With “Tastes Like L.A.,” Las Cafeteras delivers politically charged folk fusion

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“All good art is political,” teaches the great American writer Toni Morrison. “There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’” The East Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras has taken this lesson to heart. They most certainly do not love the status quo, and therefore have made their anger and their desire for change the core of their artistic lives.

Everything about Las Cafeteras is political, beginning with the band’s name. In Spanish, a group that includes both men and women will traditionally be referred to as masculine, so the supposedly correct moniker should be Los Cafeteros. However, the band members – community organizers, social justice warriors, as well as students of Mexican culture – decided “to honor the women” by adopting the feminine form.

Members José Cano, Daniel French, Annette Torres, Denise Carlos, Héctor Flores, David Flores and Leah Rose Gallegos met while taking classes in son jarocho, a style of folk music from the state of Veracruz in Mexico. They formed Las Cefeteras in an Internet café and set out to create music that reflected their identities, their anger towards the injustices they see in the world, and their hope for a better future.

They use traditional instruments such as the jarana and the requinto, both Mexican guitar variations, which in itself is a political statement, an affirmation of the value of other ways, older ways of doing things. But their music is the opposite of old-fashioned. Cano explains that they begin with traditional tunes and rhythms, “but we change the lyrics, we create a fusion with urban folk, Afromexican music, hip-hop, cumbia, ska, and rock.”

The result is at times fresh and fun, at times soulful and profound. The band makes excellent use of their multi-instrumentalist talents, and of the haunting voices of their singers, especially Gallegos and Carlos.

They caught significant attention with their second album, “It’s Time,” populated with catchy, humorous, and yet explicitly political songs such as “La Bamba Rebelde” (“Rebel La Bamba”), a re-imagining of the well-known tune that spoke of racism, poverty, and the travails of immigrants. “I don’t believe in borders,” it proclaims. “I will cross over.” Their principled brand of folk fusion won them some prominent fans. Over the years they’ve opened for or collaborated with such headliners as Juanes and Lila Downs.

Success brought trouble. Torres left the band and very publicly accused her former mates of being “sexist sellouts,” who came to care more about money than about the band’s mission. This caused an extended feud that played out over social media and reverberated across the Los Angeles progressive music scene.

Through it all, Las Cafeteras kept working, and in these days of Trump they’ve delivered a third album, “Tastes Like L.A.” It’s another strong showing, though perhaps not up to the standard set by “It’s Time.” Certainly, none of its tracks reaches the memorable heights of “La Bamba Rebelde.”

“Tastes Like L.A.” alternates between love ballads like “Tiempos de Amor” (“Times of Love”), humorous party numbers like the very clever “Vamos to the Beach” (which alludes to the classic Righeira hit “Vamos a la Playa”), and protest songs such as “If I Was President” and a heartfelt cover of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Las Cafeteras are also not afraid to combine cultural references with a little subtle raunchiness, as in “Paletero” (“Popsickle Salesman”), which seems to be an ode to Mexican frozen treats only to turn into something totally different: “You are skin of chocolate/ I imagine you taste like wine/ How I would love to taste you.”

It’s hard not to notice, though, that the quality of the Spanish lyrics has declined between “It’s Time” and “Tastes Like L.A.” It’s a little disheartening that Las Cafeteras, for all their good intentions, show a slightly patronizing attitude towards the Spanish language. Unlike in the previous album, the Spanish lyrics here are almost uniformly simplistic, as if Spanish is only good for maudlin, childish sentiment.

Only when they switch to English do their words truly resonate, as in the forceful rap solo that punctuates “If I Was President”: “And my first lady/ Would be my moms/ Cause she’d slap me/ At the first thought of drone strikes/ And dropping bombs.” There’s nothing in Spanish of comparable eloquence anywhere in the album. The Spanish lyrics instead go for the easy rhyme and the overused turn of phrase.

One has to wonder, moreover, whether the very talented members of Las Cafeteras couldn’t find anywhere in Los Angeles one person who could check the spelling of the Spanish lyrics they provide on their website, which feature a number of careless mistakes.

Unfortunately, it looks like the dark times will be with us for a while. Enough time for Las Cafeteras to right the ship and fix these small issues and continue their work, now that their voice is needed. more than ever

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