Thursday, July 30, 2009
There were no top shelf margaritas sipped on Cancún’s white sand beaches or any snorkeling with rainbow-colored parrot fish in Cozumel. There was no air-conditioned tour bus or hotel overlooking the clear waters of Banderas Bay.
This wasn’t that kind of Mexico. Instead, as I hit the road with my band PLG (Para La Gente, or “For the People”), it was caguamas of Victoria beer gulped in sweaty crowds, long hot drives in a dingy van, and nights squeezed next to my band mates in inner-city motels. We performed seven shows in six cities, traveling from the windy mountain passes of Chiapas to the narrow cobblestone roads of Michoacán. Though we were warned of how loco and peligroso driving across Mexico would be, instead the trip was super bien chido.
We’re local boys – I live in Salinas and the other guys in the band are all based on the Central Coast. For almost three weeks we delivered live hip-hop (a rare music form below the border) alongside Bocafloja, one of Mexico’s most popular independent rappers. But since hip-hop is nowhere as big in Mexico as it is up north, we weren’t sure how it would go over.
All this was going on while Mexico’s economy was lousy, narcotraffickers were claiming lives in shootouts with police, and regular folks were paying the price. Lyrics we had written about currupt government and social justice took on greater meaning than they would have at California shows.
Throughout the trip, other distinctions between the North American neighbors kept coming, proving at times enlightening, at times frightening – and always exciting.DISTRITO FEDERAL
Packed in the van like tightly rolled taquitos, we slowly work our way out of heavy traffic in Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of concrete homes surrounded by green, mystical mountains. There are 11 of us in the van, with enough gear in the back to rock a live show. Lil’ Wayne bumps through the subwoofers. Each pothole or crack in the road rattles the van’s frame. I’m a little hungover after we drank two bottles of tequila last night. There was reason to celebrate. Although Leon Gomez (guitarist) and I (bassist) coasted into Mexico City on a plane, five of the guys made the nearly three-day drive from Salinas to D.F., surviving a dicey border, two overturned 18-wheelers, and a face-off with corrupt police.
Each bench is a bed for the road warriors: Mike Fernandez (MC), Omar “Mero Mero” Murillo (drummer), Aaron “Aha” Moore (guitarist), Geraldo Macias (DJ Dephcon), and Sergio Torres (videographer). They rotated shifts and drove straight through California and Texas and crossed the border at Laredo. Thankfully, the van has a DVD player. Bloodsport and Chappelle’s Show provided entertainment.
But the large van with California plates had made the crew an easy target. As they were just about to enter Mexico City, a state cop pulled them over, initially saying they weren’t wearing seat belts. Several armed and intimidating police showed up. They claimed that since Mike didn’t have his passport stamped, he was in the country illegally and the van was unlawful too. They threatened to deport Mike and tow the van with all our equipment, which would have meant a fight to get our ride and gear out of impound and our MC out of jail. The guys ended up paying $900 to drive away. The extortion was their bienvenidos to Mexico’s capital.
Luckily, we now have a local guiding us. Bocafloja is an award-winning rapper from D.F. whose fan base stretches from Latin America to California. Bocafloja founded Quilomboarte, “an organization that seeks to produce cultural events in which hip-hop functions as an educational tool and an essential collaborative adhesive to social and political leftist movements in the processes of transformation throughout Mexico and Latin America.” The name Quilombo comes from communities of fugitive black and indigenous people who resisted colonialism. We got hooked up with Boca through Mike (aka Cambio), who is part of Quilombo and took a similar trip through Mexico last summer. Though Boca and promoters set up the shows, getting to the gigs proved to be half the battle.CHIAPAS
Now through a bevy of toll stations where armed federal troops asked to search our van several times (stupid Cali plates), we are nearing San Cristóbal de las Casas, a cosmospolitan mountain town at the southern edge of Mexico, where we’ll play our first show. The road is dark and wet, and our envoy is quiet and sleepy. But adrenaline starts pumping when we hit a hidden puddle of water at the bottom of a bend. It feels like we are underwater as the water blinds us for a few long seconds. But Mike holds us steady on the road and we don’t drown.
The treacherous, 12-hour drive is worth it. Manik B, a reggae singer who we’re going to perform with, greets us with a friendly face in the city’s beautiful plaza. Manik arranged a couple of houses for us to crash at over the next few days. After some tacos and a bucket of beer, we walk to the venue we will be performing at: Las Velas, a three level club with white tile floors, colorful lights and candle-lit tables.
The scene reminds me of Santa (Rasta) Cruz: dreadlocked dudes dancing to Damian Marley. The Zapatistas, a revolutionary indigenous group that took up arms in Chiapas in 1994, have attracted an international following. Though there are no signs of Subcomandante Marcos, the masked, pipe-smoking liberation army spokesman (except on T-shirts), there are plenty of Europeans in town who came to be close to the movement. Here we pick up the ubiquitous word chido (cool).
Our first performance is solid, though typical of any show we’ve played in the States – some heads nodding in the crowd of about 100 through a little feeling of disconnect. Maybe they’re more pumped for the afterparty. Since there were elections this weekend, the bar was supposed to close down early. Instead they move the booze upstairs and on the roof for late night techno dancing.
The next night is an all-ages show and we receive a much better reception. It doesn’t matter that Cambio’s rhymes are in English or that we play Dr. Dre and Biggy covers that the crowd doesn’t know the words to. They feel the music. They throw their hands up and are genuinely excited, especially for the numbers with distorted guitar riffs.
Naturally, they’re here for the main event: Bocafloja. Boca masterfully shuffles hits from his four solo albums and has the crowd rapping in unison to the anthem: “Rap conscienca: Tú sabes quien es Boca Floja.” (Conscious rap: You know who it is. Loose Mouth.) Bocafloja invites us on stage with him for “Autonomo” and “Tiempo,” two of his most popular songs.
For two songs we feel famous, with the kids singing Boca’s words while we back him up with drums, bass and guitars. Then we kill it off with “Mundo,” Cambio’s new collaboration track with Bocafloja and DJ Ethos. After the show, Bocafloja is signing shirts and CDs and posing for pictures. Cambio gives some autographs, too. Good music transcends language.
Our last day in San Cristóbal we do some band therapy: basketball. Tension can run high in a band sharing the same van and living space. When someone drives too fast, doesn’t help unload the equipment, takes too long to get ready or steals the blankets, resentment mounts. We get our aggression out by pushing each other around on the court. It’s Sunday and the courts are flooded with people. We attract some onlookers as we play rough, and my team bricks shot after shot (blame it on the hoops). I’m on the losing side of the series but there will be redemption in Mexico City. That night we toast Chiapas goodbye from a rooftop sunset spot.GUADALAJARA, JALISCO
There’s no time to appreciate the bustling plazas or white horse-drawn carriages. By the time we eat, stop at the hotel and get lost trying to find the venue, there’s already a crowd in the Red Lion, and another band has set up their gear. We skip a fundamental step – sound check – though I’m not sure it would have helped.
The people are hungry for a show. Probably about 250 people – mainly young guys – sweat inside the hot club which kind of looks like a converted hotel lobby, with pillars and rounded ceilings laced with graffiti.
The Guerrilla Queenz, a Chicana hip-hop group from Los Angeles, opens the show and a collective band with horns and MCs follows. The music: great. The sound: terrible. The muddy acoustics remind me of our early days at the Black Box Cabaret at CSUMB. Muffled vocals and feedback work for punk rock, but not hip-hop.
We can’t get our backing tracks to work and I have to plug my bass directly into the PA after I can’t get the bass amp to function. It’s all good in the end, though. We have the crowd singing the words to “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “California Love.” Bocafloja is at his usual prime, weaving in and out of a cappella and banging tracks while his fans sing the words.
We learn not to expect the bumping sound system we saw in San Cristóbal. But there isn’t much time to look back. We have to get up early and leave for the next city.MORELIA, MICHOACÁN
Bocafloja and his brother, Fabián Villegas, read from their poetry book, Imarginación, which is centered on hip-hop and political resistance, cultivated at the language and literature department of the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. It’s an intimate setting, with students listening intently to spoken word by Boca and other members of the Quilombo crew. It’s refreshing to hear simple words without a backing beat or instrument, hip-hop taken back to its roots as spoken word and social commentary.
We sell our t-shirts there. We’d figured the most popular one in Mexico would be the image of a machine gun and headphones with the band’s name. One kid questions Aha about the meaning. He explains in Spanish that our music is our weapon to destroy the colonial mentality. The student opted for the tree design instead.
Afterwards, Bubba, the promoter, treats us to some pasta and pulque – “The drink of the gods” is what my Chicano band mates call the drink. At first pulque is a bit, well, gross. It’s juice from fermented agave, and we order the non-sweetened kind, so it’s pure maguey cactus – the flavor reminiscent of a really cheap white wine. But the buzz is divine. It’s very relaxing without the drowsy side effects of a cerveza.
That night we scope out the La Vecindad, the club we’re going to play. A live and young salsa band gets the crowd dancing with hits from Hector Lavoe and others.
The next night, the scene is just as electric for our show – though I’m feeling my crudo (hangover) – it’s a straight-up party crowd. Pollomingus, a live funk band with Bubba on the microphone warms up the audience. The place is so packed I have to politely push my way onstage.
We get our best reaction from this crowd. Our dance song “Synth Love,” from our new album, has the guys looking for a dance partner. And we bring out an oldie but a goodie, “Last Dance,” a cumbia/hip-hop tune that nearly creates a mosh pit.
Little did we know that earlier that morning, gunmen had attacked a police station in Morelia after the arrest of Arnoldo Rueda Medina, an alleged leader of La Familia drug cartel. The attackers threw grenades where Medina was being held, injuring three agents. It was one of a series of six attacks across the state of Michoacán. While music is in the forefront for us, Mexico’s vicious drug war is a sobering reality check for everyone.SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE QUERÉTARO
¿Donde estamos? I don’t know. We are on a single lane road curving through corn fields, off track after missing an exit while trying to get to Querétaro. So we are following Boca in his Jeep through small towns with frequent speed bumps. We are tired and late for the show. The same R&B disc is in the CD player. Most people are trying to sleep, except Leon, who chats about his favorite movies with Fabián.
Patience is running thin, especially when Aha grabs a torta during a reststop break. Damn tasty torta, though.
Eventually we arrive at the venue: a museum near downtown Querétaro. We haul our gear up two flights of stairs to an outdoor stage under an archway. Students fill in the floor and line the walls to get a view of the performances. Mexico City rapper Rasheed Allah, a nice guy in person with a fierce delivery on stage, fires up the young crowd by calling for the death of the president and giving a big middle finger to the government.
The fans are so close to the stage we have to be careful not to swing our guitars. They pump their arms to the music and snap pictures with their camera phones. We sell a lot of shirts. Given the poverty across the country, some fans may have had to save up for months to afford to go to the show and buy a CD or shirt.
After three shows in four days, we start to find our roles and rhythm. Aha, the most talkative and optimistic of the bunch, mainly handles the merchandise and socializes with artists. Leon, the grandfather and cultural ambassador of the group, keeps things organized and always has menu recommendations. Mike calls out the songs, leading the band on stage. Omar is the social ambassador, connecting with the everyday people; his disarming personality and big heart balance us out. Dephcon, the 21-year-old with an inexhaustible appetite, holds it down on the ones and twos, spinning for all artists, including the dynamic Bocafloja.
To quote one of our songs: “These are the times/ These are the moments that I’m holding tight/ No one’s guaranteed tomorrow’s light/ Pass these beats/ Pass these rhymes/ This is my fam and we’re living life.”DISTRITO FEDERAL
Electricity. Luz. Power. All necessary ingredients for a show, right? Think again. The power flames out about 45 minutes into the biggest show of the tour, the Quilombo 4th Anniversary/Bocafloja CD Release show at Foro Alicia in Mexico City. A downpour kills the juice, leaving the multiple performers with no microphones, no DJ, no beats, no guitars. But this doesn’t stop the show. Gabriel Teodros, a Seattle native whose family is from Ethiopia, says he doesn’t need a microphone and performs a song calling out for Third World unity. Omar lays down a drum solo and then holds it steady for a rotating crew of MCs: Soulman, Eternia and Cambio. Cambio gets the chant of “Para La Gente” going and other artists carry it over.
The crowd doesn’t wane. They aren’t angry. They are here to stay – that is how dedicated Bocafloja’s fan base is. Boca performs a capellas of his hits while the crowd – which numbers over 400 and had formed a line around the corner to get in – chants in unison.
Soulman starts humming the horn line for “El Dia De Mi Suerte” and Boca spits the song: “Mi hermano sufre cuando los misiles zumban territorios de color o musulmanes escuelas y oficinas/ vomito a los gusanos dicidentes/ Telemundo y a cristiana/ maldito imperio/ falta el criterio/ celebraremos cuando Bush cambie su casa al cementerio.” (Translation: “My brother suffers when the missiles buzz by territories of color or Muslim schools and offices/ I am sickened by the dissident worms/ Telemundo and Christian/ cursed empire/ lack of judgment/ we will celebrate when Bush trades his house for the cemetery”).
At the song’s pinnacle, the power returns. Shouts and screams follow. Revved up by Eternia’s spoken word earlier, the crowd chants “Guera! Guera!” (White girl!). Eternia, who is from Toronto but lives in New York City, has the crowd wide-eyed as they try to follow her fast movements and equally rapid flows. Her charisma must have blown another transformer because the power dies – again.
On again. Off again. That’s the story of the night. We had performed our hip-hop cover, “Say Something,” and were already laying into “Who I Am” when the power cuts out. A short set, but nonetheless sufficient. I don’t think this would have flown in the U.S. – people may have complained and asked for their money back. Not here: No power, no problem. The fans are here to see their favorite rapper and be a part of the scene.
The closing reflects the overall trip aptly – with no shortage of complications, but a chance to put our name out there, and connect with artists across North America while tasting how a successful independent artist makes a living. Like Mike says, “Going through the obstacles makes it more memorable.”
And, as the closing crowd reminds us with its support, trumping those obstacles also means reaching appreciative audiences. After all, what good would the name Para La Gente be if we didn’t perform for real gente?