I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Four hundred and seventy-seven miles from Indianapolis to Des Moines; eight hours overnight to Cedeilia, Missouri. I finally settled into a Ramada, where I called José Andrés Blanco, whose band, King Changó, is touring the U.S. in support of their new record, Sosuco , on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop/Warner Brothers. It took our publicists two weeks to pin us both down and find a free hour that jibed with our schedules of gigging and traveling. Sometimes rock and roll moves faster than the speed of faxes and phone calls, and for most musicians, the romance of rock on tour vanishes in so many deli-trays and wee hours visits to Flying J truck stops. When we finally did get to talk, our conversation covered everything from Latino music to Kung Fu movies. We also agreed that the best way for us to address concerns beyond musical things is to shut up and play. We talked until the tape ran out, and went on to our next gig.
Louis Pérez Where are you?
Andrew Blanco In Iowa. We’re going next to Minneapolis.
LP Coming from where?
AB Saint Louis. And before that, Virginia…
LP It’s interesting, two musicians on the road, living out of a suitcase and off of backstage food. We could spend the whole conversation talking about the quality of the deli-tray.
AB Tell me about it. We’ve been touring for eight months. The longest vacation we’ve had is two weeks. I’m not exaggerating. We started performing here in the United States, and then we went to Guadalajara, Mexico last November… It’s funny, we played in Ashville, North Carolina, and somebody compared us to you guys: “You guys remind me of Los Lobos.”
LP Yeah, how does that figure?
AB It’s that “crossover” mentality. It’s not just the music, it’s a state of mind.
LP Either that, or it’s some journalist who figures that a band that sings in Spanish has to have something to do with a band like us. It has always interested me that being a Chicano from the West Coast, and you, being Venezuelan on the East Coast, is there really a difference? Because whether we’re Puerto Ricanos or Mexicanos or Central American or from Santo Domingo, we still get put under this one label: “Latinos.” Of course, Mexico is a different country than Puerto Rico. El Salvador is different than Venezuela. As a result of that label we’ve become very provincial. We say, “No-no-no, we’re not Mexicano, we’re from Cuba.” And the process of doing that creates division among our people.
AB To me, it should be a whole family. If you have racial problems, it’s not going to change if you’re Mexican, or Cuban, or Venezuelan. It’s against Latinos. Racism and discrimination work in weird ways. King Changó is a total reflection of living as an immigrant in the United States. That’s why we combine alternative music, music that kids listen to and hear, and the music that our grandparents used to listen to. We’re trying to mix it up and give a little of our culture to people here. Even to Latinos who live here, who are losing their culture, becoming too Americanized, because they are afraid of being put in that “Latino” frame. On the other hand, it’s important if you move to a different country, to be part of that country. And for a lot of Latinos that have lived in the States for 20 years and still don’t speak English. They live in this little town, like a little wonder world where all the groceries are Spanish and all they watch is Spanish T.V.
LP It starts from a necessity for ethnic people to want to hang on to things that are their own, especially when they’re in another country. I grew up in a Mexicano barrio in L.A., and it was the same way. We had the church across the street, and the grocery stores. We were completely insulated. The T.V. was our only window in to that other world. I’d sit there and watch Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver, and I would look at them, and then look over my shoulder at my own family with our dinette set where none of the chairs matched, and the paper plates, and my jefito, my dad, sitting in his coveralls covered with paint from the car he was painting that day. And what that told me was that something wasn’t right. Because by looking at T.V., which legitimized the lifestyle of the Father in the suit and the Mother in her dress and the china and stuff, it told me that there was something wrong with our world. And I think that’s what happens. How old were you when you came over?
AB I was a teen. I’ve only been here for eight and a half years. So, growing up as a Latino, or as you said, Chicano or Nuyorican, it’s a very hard thing. The other day on the plane, when we were coming back from Spain to New York, they were showing the movie Selena. In the movie, the guy who plays Selena’s dad mentions something about how being a Chicano was the hardest thing: “For Mexicans we’re not Mexican enough, and for Americans we’re not American enough.” They were stuck right in the middle, in limbo.
LP Exactly. I can only relate to this as a Chicano, as a Mexican American, but I’m sure this happens to other ethnic people born in the United States. For us as Chicanos, it’s always been that we’ve never been totally accepted by the Nacionales, the Mexican nationals. They call us pochos: “Okay, what are you, Mexican or American?” And in the United States, we’re never completely accepted as Americans. So we’re straddling that fence. But at the same time, over the years I’ve found a lot of freedom in that. Because I’ve realized, I belong to the universe. I belong to this world, to the earth, and this is something that’s beyond borders, beyond any concept of racial difference or politics. When I was young I thought, “Aren’t we supposed to be like that image of the American family?” That’s when the process of homogenization begins. Most young people, whether Latinos or Asian or whatever, go through the process of trying to ignore their culture to assimilate. When as young musicians we rediscovered Mexican music, which played in the background all our lives, we were suddenly aware of everything around us, the depth and richness of our roots. It was the music that drew us back.
AB For me, being in Venezuela, I was a rebel, a rocker. Growing up, I was a fan of KISS, punk music, New Wave, and it was cool to be part of that. But most young people, even if they were considered “radical,” still went to clubs and danced to salsa or merengue. I danced to that stuff, but I never wanted to buy a record of ranchera or merengue or salsa. I’d listen to it on the radio and that’s it. But as soon as I got to New York, every week there was a new sound coming out. There was cheesy ’80s rock, and contemporary alternative stuff, grunge—there was all kinds of different stuff, it was incredible. I started buying records like crazy, collecting music, and then I began exploring the world beat sessions, like bhangra music from India, and then I got involved with reggae. When we started the band four years ago, we started it in the ska scene and in the rock en español scene. It was a big boom in New York, and there were at least 15 to 25 bands. Everybody had a different style. I had been a reggae fan since I was 12—I knew that I had to play that type of music someday. But the thing is, initially I was a fan, I never thought that I would be a musician. I started the band as a hobby. But by listening to so much music, I had learned a lot. The whole concept of King Changó was born from being immigrants. Somehow music was the thing that kept it all together. We wanted to build a different style of music, and we wanted to call it Latin ska. And from there, we started this movement in the States. Right now, there’re probably 10 or more Latin ska bands in the States.
LP In Los Angeles, there’s a band that’s making a lot of noise in the club scene called Ozomatli…
AB Oh dude, that’s my favorite band in the States. Last year we played with them at a festival in California. We were jamming with those guys, it was great.
LP What do you think the attraction is? It’s interesting, the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley, all the Studio One stuff was happening in the ’60s. And in England in the early ’80s, the Two-Tone movement, with The Specials, Madness and the Selector, and then fast forward to 10 years later, and now there are Latinos—Mexican Americans and East Coast Latinos—who are gaining a lot of popularity for playing a mix of reggae, ska and Latin music.
AB The Two-Tone era opened the doors for ska all around the world. Back in the ‘60s, ska was more a calypso, soca—it was soul music, and everybody used to relate it to the Caribbean. But it wasn’t a thing to play, it was just Caribbean party music. But Two-Tone was the thing that made it real. The Two-Tone ska flew all around the world, and bands started coming out in South and Central America. Bands like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Sumo—they used to play funk, ska, reggae. I think that was one of the first crossover bands in South America. At the same time there were bands in Mexico, like Maldita Vecindad, who started Mexican alternative rock. And part of their influence was also reggae and ska, but it was very hyper and very crazy. Then in France, there was a band called Mano Negra that was very influenced by The Clash, who were also into reggae and ska. All those bands were the influence for us to do Latin ska. Here in the States, ska has been very strong. We started playing it not because it was popular, but because we enjoyed it and enjoyed the energy. Ska and salsa have the same roots—it’s Jamaican, or Cuban, or African. You’ve got horns and percussion, they’re just involved in different grooves. They used to call it not just Latin ska, but “urban world beat.”
LP The Two-Tone movement definitely made it cool and hip for young people to listen to ska and reggae. At the same time, they also brought it to the level of political expression. Because the idea of a Two-Tone thing was that it was blacks and whites together. Like The Specials. They were from Coventry, England, which was incredibly racist and where that kind of thing was unheard of. So do you think that the political expression was also mixed in with what Latinos found? The music was energetic and that’s what attracted them, but did they also find in it a place where they could express their feelings?
AB To me, that whole unity is a political movement, but it’s based on the immigrant point of view. For example, the Jamaicans who emigrated to England brought that music with them, the necessity of doing their music there created a new thing. Then all of a sudden the punks from England were totally impressed with reggae and ska, and the black people or the Jamaicans were totally impressed with punk and rock and roll. It’s the same here, all the immigrants from Central or South America are trying to bring up our music, but at the same time we’re learning something from American music. As far as I know, the Latin ska bands here haven’t gotten that political. They should be more into it. In our position, on an American label, it’s important that we represent our culture up front. That’s going to help other bands in the States that are waiting for an opportunity. But the most important thing for me is that a lot of young Americans are growing up seeing Spanish people in a negative way, and to interest them through the music and the language, to get them into our culture and tell them, “Listen man, there’s more to learn from us; you have no idea what we really are about.” That to me is very important, giving them something from my culture.
LP And redefining the stereotypes.
AB Some people think Latin ska is ska in Spanish, but Latin ska could be anything. We try to make it more than just typical Jamaican or British ska in Spanish. We’re trying to add flavor, instrumentos typicos: la conga, güiro, a bassline, then a percussion break, and then a sticky chorus in Spanish. For example, we did a gig in Washington, D.C. for the Inaugural Ball. We played with The Platters and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. It was so funny, singing our lyrics, “…the border is tough/the police patrol cover their crimes in the dark/if we all get together we can make them stop!” to all these Democrats. Some people got it and others didn’t, but they were there, involved in our thing.
LP There’s something really exciting about being in a place where historically, or typically, we don’t belong. We were invited to play for the grand opening of Elvis Presley’s club on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. We go down there, set up our stuff, and since it’s all about the King of Rock and Roll, we play some of our rock and roll tunes. Then we go to this song in Spanish, a Tex-Mex song, and I’m playing a norteño right there at this historical event. I’m thinking to myself, this is incredible. This is one of those unique times when music transcends all boundaries, all limitations, all differences, and we all just become one thing. We had the big hit, “La Bamba,” right? And man, I’m telling you, we could have sold Doritos for the rest of our lives if we wanted to. But the next record, La Pistole et La Corazon, was regional music from Mexico. We followed up a world wide hit with that record. But it excited the heck out of us to be able to take the focus, the commercial hit, and refocus it on something that really represented our culture.
AB That’s the best moment for a musician.
LP It’s a time when you let down all the defenses. You open yourself up, and so much freedom is felt by finally being able to just express yourself. You now have an opportunity to bring your own experiences into the mix. With that comes some responsibility, especially for people like us who are speaking for our culture.
AB It’s very important for us to do a good job, because we’re not just a band anymore, we’re a cultural movement, and a lot of people are paying attention to us. It definitely does put the pressure on, but I’m just trying to be myself. Just be, through the music, through the lyrics; express things that bother us, things that I think are not fair. Like you said, instead of doing another typical rock and roll tune, you came out with something that totally excited you, and that’s what was real.
Things with the Latinos are getting worse and worse in the U.S. For example, we have two people in the band now, the drummer and my brother at the keyboard, who are like tourists; they don’t have green cards. When we got signed, we tried to get working permits. But now, a working permit is only for six months. It’s just a nightmare. Every time we leave the country it’s an agony thinking that we’re going to miss a flight and they won’t let them back in. In April, we went to the Bahamas for a Caribbean festival, and the Immigration department left my brother in the Bahamas. I stayed with him for three days, stuck, until this lawyer worked it out. So on that side it’s getting worse and more racist. But then, on the other side, to have David Byrne backing us up and respecting our point of view is great.
LP The industry now is not so hit driven. Before, when you’d listen to radio you could say, “Okay, I understand why that’s big.” But you never know what’s going to be a hit anymore.
AB Exactly. Culture-wise, a lot of doors are opening. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s important for me to feel like the time spent is worth it. When I moved to the States I wanted to study graphic design. All I did when I was a kid was paint and draw—and I did karate. When I started with the music, it began as a hobby, but now it’s become that orgullo, that pride, of doing your thing and people digging it.
LP Do you spend a lot of time dissecting the music and rehearsing before you go into the studio?
AB I really believe in improvisation. A lot of our music is created in rehearsals. We try to record every rehearsal that we do, because it’s always magic. Half of the melodic stuff, the chorus or things that I do in the vocals, happen when we go in and record. And a lot of times you create songs and they get sloppy arrangements, and the more you play them live, the more it becomes a new thing. For example, in the middle of the salsa part on our recording the drummer lost a drumstick. He paused, grabbed the stick from the floor, did a “bam-bam,” and then kept playing. We were like, “Aw fuck,” and just kept recording and finished the song. But when we played it back and heard it, it was great. He created a whole break, it was beautiful.
LP You can’t rehearse that stuff, it just happens and it’s the gifts that we get. Our last record, Colossal Head, was all written and recorded in the studio.
Yeah, you and I have a lot we can relate to, because my background is visual art tambien. That’s all I ever did when I was a kid, and when I got into music it was for the same reason you did—it was just another way to express myself. David, who’s my writing partner, is a musician all the way down to his bones. But the way I tell the story is that David is a musician who thinks like a painter, and I’m a painter who thinks he’s a musician.
AB That’s my case. I’m a painter who thinks he’s a musician.
LP Our other connection is the Asian one, because for quite a few years I’ve been very into Chinese and Japanese literature and poetry, and martial arts has been part of your life since you were very young, right?.
AB Since I was six. Yeah, I’m very into martial arts and Japanese and Chinese spiritual beliefs. Also, in Venezuela, Japanese T.V. and animation took over the young population. I’m a big fan of Godzilla. There was this series called Ultraman, in the ’70s it was the shit—also Speed Racer and Astro Boy. We grew up watching that, but none of the toys, comic books or coloring books were available. When I moved to New York, I started looking for books and for illustrations of Japanese design, and I found a toy store that had Japanese toys, collectible stuff from the ‘70s, and I experienced all these throwbacks, all these memories: “Look at this! Look at that!” So now I’m a big collector of Japanese toys.
LP And Latin music is really popular in Japan.
AB Yeah, for example, Orquesta de la Luz. They used to play mambo, malacha, cumbia and cha-cha-cha, and then mixed that up with psychobilly or rockabilly and surf music. The sound of it is so fucking antique, it sounds old and it sounds kick ass. There’s also a band called Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, a ten or a twelve piece band. They’ve been together since the ’80s, the lead singer just recently died of AIDS. They used to give an incredible live show—my stage presence is influenced a little bit from them—they would dress up in yellow suits and feathered suits, these freaky big sunglasses and funky hats. Their music also involved Latino and other flavors.
LP Yeah, when I first heard Orquesta de la Luz, I couldn’t believe it.
AB When they came out I was in New York, and at the time all the salsas that were coming out were so pop and cheesy. Then all of a sudden I heard la Luz and it sounded so Cuban, so real I couldn’t believe it. As a matter of fact, the name of our record is called Sosuco. It’s three letters that mean “to be continued” in Japanese. It’s like a hidden name, because everybody thinks the record is self-titled.
This record we focused on trying to push American kids to be part of the soccer movement. Our next record is going to be called El Retorno Del Santo and is going to be about Mexican wrestling. I collect Mexican wrestling figures. I have 60 dolls now. I also have two or three videos of El Santo, but the best of them are dubbed in English.
LP When I was a kid we used to watch those on T.V., but they were all dubbed in English. My mother would watch KMEX, the Spanish station. And they would have Mexican wrestling. I remember saying once, “What the heck’s going on? That guy’s dressed like a superhero!”
AB I went to my first wrestling show in Guadalajara. My brother and I went there and met one of the wrestlers whose name is Dandi. Dandi doesn’t wear a mask so he has more the look of the traditional superhero, not just a wrestler. For me, the Mexican wrestler is the first authentic South American or Central American superhero. While Superman and Batman were here, El Santo and Blue Demon were kicking ass in South America.
LP This goes back to martial arts, my wife and I have gotten into watching Bruce Lee movies. The last one we saw was Fists of Fury, and the next day I received the package with your CD. I listened to the CD and was reading along with the lyrics, and then I got to the song, “God Damn Killers.” I read the lyrics to that and said, “This is like Fists of Fury.” I thought, boy, is this a coincidence? The lyric is following the storyline of this movie.
AB I took karate for 12 years with my teacher, Oscar Gonzales. That guy became my second dad. He was so involved in martial arts and teaching kids that he lost his marriage and all his money. And I believe part of his belief is in me, the part of teaching to people who really appreciate it. I learned so much from him. He used to teach martial arts to the army in Venezuela, for the Rescue Team, which is kind of like the FBI. They have a department of bizarre mercenaries who work on big cases of drug dealers or kidnappings. Nobody knows who these guys are, they’re psychotic superheros in a way, and he used to train these motherfuckers. Three months after I moved to New York, my dad called me to tell me that my teacher had been shot. Apparently, four guys went to steal his auto bike, and they shot him. Everybody knew the story was bullshit, that it was really some political incident. They sent those guys to kill him. I have always been frustrated because I never had the chance to even go to the cemetery. I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t do anything. He was one of the first people really close to me who died. It wasn’t just the action of him being dead, it was the action of missing somebody because I had moved to another country. I never had a chance to say goodbye or a chance to let him know how much he had influenced my life with his teaching. So when I started the band, one song that was very sad, “God Damn Killers,” started when we were talking about, “They killed my teacher/ They killed my teacher.” It was a sudden improvisation, and then that became the lyric.
It’s funny you mention Fists of Fury. I wanted to use samples from the movie for the song, that part where the guy says, “Ah-ha. We killed your teacher.” It was perfect. It made so much sense, I couldn’t believe it. When I watched that movie I was in tears. I’m really shocked that you mentioned that. But we couldn’t use the sample because of clearance bullshit.
LP You have this other song on the record, “Revolution/Cumbia Reggae,” that I wanted to ask you about. I wrote a song on our last record, Colossal Head, called “Revolution.” I pictured an activist guy from the Chicano movement in the late ’60s, looking back at the revolution, at what he was in those days. The lyric says something to the effect of, “I’m too tired to hold my fist up high.” In other words, he put everything that he could into the movimiento and what he believed in, but now he’s older, he’s looking back, asking the question, “Is there still such a thing as revolution?” Do we still have the power to make the difference? In your song it’s more direct. It’s talking about having the energy and the determination to make change. But at the same time, what I found in your lyric is that you’re not talking about making war, but about fighting ignorance.
AB The whole problem is that the ignorance is on us, the Spanish speaking people who live here. Like what we’ve been talking about today. The revolution has to happen in ourselves, in all the Latino community. When I wrote the song, “Revolution/Cumbia Reggae,” it was based on that incident that happened on the border of California and Mexico, where they caught cops beating the shit out of Mexicans crossing the border. Of course, that shit has been happening for God knows how many years, but everybody just ignores it. Then all of a sudden somebody catches it on camera, and it was a big scandal all over the United States. I’m not Mexican, but that made me so upset because that person crossing the border could have been me. It was easy for me to come here and get a visa, but for other people it’s not. And a lot of people try to come to this country to have a better life, because in our country everything is so fucked up. If you stay there you’re never going to do anything with your life. I was so upset about that incident that I just wanted to do something. That’s the reason the song is in English, because I wanted Americans to hear it, not just Spanish people. At the end of the song, there’s a part that sounds like a politician speaking in Spanish. The idea is that there are a lot of Spanish speaking people, first or second generation immigrants, politicians and powerful businessmen who are in positions of power to do things here. And if those guys start helping the small communities, things will start getting better for us. If we start helping each other and start forgetting, you are Mexican, I’m Cuban, you are Venezuelan, I’m just watching out for my people… But who do they think are their people? Instead of fighting each other, we should be getting together as one community. We talk about gringos being racist with us, but we are the ones who are being racist with ourselves.
LP Exactly, which brings us full circle to where we started this conversation. We have to get over our own internal politics so we can make those differences, make those changes. We have the situation in Los Angeles concerning Oscar de la Hoya, the boxer. Everybody loved him in the community, and then once he went pro and started to become successful the Chicanos started to rag on him: “Oh, he forgets where he comes from.” And the media perpetuates that stuff. I remember his last big match, de la Hoya vs. Chavez, to many, it became a showdown between Chicanos and Mexican Nationals. It was just ridiculous. These were two great athletes of Mexican descent competing for a world title, a victory in itself for all of us. We need to get over this rivalry and stop knocking those who work hard and become successful.
AB We have gotten e-mail from fans who are calling us sell-outs. There’s nothing sell-out in King Changó. We’re doing the type of music that we want. We dress like we want. We do the records that we want and we’re touring the places that we want. There’s not a machine—even though we work for a big industry, there’s nobody telling us what to do. If you do something because it’s going to be commercial and you’re just thinking about the money you’re going to make, then you’re being a sell-out. But the thing that they don’t understand is that if one guy gets popular, the whole community is going to get popular. Wanting to enjoy life and live in a nice neighborhood and raise a family near a good school doesn’t mean you’re forgetting your roots. The hardest crowds that we ever played for were Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Because when we started playing rock en español gigs, they just wanted rock in Spanish; it was very racist. The crowd would scream, “Talk to me in Spanish güero! We want rock!” It was hardcore.
LP When we first started to play over on the West Side in all the punk rock clubs in the early ‘80s, nobody in our community could understand what we were doing. They were saying, “What are you doing over there?” We weren’t compromising, we were playing our music, norteños and everything, for all the punks in their mohawks and leather jackets. We have to stop creating these boundaries for ourselves, because in doing so, as you said, we become our worst enemy. What excites me is that we can play music and make art that is not expected to be coming from Chicanos. Or like in your case, coming from a Latino from New York. What it really takes is the courage to say, “I belong everywhere. I can go anywhere I want.”
—Louis Pérez is an artist, writer, and musician with the three time Grammy Award winning band, Los Lobos. His writing credits include an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan with Tony Kushner for the La Jolla Playhouse. He has also contributed an essay to the forthcoming book Let the Music Go Bang (St. Martin’s Press), a survey of the early punk scene In LA. He is currently working on a story to be developed for the stage by the Mark Taper Forum, as well as a new album from Latin Playboys with longtime collaborator David Hidalgo.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee