Las Cafeteras

A spoonful of sugar



Who: Las Cafeteras
When: 7:30pm Fri., Feb. 6
Where: McIntyre Hall, 2501 E. College Way, Mount Vernon
Cost: $20

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Lecture-based learning certainly has its place in the annals of education, but often it can be easier to get a point across by employing, for lack of a better way to phrase it, a little trickery.

Just ask any parent who has tried to get a child to eat their vegetables. Nutrition lectures tend to leave kids nonplussed, commanding them can bring out a stubborn streak and pleading with someone who is pint-sized is a little demoralizing. Smart parents know to give up before mealtime starts to resemble a battleground, while insuring their offspring eat the full food pyramid by slipping squash into the mac and cheese, stirring pureed pumpkin into the brownie mix and tucking all variety of vegetables into the layers of a lasagna. Kids get their daily dose of veg and peace is maintained across the land—at least until bedtime.

I believe it was the all-knowing Mary Poppins who said that thing about the spoonful of sugar and the medicine, which seems like an effective maxim to live by.

Las Cafeteras, who hail from East Los Angeles, hew to a similar strategy.

Las Cafeteras plays upbeat, toe-tapping (literally—I’ll get to that in a minute) Chicano music with great energy and style. Their raucous live shows routinely sell out in seen-it-all, heard-it-all, music-steeped Los Angeles, with crowds on their feet and dancing from the moment the lively band bursts onto the stage. Indeed, they play with such buoyancy and infectious good cheer it can be hard to remember that this band isn’t just out to have a good time—they’re using their music to make the world a better place.

Music might be the medium, but the motivation is using their Mexican folk heritage to tell the stories of immigrant and working-class people in a way that is as much entertainment as it is a call to action.

The members of Las Cafeteras met as students learning to play the Son Jarocho style of music that is indigenous to Veracruz, Mexico. They decided to use that tradition to tell their own story, that of being immigrant children who grew up in the rich cultural stew that is East Los Angeles. But they would not simply honor their Mexican heritage but that of their particular piece of America as well, incorporating hip-hop, ska, punk and more into a polyglot musical experience that is uniquely their own. Since coming together in 2008, they’ve earned a reputation everywhere they’ve gone for fearlessly breaking all genre boundaries, creating music that is hard to succinctly define but easy to dance to.

They may employ modern trappings, but the instrumentation of Las Cafeteras is as traditional as it is eclectic. A couple of jaranas (which resembles a ukulele, but with richer sound), a requinto (another guitarish instrument, but with four or five strings), a marimbol (a bass-type instrument with roots in West Africa), a cajon (a six-sided percussion instrument from Peru), and even a donkey jawbone (yes, you read that right) all conspire to create the band’s singular sound. However, nothing is quite as distinctive as the means by which Las Cafeteras provides itself with much of its percussion—band members literally dance themselves up a beat (the aforementioned toe-tapping) by way of a wooden platform called a tarima upon which they dance zapateado, best described as Mexican tap-dancing.

The whole tap-dance-as-percussion thing goes a long way toward explaining Las Cafeteras’ status as a dynamic live band.

And that ability to transcend a particular sound, genre or language—they perform in English, Spanish, and even Spanglish, switching between the three with great ease—has served them well, and afforded them opportunities to play with artists as varied as Mexican icons Caifanes, the mighty Ozomatli, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Talib Kweli. The seemingly random rundown of musicians and bands speaks to the versatility of Las Cafeteras.

But, as mentioned, this band has a mission bigger than their music. Their songs deal with issues of social justice, often those that relate directly to the immigrant experience. They speak for people of color, the working class—people whose lives have mirrored their own—transmitting messages that act as both calls to action and community-building exercises. And along with standard music venues, Las Cafeteras also bring their concerts to community centers, social-justice organizations and other places where their music is sure to resonate with audiences comprised of people with shared or similar history. As well, it is not unusual for them to do more than just play shows, they’ve also become known for running workshops, offering educational opportunities and doing all they can to encourage and foster dialogue everywhere they go.

Much like hiding the vegetables in familiar foods to make them more palatable—or chasing your medicine with that proverbial spoonful of sugar—you might see Las Cafeteras for the music, but you’re likely to come away with something a whole lot more meaningful than just a good time.

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