Watching the 7-piece band Las Cafeteras perform on stage is quite a scene. The East Los Angeles-based group sing in English and Spanish, they tap dance on top of wooden boxes, and their instruments include a donkey jawbone, small 8-string guitars called jaranas, and a funky wooden box with metal keys called the marimbol.
We sat down with three of the Cafeteras -- Annette Torres, Daniel Jesus French, and David Flores-- to talk about traditional son jarocho, modern lyrics, and awesome instruments that fuse the two together. The setting was the idyllic Sahara Lounge, far from the chaos that is downtown Austin during SXSW.
Annette very proudly told us about picking up the marimbol, an African-rooted Cuban instrument from the 19th century that is traditionally played by men for Mexican son jarocho, Cuban chanüí, and Dominican merengue. It's a wooden box with a cut out sound hole covered with several metal strips that are tuned to different pitches. But this isn't her only talent. Almost all the members of band also dance zapateado (a Mexican dance similar to tap.)
The three of them played an acoustic version of "La Bamba", the most well-known son jarocho song on this side of the border -- but their lyrics reflected their 21st century East LA upbringing.
Daniel also told us about fandangos that take place in Veracruz, the birthplace of son jarocho; celebrations where people get together and jam out to traditional songs. "You can play 'La Bamba' maybe for like an hour straight because everyone is improvising and throwing in verses," he said.
If you never thought you could listen to "La Bamba" for more than 30 seconds… Las Cafeteras proves you wrong.
After our interview, we watched the whole band perform inside the Sahara Lounge, where we got a chance to see Leah Rose Gallegos play the quijada (the lower jawbone of a donkey, horse, or zebra). The jaw is dried and the teeth are pulled so that they are loose. The instrument only lasts about six months until its worn out.
How easy is it to get another donkey jawbone? It's not, they later told us. You have to know someone, who knows someone, who's going to Mexico and can find you one. The rarity of the instrument makes the sound more powerful to listen to.
Las Cafeteras' lyrics are also quite powerful. They sing of their reality in California and the conflicts their grandparents and parents had to go through to get there. A lot of us have similar histories in our own families, and it was oddly refreshing to hear lyrics about human struggle and heritage after a weeklong of love songs at SXSW music conference.
As we said goodbye to Las Cafeteras before heading back to the airport, we gave them the bottle of mezcal we had been peddling all week long in Austin. If there's a band that would truly appreciate artisanal mezal (and who could really use it in the 20-hour drive back to LA) -- it was Las Cafeteras. Cheers!