The Punk Rock Kids in the Hall
It’s a two-story, tan stucco building with a Spanish tile roof, and yet Ramona Hall in Highland Park, by the sound of it, may as well be a grimy loft deep in industrial downtown Los Angeles.
Music -- mostly punk and rock ‘n’ roll -- barrels off the walls during after-school hours, echoing deep into the Arroyo Seco.
The low-cost guitar and drum lessons for children offered there are so popular that the community center’s director is dealing with waiting lists.
And the bands that have formed at Ramona Hall now claim all the unused rooms as rehearsal space, resulting in a constant cacophony of rock.
“We used to be the Black Powder Biscuits,” said Nicolas Carbajal, 16, lead singer of a hard metal group that was practicing in a dim room on a recent Monday afternoon.
“Now we’re the Runts, or the Wankers, we don’t know,” said Andrew Cabarrubias, 15, the group’s rhythm guitar player. “We play backyards, garage parties and stuff.”
Where did their knack at being such rockers come from?
“From the master,” Carbajal said, with some joking flair in his voice. He was pointing to a small-framed, 40-ish guy in a bright shirt standing nearby. “Raul.”
Raul Martinez can’t help but smile. Since 2000, when he started teaching guitar at Ramona Hall on North Figueroa Street, he has built a veritable farm for budding roqueros in northeast Los Angeles.
He starts with 9- and 10-year-olds who are pushed to Ramona Hall by parents eager to get their children’s hands on something useful when they are not in school.
Once they master enough chords and demonstrate even a mild enthusiasm for the rock ‘n’ roll dream, Martinez fours them up, lets them pick up some classic rock sheet music from his library and, three power chords later, you’ve got yourself another rock band.
“They come up with weird names, it’s funny,” Martinez said. “They have another one called the Tigers.”
And, he adds -- pretty often in reference to several bands -- “Actually, they’re pretty good.”
The teacher insists on good grades and some degree of dedication (“I just lay it on them,” Martinez said, “the rules.... The parents like that.”).
Some students become so devoted to Martinez’s firm yet easygoing teaching style that they stay on through the end of high school. They bounce among bands with ever-changing names and ever-shifting lineups, and live the rock star dream in backyards, garages, community fairs and, for some, hip L.A. clubs and private parties.
“I teach them everything ... a bit of every style ... classical, jazz, country. But once they get older, they start playing what they like -- mostly punk and rock,” Martinez said.
He said he can’t tell exactly how many bands have come and gone or currently rock at Ramona Hall. But the center has been so productive in band- making that it has its own interior lore, full of big successes and big breakups.
The all-girl Sirens, for instance, have played at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater in Hollywood, the Echo in Echo Park and Spaceland in Silver Lake, where the band members were confined to a cramped storage room before taking the stage because they are several years below the drinking age.
Martinez said “pretty good” band Foreign Policy, on the other hand, crumbled after its members depleted the cash from their first paying gig ($25 a head) on such luxuries as 1-gallon tubs of ice cream. That’s rock ‘n’ roll, he explained.
Martinez looked over to the Black Powder Biscuits (or the Runts or the Wankers) and chuckled: “They’re all taller than me now. I used to be taller than these kids.”
Martinez is what you might call a true Eastsider, a product of the region’s rich punk and rock music heritage, despite being born in Brownsville, Texas.
His parents moved to East Los Angeles when he was 9 or 10 years old, and now he lives in City Terrace. He learned guitar when he was about 13, he said, “I guess from seeing people play.”
Martinez took some private guitar lessons as a teenager, then studied music for a while at East Los Angeles College. Martinez held a variety a jobs, including car alarm installer, and always played his original material here and there in the Eastside scene. “They used to call me Little Man,” Martinez said.
The director of Ramona Hall, Jorge Ramos, saw Martinez play once and asked him to perform at a Christmas benefit show, one of many fundraisers the center puts on to buy musical equipment. Ramos soon offered him a job as a guitar teacher.
Ramona Hall is not the only city Recreation and Parks Department community center where music is taught. But because the center doesn’t have sports facilities, it is limited to teaching mostly arts and cultural classes. The setup is fine by Ramos and his staff.
The drumming teacher, Randy Rodarte, is a member of the respected Chicano rock band Ollin. He said Ramona Hall’s identity suits the fabric of life east of the Los Angeles River. Music, he asserted, is always in the air in a place where Latin America has met Americana for generations.
“Music is a part of our culture,” Rodarte said. “Of course, they don’t want to play Mexican music. Of course, I didn’t want to play Mexican music either when I was a kid. But now I do.”
The atmosphere at Ramona Hall energizes him, Rodarte said.
“They’re intelligent kids, man, and they’re doing intelligent things besides the shave-your-head thing and the gun thing.... They want something. Plus, they’re mad-talented.”
Playing in a rock band can be glamorous, the teachers at Ramona Hall tell their students, but more than anything, the key to success is hard work and discipline.
It’s a lesson that has rubbed off well on the members of the Sirens. They practice three days a week at Ramona Hall, and are often booked months in advance.
After Martinez cut off practice for weeks when band members let their grades dip in school, the girls never under- performed in the classroom again.
Among themselves, they have taken care of promoting their website through stickers a friend made in Mexico. With money from paying gigs, they have bought amps and good microphones. “Fifty-fives,” Martinez said. “The kind Elvis Presley used to use.”
The girls said Martinez’s unwavering enthusiasm for music inspired them from the beginning, even when their instrumental skills weren’t exactly at rock-star levels.
When they played their first gig at a community festival in Sycamore Grove Park next door, “it was horrible,” said lead guitarist Marina Bravo, 15.
“You gotta start somewhere,” said Michelle Gascon, 17, the band’s drummer, de facto business manager and the oldest member of the group.
The Sirens knew each other from either Ramona Hall or Franklin High School, where “every other kid is in a band,” Gascon said. After that first gig, they decided to start practicing in earnest. Soon, they were writing their own music.
Today, some of the original songs in their set include rock-punk tunes such as “Mistake,” “Whisper Silence,” “Veneno” (Spanish for “poison”) and “The Burrito Song.”
“We learned the basics, and just applied our own style to it,” Gascon said.
As with all successful rock acts, the Sirens catch flak from neighborhood guys for having commercial success, however modest. It goes against Highland Park’s deep-bred punk-rock ethos. Besides, they’re girls.
“That’s what they say, ‘You’re OK for a girl,’ ” Bravo said.
Fifteen-year-old bassist Dejah Sandoval, the quieter member of the group, shrugged and nodded.
The Sirens chalk it up to rock-star jealousies and concentrate on playing and practicing. The walls inside Martinez’s stuffy teaching room on the second floor of Ramona Hall are covered with pictures of the group, award certificates and posters for events where they have played.
These days, their practice sessions are playful, almost casual. Martinez sometimes goes one-on-one with a Siren, on his own guitar, helping the girls through one or two especially difficult chord changes.
The girls say they don’t know where their music will take them next.
But “as long as Raul stays here, we’ll stay here,” said Heidi Bringuez, 15, the rhythm guitar player.
Martinez smiled. And practice resumed.