Searching for el rock

You would think Sacramento might have a vibrant rock-en-español scene. There are some great bands. However, a few great bands do not make a scene.

Cambio de Piel, giving them what they want from the stage. Left to right: Alonso Camacho, Jesus Ceballos, Jair Camacho, Arturo Barrera (at the mic) and Rene Ramos.

Cambio de Piel, giving them what they want from the stage. Left to right: Alonso Camacho, Jesus Ceballos, Jair Camacho, Arturo Barrera (at the mic) and Rene Ramos.

It is a fact of culture that human beings erect social barriers, barriers that serve to separate groups and individuals from each other.

These barriers can be cultural, ethnic, racial, religious or sexual, and the list goes on and on. On one hand, barriers create tension, the kind that periodically erupts as hate crimes or race riots. But conversely, these barriers also hold within them the seeds for identity; they are what make us culturally strong within the specific boundaries of our social groups. Simply put, we are one thing because we are not some other thing.

But this all becomes more complicated when one looks into a specific subset of Sacramento’s music scene—live rock music, performed, at least in part, in the Spanish language.

Known by some as “rock en español” and others as “Latin alternative” or simply “Latin rock,” it is music that could provide a particular important cultural outlet for a large facet of Sacramento’s Hispanic population.

But there is a note of hesitation. All signs point toward the possibility of a vibrant live Latin-rock scene existing in Sacramento, but the reality is that such a scene is not quite as vibrant as one might hope. This seems shocking, particularly given the fact that Sacramento has had a particularly active Chicano art scene since at least the 1960s, and probably long before that. California’s vast Central Valley—of which Sacramento is a vital part—boasts a dynamic Hispanic population, a population that remains central to Sacramento’s urban culture.

Furthermore, Sacramento certainly boasts the musical talent; such bands as Cambio de Piel, Diciembre Gris and Raigambre have been performing in local clubs for years. Why, then, does this city’s live rock-en-español scene seem so scattered, unfocused and, if we are to believe many of the bands themselves, mostly nonexistent?

One of the first problems in pinpointing the presence or absence of a Latin-rock scene is determining what exactly Latin rock is. One might assume that the genre is somehow more musically “Hispanic” than English-language rock music, perhaps in terms of rhythm. If that is the case, then Raigambre provides a perfect example. Vocalist Sam Miranda lays out a 50-50 mixture of English and Spanish lyrics over a beat often comprised of three percussionists and the terrific Latin-funk-jazz guitar work of Aswut Rodriguez. The end result is a laid-back sound that is part War and part Ozomatli and that ultimately sounds heavily Latin-based.

But not all Spanish-language bands in Sacramento are as specifically Latin-influenced as Raigambre. Miranda noted that local band Diciembre Gris seems to draw more influence from the Cure than from Spanish-language music. “They don’t blend Latin rhythms in at all,” Miranda said, “which is cool. It’s just a different thing.”

Indeed, Diciembre Gris doesn’t sound much like what one might expect from a Spanish-language rock band. Instead, it veers east of Latin America and north of Spain, seeming to cull its influences primarily from the British rock scene of the mid-1980s, essentially making it an American band playing British rock sung in Spanish. But, though the influencing forces may be diverse, Diciembre Gris may be, at heart, merely a rock ’n’ roll band that happens to write lyrics in Spanish. Indeed, the band raises an important question: What exactly is a Spanish-language rock band supposed to sound like?

When asked about whether ethnicity plays a part in Diciembre Gris’ music, vocalist and guitarist Daniel Villegas responded simply, “What difference does it make? We don’t think our ethnicity plays in any part of our music besides the drinking. Some of our songs are in Spanish, but that doesn’t make them ethnic.”

Other Spanish-language rock bands are not so hasty to disengage themselves from the idea of “ethnic” music. “I’m not in denial,” noted Dahlia Deathstrike, drummer for the all-female punk-rock trio Velvet Fury. “I’m a Mexican. I’m proud of my culture, and we reflect our culture in some of our songs.”

Indeed, the lyrical content of Velvet Fury’s songs often deals specifically with issues of stereotyping. As Deathstrike explained, “For a Latina, you’re supposed to be married and have kids by the time you’re 21 or 22. We wrote a song against that stereotype. There’s also a stereotype that older men are after younger women. We wrote a song called ‘Boy Toy’ that flips that stereotype.”

An even more direct approach appears in the lyrics of Cambio de Piel. In many ways the most successful Latin-rock act in Sacramento, Cambio de Piel was picked for endorsement by Budweiser as part of the beer brand’s “True Music” promotion. In fact, the band was featured in a two-page Budweiser “True Music” ad featured prominently in Rolling Stone. It since has headlined shows at both Cesar Chavez Plaza and the California State Fair.

Channeling “la Curación”: Diciembre Gris is Daniel Ward, Daniel Villegas, Erick Villegas and Alex Reyes.

Lyrically, Cambio de Piel directly addresses its own heritage in songs like “Como Mexicanos.” Here, vocalist Arturo Barrera sings: “No soy flojo no soy esclavo / Me quieren crucificar con un pinche clavo / Siguen chingando siguen hablando / No dejan vivir como Mexicano.” (I’m not lazy, I’m not a slave / They want to crucify me with a fucking nail / They keep fucking with me, they keep talking / They don’t let me live like a Mexican.)

Cambio de Piel’s politically confrontational lyrics directly address the band members’ own status as Hispanic men in American society. But even Cambio de Piel is reluctant to be associated too strongly with the Latin-alternative scene. The band’s manager, Miguel Castillo, explained this by saying, “Rock en español really wants to get out the label of rock for Latin people. A lot of the bands based in the U.S., like Ozomatli and Cambio de Piel, can easily sing in Spanish and English. Because they sing mostly in Spanish, they get put in a box.”

A similar viewpoint is advanced by Diciembre Gris’ Villegas. “I don’t particularly view [Diciembre Gris] as part of the local ‘rock en español’ scene,” said Villegas via e-mail, “although we do participate in it as well as we would with any other scene. We do get recognized as part of it, but I’ve come to realize that we create a certain style of music, and we seem to do a better job at it than anyone else.”

The result of this is that bands like Raigambre and Diciembre Gris routinely play on bills that mix Spanish-language and English-language rock acts. Of course, most bands are happy to gig on whatever bills come their way, particularly as it keeps them from having a strictly Spanish-speaking audience.

On the other hand, it often seems like this technique backfires somewhat in that there is little or no Spanish-speaking audience at all. Deathstrike noted that Latin-rock bills in Southern California differ from Sacramento-area shows. “All the shows we play on in Southern California are Latin-alternative,” Deathstrike said. “We don’t get to play too much here, because there’s no scene here.”

Raigambre’s Miranda also noted this trend, tying it directly into the ethnic makeup of the band’s average audience. “At Raigambre shows, it’s rare to see a brown face in the audience,” he said. “But we’re lucky that we got into a community of bands in East L.A. When we play there, it’s a different story—all brown faces.”

Of course, there are some exceptions. Under the name “Club la Disco,” the Classic Jukebox in Roseville has been hosting rock-en-español nights that mix bands and dance music played by a DJ. Club la Disco’s promoter (and Cambio de Piel’s manager), Castillo, commented that the draw is quite healthy. “Five hundred people is the average, with no band. With a band will bring in as much as 800 people, and that’s with ticket prices around $13 and $25 for the show,” he said.

Castillo also has brought such internationally known bands as El Tri to Sacramento’s Crest Theatre, and the shows have proven to be extremely successful. There also is the presence of Old Sacramento-based La Terraza, a Mexican restaurant that has been hosting live rock-en-español shows on the weekend with mixed results.

But perhaps the same social and cultural forces that make one want to see a rock scene to match the vibrant Hispanic art and poetry scene are the same forces that are being subverted by the bands themselves in an effort for acceptance—not as “Latin rock” or “Latin alternative” or “rock en español,” but rather simply as good, solid rock ’n’ roll bands regardless of ethnic heritage or language. As Raigambre’s Miranda pointed out, “When you take out the Spanish vocals, it’s just regular rock music.” Perhaps ultimately, the lack of a distinct rock-en-español scene only means that the regular rock community is accepting of that “regular rock music,” regardless of the barriers of language or culture. Or perhaps it’s only an excuse in a musical climate in which Spanish-language music often falls on the essentially deaf ears of an English-speaking audience.

‘El rock’ que encontramos A quick overview of some of Sacramento’s Spanish-language rock acts:

La Bestia—Sacramento’s answer to a Spanish-language Pantera or Metallica. No-holds-barred metal mayhem.

Cambio de Piel—A hard-rocking alternative band endorsed by Budweiser. Perhaps the biggest-drawing Spanish-language band in Sacramento.

Diciembre Gris—As gray as its name implies, this band looks to mid-1980s British rock for its sonic blueprint.

Raigambre—Afro-Cuban dance music with a heavy dose of War. One of the area’s best bands.

Velvet Fury—All-female Spanish-language punk rock. Loud, abrasive and in your face, just like it should be.