, finding common ground with their union of music as an expression of cultural identity and a voice for political and social struggles.
While their musical inspirations reflect the band’s shared open-mindedness, it was an urge to express their own cultural roots that led to the creation of Las Cafeteras. The Afro-Mexican son jarocho style and instrumentation serves as the foundation for much of the group’s musical explorations. Using traditional instruments such as the jarana (a small guitar typical to the Veracruz region of Mexico), donkey jawbone scraper, cajón (a box drum) and peppering their live performances with significant amounts of zapateado dancing, Las Cafeteras demonstrate profound reverence for their familial heritage. At the same time, their
music reflects an equally strong connection to Pan-American folk and protest music, socially conscious hip hop, and a “question authority” indie rock attitude.
Las Cafeteras’ new album, Tastes Like L.A., reflects the band’s diverse influences and attempts to represent the multiple layers of life in Los Angeles’ Eastside. Coming five years after their first studio album, 2012’s It’s Time, the new album also addresses some of the challenges they have overcome as the band has matured, toured and grown in popularity. Recorded at Bedrock Studios in Echo Park, Los Angeles, Tastes Like L.A includes songs about longing for home, love, joy, community and the fight for a better world. Citing Nina Simone’s quote, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times”, Las Cafeteras use their music to tell stories about the streets where they were raised, the communities they live in today and their dreams for the world they hope to see in the future.
The album’s first single “If I Was President” was released fittingly on President’s Day, February 20th. This bilingual song blending Mexican folk traditions with urban hip hop flavors and bluntly political discourse serves as the perfect summation of what Las Cafeteras is all about. Inspired by the traditional Mexican song “Señor Presidente”, which appears as a prelude, “If I Was President” encourages listeners to define what they would do with the power to shape their world. “We wanted to engage people’s imaginations about the future of this country,” notes the band. “Everyone knows what’s wrong, but not many know what to do. We hope to push people to think about themselves as presidents of their homes, schools, workplaces and to
create the kind of country they would like to see starting from the local and moving outward.” Hector Flores uses spoken word to offer his own concrete solutions: free education, a living wage, a reduction in incarceration, a ban on GMOs, a rewrite of history to reflect diversity, clean water, an end to corporate kickbacks…”And my first lady / Would be my moms / Cause she’d slap me / At the first thought of drone strikes / And dropping bombs.”
Las Cafeteras will perform the song across the US during their CD release tour, which brings them to San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York and other major cities. “The President says he wants to build a wall. Las Cafeteras want to build bridges,” says band member Denise Carlos. The song will be released along with an interactive video that encourages the public to submit their own verses answering the question: “What would you do if you were president?” Audio stems will also be made available allowing remixers everywhere to make their own version of the song.
Las Cafeteras have always celebrated the role of women in their personal lives and in society as a whole. The song “La Morena”, an ode to Mother Earth and the feminine experience, was based on a traditional son jarocho with new lyrics written by band members Denise Carlos and Leah Gallegos. The song addresses ways in which women are exploited, manipulated and shamed. Ultimately, it is celebration of the magic, beauty, and strength of womanhood.
The reggae flavored song “Paletero” is an ode to the ice cream man, a ubiquitous presence on the streets of East L.A.. In fact, it’s a song about being in love with a man who always shows up at the same place, at the same time, who is dependable, and always has something “sweet” for you. The song also pays homage to the street vending culture of East L.A., an underground market run by workers who sell goods on the streets to raise their families. It’s about the simplicity of loving and being loved…of appreciating hardworking people that are often ignored.
These modern day Woody Guthries pay homage to the working class hero with a personalized update of his All-American classic “This Land Is Your Land.” According to the band, the revolutionary Zapatista movement has a saying: “Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.” By blending the familiar melody with a Mexican norteño they confront the listener with the challenge of having to ask themselves what it truly means to be an “American” today. It’s an apt question in this time of border walls, pipeline battles and increasing religious discrimination.
Las Cafeteras also know how to have a good time, and the song “Vamos to the Beach” is a carefree song about leaving your troubles behind and just heading to “la playa”. According the band, “It’s a Spanglish summer anthem. Our music often talks about a lot of serious topics. We wanted to write a fun song, something light-hearted and silly.”
The album closes with “Two More Days”, a bouncy Americana song about being on the road and missing the one you love. Touring has its joys, but “sometimes it’s hard to be on the road, away from home for long stretches. And sometimes you just miss your loved ones real bad.”
Despite what some on the political spectrum or in the media would have you believe, the music of Las Cafeteras is the sound of today’s America: multicultural, open-minded, socially conscious, unbound by borders, hard-working, powered by community and united in the belief that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. Never has their message been more relevant than today.
With their infectious and uplifting spirit, Las Cafeteras demonstrates that while the struggle for peace, justice and equality is a serious matter, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a good time along the way. If anything, the joy they bring to listeners offers an galvanizing soundtrack for the march towards a better future. If Las Cafeteras have their way, it will be a journey overflowing with dance, song and smiles.