The Many Threads And Generations Of Chicano Soul, All In One Place
More than half a century after it crept into the DNA of young Mexican-Americans in the southwestern United States — particularly in Southern California and Texas — Chicano Soul endures. Chicano Soul in California has been well-documented, in Ruben Molina's book Chicano Soul and in several documentaries. The Texas version happened away from media and music limelight as a wonderfully provincial scene unto itself, and persists through events like the Friday Night dances at Pueblo Hall in San Antonio, retro bands like Eddie and the Valiants and the San Antones, and through DJs such as the Austin Boogie Crew, Jason Saldana's El West Side Sound in San Antonio and the Fistful of Soul collective in Houston — all spinning vintage tracks in clubs across the state.
No look back, though, is as far-reaching and ambitious as The Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul album project, hatched by 42-year-old, Austin-based producer-writer-arranger-guitarist Adrian Quesada. Released late last year on Nacional Records/Amazon Music, the album will be performed live for the first time at Lincoln Center in New York this Saturday (July 27), with a cast that includes first-generation Chicano Soul stars Ruben Ramos, El Gato Negro (The Black Cat) and Johnny Hernandez from Little Joe and the Latinaires.
Quesada will also be performing with one of the opening acts, the Black Pumas, his new band with lead vocalist Eric Burton. Black Pumas are standard-bearers of the psych soul sound buzzing around Austin; dominated by mid-tempo ballads, along with tinges of psychedelia, funk and groove – a sound that could easily pass for a new version of Chicano Soul. But in no way is this your parents' Tejano.
The mothership of this Latin-funk-soul-R&B mashup is Grupo Fantasma, a nine-piece horn band founded by Quesada, Greg Gonzalez and Beto Martinez in 2000. All three had grown up in the border city of Laredo, each smitten with modern music, like any American kid in the '80s. "[In Laredo] we listened to the radio, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Nirvana," Gonzalez tells me. "People in Laredo listened to mariachi, rock and roll, heavy metal and funk." Cumbias, the dance rhythm that dominates Latin music globally, were also an unconscious part of their border town upbringing. Teenagers could party and drink alcohol across the river in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. "The best live bands [in Mexico] were Colombiana bands with keyboards and guitars and accordion," Gonzalez says. "It was cumbia played with a full ensemble, almost a Tejano instrumentation with Colombia music."
Gonzalez and Martinez became friends in eighth grade in public school as fellow metalheads. Quesada was a year older and attended St. Augustine, the Catholic school. After graduating, they all met in Austin in 1996, where they were chasing the music muse.
"We were playing funk, rock and roll, hip hop, psychedelic, fusion," Gonzalez tells NPR. With Martinez, he started a band called the Blimp. Quesada had a jazz group called Blue Noise. The two shared bills, then started playing together as a funk band that liked to test limits. The common bond was their new shared obsession with cumbias.
We wanted to be a party that everyone was invited to.
"We rediscovered Colombian cumbias through some compilations some friends had," Gonzalez said. "There was a Latin music scene in Austin, but it excluded people who weren't part of that scene," Martinez recalled. "If you didn't dress right and go to the salsa club, then you couldn't appreciate that music. That turned us off. We wanted to be a party that everyone was invited to. You didn't have to understand any dance moves or know Spanish. We wanted to make a sound that incorporated all our influences and didn't exclude anybody. "
Their response was the Night of Cumbias, performed every other week at a small Sixth Street club called the Empanada Parlor. By the third gig, a line outside the door was the norm. Their debut album, Grupo Fantasma from 2002, was followed by relentless roadwork, beginning in the southeastern and northeastern United States, helping put Grupo Fantasma on the map. "These cumbia rock shows in these divey punk rock clubs covered in stickers were rowdy," Beto Martinez says. "We started pulling people in places like Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Atlanta. When we got to New York, there was this big packed house waiting for us."
A year later, Grupo Fantasma formed a second band. "Brownout was a respite," says Gonzalez of the project. "After we had delved into the cumbia, and started expanding our palette of Afro-Latin music all sung in Spanish, Adrian and I wanted a funk band like we had before. We wanted to play that too, minus the cumbias and the Grupo Fantasma style. We were playing so much with Fantasma, it was a much-needed outlet. We came up with a list of our favorite breakbeat and funk 45s and started doing parties. It was freakier, funkier and all instrumental."
Grupo Fantasma's cumbia obsession would be followed by further explorations — into salsa, merengue, bomba, and other Afro-Latin ritmos — after Jose Galeano, a Nicaraguan living in Austin, joined three years into the band's life as singer and timbalero. "He chose a lot of music and opened our eyes to some of those sounds," Gonzalez said. "He's the nephew of Jose Chepito Areas, the percussionist for the original Santana who was part of that taking the Latin style and incorporating it into rock and roll and blues genres. He brought to us the concept how you blend those sounds. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, everybody has become a lot more sophisticated."
Late in 2006, Grupo Fantasma got a call. From Prince. Well actually, it was Prince's management, relaying the message that Prince would like to fly the band to Las Vegas to play at his 3121 Club on Thanksgiving night. The band didn't see Prince that first gig, but he was watching and listening — and subsequently invited Grupo Fantasma to play the club every Thursday. Grupo did the gig for six weeks before meeting its benefactor. One evening in the middle of a set, His Purple Majesty walked onto the stage with his guitar, asking "Is it cool?" before launching into a Hendrix-style jam and enigmatically departing again. "He knew all the lines," Beto Martinez recalls. "He'd practiced what we were playing." In a matter of weeks, Grupo Fantasma became Prince's go-to horn section, flying to Vegas every Thursday, playing with Prince at a Golden Globes party in Los Angeles (with sit-ins from Mary J. Blige, will.i.am and Marc Anthony), at a Super Bowl party in Miami, another party in London, at Coachella — over the course of a year, wherever Prince asked, they were there.
We're from here. We're a product of all these influences. Ultimately, it's American, in the sense that jazz is.
Grupo Fantasma was no longer just a Latin funk band. With the Prince connection, they were the funk. Through it all, the band has resisted labels and being pigeon-holed, evidenced by the title of the latest album, American Music, Volume 7 (Blue Corn), its seventh.
"Everybody wants to put us in this nice category," says Beto Martinez, fresh off a three-week tour of Russia and Turkey that included stops at the Mongolian border, Siberia, Moscow and Istabul. "That's what's behind the title of the record, being lumped into this Latin music category, dismissing all the various influences. We're from here. We're a product of all these influences. Ultimately, it's American, in the sense that jazz is.
"In Russia, people asked us, 'Where you from,' " Martinez continues. "We'd say, 'We're from Texas.' 'But where in Texas, like what's your ethnicity?' I'd say, 'Mexican-American' and have to explain that. Then it would be, 'Texas is full of cowboys, it's the capital of country music. How does it feel to be a strange band in Texas?' We had to talk about how Texas is huge and very diverse, how Texas shares a giant border with Mexico. We're a good representation of that diversity — a few of us are from the border, a couple guys are from California, our drummer John [Speice] is from Oklahoma and wears a cowboy hat."
"We're more well-received outside the United States," says Greg Gonzales. In America, "we're a Latin band that sings in Spanish. There [in Russia and Turkey], Spanish and English are both foreign languages. They're just hearing the music. They're not thinking, 'This is Latin. I have to dance salsa.' It's more like, 'Wow, this is awesome music.' They see us as an American band. A lot of people thought it was jazz. We've got a horn section. We're American. The music borrows heavily from African music, funk, soul, rock and roll that all essentially came from jazz. Seventy-five percent of our songs are in Spanish."
In 2013, as Grupo Fantasma changed management and its record label Nat Geo Music folded, Adrian Quesada left the band, burned out from the road and wanting to pursue studio projects and produce. It was time for an extended break. During the downtime, Brownout, which had gained a vocalist, did a residency at Frank in downtown Austin, playing a different theme each night. The final night's theme was Black Sabbath, an idea that took hold, then took off, as Brownout morphed into Brown Sabbath, playing Black Sabbath songs with a Latin groove — and finding their biggest audience yet, practically eclipsing the whole Grupo Fantasma juggernaut.
Last year, Brownout applied the Brown Sabbath concept to one of their favorite groups growing up, Public Enemy, for the album Fear of a Brown Planet.
The Money Chicha project followed Brownout and Brown Sabbath. "We discovered this style called chicha from Peru from the '60s and '70s," Gonzalez says. "Peruvians wanted to play a blend of their indigenous music from the mountains with the song form rhythms of Latin America, cumbias, salsas, stuff like that, along with fuzz guitar and psychedelic effects, lots of reverb. It was all guitars, no horns. We got so obsessed with chicha that we started another band. The joke was, lets book some gigs, because that's how we normally force ourselves to learn something like this. We booked these gigs and needed a name. Our other bands had nine people, this had only five, so we'll finally make some money."
Even though Quesada had left Grupo Fantasma, he continued playing with Brownout and Money Chicha until a couple years ago, when his plate was full. He was looking back with one project, the Look At My Soul album, and looking forward with another, the Black Pumas.
Eric Burton had arrived in Austin in October 2015, after busking on the street in Santa Monica. After six months of playing farmers' markets, open mics and solo shows, he met Quesada. They instantly clicked. "He had a few instrumentals he was working on that he wanted to see if I could sing on," Burton says. "I was expecting that if it was a success it would turn into some publishing deal for both of us. I didn't realize he had 17 instrumentals he was sitting on after our first session. We kept at it until we filled most of those instrumentals he had. The songs almost write themselves."
Black Pumas brought stability into the 28-year-old singer-songwriter's life. "When you're busking, or playing music in general, you have to have thick skin," Burton says. "You're always moving, shifting, trying to get by on the power of the song and the generosity of the people. Austin has given me a home where I can develop as a singer-songwriter and be rooted."
Quesada had been looking for a voice for music he'd composed that didn't fit into the Look at My Soul concept he was working on. "I went off on a tangent," he says. "Those were the Black Pumas songs. I'd met Eric. He was originally writing and singing on my songs, and then he started bringing in his songs. That's what really kicked it into high gear – my production and his songwriting."
The two recorded together for several months. "The intentions were pure," Quesada says. "I didn't show anybody any of this music for half a year. I didn't even know Eric was an incredible front man."
Look at My Soul had been on Quesada's radar ever since Grupo Fantasma did a taping with Ruben Ramos for the Austin Latino Music Association, 16 years ago. "That's when Adrian and I started talking about what we're doing right now," the 79-year-old Ramos says.
"I heard Ruben talking about growing up, listening to rock and roll and soul music, Little Richard and Jimmy Reed and blues," says Quesada. "In my head, I imagined somebody like Ruben Ramos grows up singing mariachi music and regional Mexican music all their life. I saw the parallels. For us, back in the Grupo Fantasma days, we grew up listening to hip-hop, rock and roll, heavy metal. We didn't really embrace [Latin sounds] until we were older.
"I realized all these guys – Ruben, Little Joe – opened doors for us. Our story was similar to theirs. We discovered who we were a little bit later, musically. That planted the seed way back when. I thought it would be interesting to make that connection."
Quesada collected classic recordings by Ramos, Little Joe and the Latinaires, Sunny and the Sunliners, the Numero Group's reissue of the Royal Jesters, and the Texas Funk compilation featuring Latin Breed, and studied them. "You can hear the progression, where the music turns into Tejano music, but early on, these bands always had a soul song or funk song, right after a cumbia. It would be common to hear the Meters' 'Cissy Strut' after a mariachi or ranchera. I was fascinated by the history, learning my own roots, what came before my friends and me started doing this music. I had enough information to connect my generation with theirs."
In this time, in this era, where there's more and more division happening, especially in Texas and along the border, even though Chicano Soul sounds like people would be excluded from it, it's actually an inclusive scene.
Listening to Little Joe and the Latinaires records, he realized Little Joe's brother Johnny Hernandez sang the soul numbers. Hernandez came to Austin to add his vocals, singing lead on "Ain't No Big Thing," which he'd sung with the Latinaires. "I hadn't recorded live in the studio like we did in the old days for decades," he says. "It was a thrill getting into the studio [with Quesada, Charlie Sexton and Michael Ramos]. It took me back to my roots. When the horns came in on the introduction, I was right back there in 1965." Saturday's gig at Lincoln Center will be the first time Hernandez has performed in New York.
Look at My Soul is just the start. "I need five volumes to tell the story I want to," Quesada said. "I feel like this is episode one of a Ken Burns miniseries. Originally, my idea was to revisit the old songs and re-record them, but I spent a summer writing a bunch of songs inspired by the styles I was listening to. This is now a lifelong journey to explore. In this time, in this era, where there's more and more division happening, especially in Texas and along the border, even though Chicano Soul sounds like people would be excluded from it, it's actually an inclusive scene."
Black Pumas, on the other hand, are not a Chicano Soul band, at least as far as Eric Burton is concerned. "I don't feel like it's Chicano music at all. It's black music."
Then again, Burton wrote the title track for Look at My Soul, and sings lead on the title song.
These old and new strands, along with the Grupo Fantasma legacy, will converge on Saturday — Greg Gonzalez joins the Look at My Soul band on the heels of a Money Chicha gig in Austin; on August 2, a week after Lincoln Center, Gonzalez joins Martinez, fresh off some European dates with Golden Dawn Arkestra; then a reconvening with the rest of the Grupo Fantasma/Brownout aggregation in Johnstown, Pa. for a Brown Sabbath show at the Flood City Music Festival.
"We're kind of schizophrenic," laughs Gonzalez.
Black Pumas will be on tour through the end of the year. "I've been doing this long enough not to get too excited," says Adrian Quesada. "As much as I like to multitask and stay busy, I feel like I'm too old to jump from one thing to another. But it's worked out. Black Pumas were on the Billboard charts the week the album came out. That's a first for me. I've been looking out at the crowds and people have been singing along with the songs."
And he knows when the Black Pumas tour wraps, those four unfinished volumes of Chicano Soul will be waiting.
Look At My Soul takes place Saturday, July 27 for Lincoln Center's Out of Doors series. More information can be found here.
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