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Fem Folk With a Cultural Twist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can three Chicanas from East L.A. make the transition from hard-core punk rockers to feminist folkies?

Ask Las Tres.

Alice Armendariz, Teresa Covarrubias and Angela Vogel were all once part of the spiky-haired, safety-pin wearing set that honed a generational outcry, but today these rebels have a different cause--and a more congenial soundtrack. Las Tres not only thumbs its noses at the infamous ism s (sex, race) of the 1990s, but it does so with tunes you can hum when you’re stuck in rush hour on the 405.

Together only a little more than a year, Las Tres already has a devoted following, both Chicano and crossover. Yet they’re poised for a breakthrough, packing houses at bigger and more prestigious gigs each week. They play the Roxy on March 30 in a showcase designed to attract label interest, which was also the motivation behind their recent, self-produced six-song cassette.

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The reason for the surging popularity isn’t just that Las Tres delivers caressing harmonies and slyly insightful lyrics about the distaff experience. It’s also that Armendariz, Covarrubias and Vogel--all in their early 30s--are going where no Chicana group has gone before, giving voice to a realm of emotional life that’s been largely unsung.

“They’ve got accessibility--the pop ear--but they’re also doing work of substance,” says Bibbe Hansen, co-owner of downtown’s Troy Cafe, where the group often performs. “They can be absolutely charming and, at the same time, very dark.”

Las Tres’ songs--most of which are in English, and a few in Spanish--tell of entangling alliances and liberated lives. They stride boldly into places that other ballads have feared to go. “Happy Accident,” for instance, is a deceptively upbeat ditty about a woman sitting in a jail cell after having killed her abusive husband. It’s not entirely fictional either.

“I didn’t kill my husband, but domestic violence is something I grew up around,” says Armendariz, who penned the song. “I used to make up solutions and that’s how it would end--somebody would kill the person that was doing the beating.”

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The use of autobiography is a common gesture in feminist art. But feminism--which has often been attacked as a middle-class Anglo phenomenon--isn’t often the turf of singing Chicanas. “A lot of our songs come from personal experiences and the way we feel,” Covarrubias says. “We’re Chicana--that’s automatic--and that’s why it’s in our songs,” Vogel adds.

“There are Chicana feminists, but there’s nobody out there feeding into their thoughts and expressing what they want to say,” Armendariz says. “The Chicana experience is different. Culturally, the sexism is even more deeply ingrained than in white culture.”

Sexism is a wall the Las Tres women have bumped into more than once. “When you play with male musicians, they don’t expect you to know even the names of chords,” Covarrubias says. “I feel that attitude all the time. They don’t think that you’re able to do anything.”

But such obstacles--and the time the three women spent on the punk-rock scene--have only sharpened the trio’s edge. All East L.A.-born, Armendariz, Covarrubias and Vogel played in a variety of bands during the ‘70s and ‘80s, including some of the cream of the local punk crop.

Armendariz, who is also part of the gender-bending group Cholita, is best known from her days in the Bags, a late-'70s punk group that was featured in Penelope Spheeris’ film “The Decline of Western Civilization.” Covarrubias started the Brat in 1979. That band lasted five years, during which time it put out a record called “Attitudes” and played with the likes of Adam Ant and X. Vogel--then Flores--began singing in pop groups when she was a teen-ager. Later, she married, had a child, and formed a group called Odd Squad with her husband, Richard Vogel.

Vogel and Armendariz met during the ‘70s. During the early ‘80s, the Brat and Odd Squad sometimes played together. But the three women never teamed up prior to Las Tres. And while the trek from punk to feminist folk may not be common, it makes perfect sense to this group. “We had 15 years to change,” Vogel says, “and we all just evolved.”


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