Gil Gastelum recalls feeling embarrassed by Mexican music as a kid growing up in Tucson, where his family has lived since before Arizona belonged to the United States.
His father, who was also named Gilbert, like his grandfather, cut hair for a living and played the button accordion as a hobby. On Saturday afternoons at Billy’s Barber Shop, he and his fellow barbers would put down their shears and pick up their instruments for improvised sets of conjunto music, that blue-collar Tex-Mex style featuring polkas, corridos and folksy love songs.
But Gastelum, who played guitar in garage bands during high school, was a hard-core punk rocker, like all his friends. That Mexican stuff was so corny he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Then one day in the early 1980s, PBS aired a special that radically changed his cultural zeitgeist. It was a feature on a young band from Los Angeles named Los Lobos, a rock group that played both electric guitars and the accordion. It was the first time Gastelum had seen a band fuse his father’s music with his own. The old man, who still barbers at Billy’s, made his son watch the documentary, then drove home the point: “This is why I’ve always told you that Mexican music is cool.”
Los Lobos had helped Gastelum, now 36, reconcile the dual cultural identity that conflicts many young Mexican Americans. Today, he’s turned the existential dilemma into a guiding principle of his growing music business, Cosmica Artists Management, a cottage enterprise operated out of his rented guest house in Eagle Rock.
In the last few years, Gastelum has rounded up a stable of artists, all of whom capture, to one degree or another, this musical melding of two cultures, Latino and American. It’s a fusion best represented by his most established and respected artists, singer Lila Downs and the band Quetzal, considered the East L.A. successors to Los Lobos.
But Cosmica has also signed a growing number of new artists that Gastelum believes represent a rebirth of Latin alternative music in Los Angeles. Among them is singer and keyboardist Ceci Bastida, formerly with Julieta Venegas and the pioneering punk/ska band Tijuana No.Bastida, along with Monte Negro, another of Gastelum’s notable new L.A.-based acts, will be playing Thursday at the Knitting Factory as part of an annual songwriter’s showcase dubbed Verano Alternativo (Alternative Summer), sponsored by the performing rights organization, BMI. There were so many Latin alternative acts competing for a spot in this year’s event that the agency is considering adding a second night to accommodate more acts.
“We’ve seen an evolution in the number and quality of the bands over the past year,” says Delia Orjuela, the organization’s vice president for Latin music. “These are serious bands who are well-prepared on both the business and the creative side. They’re more mature as artists now, I think.”
Gastelum has positioned himself on the ground floor of the groundswell. But his road to Los Angeles was a little bumpy.
Like a character out of “High Fidelity,” the film about a group of musical obsessives, Gastelum worked at a record store in Tucson while earning a degree from the University of Arizona in media arts and Mexican American studies. He also worked part-time at his grandparents’ sand-and-gravel plant.
He was in Tucson in 1995 when he met Robert Lopez, better known as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Gastelum calls the Elvis impersonator “one of my heroes,” unexpected praise from someone sporting a T-shirt of the acclaimed L.A. rock band Rage Against the Machine. But Gastleum declares El Vez “very underappreciated” and quickly accepted a job as tour manager, hopping onto the El Vez RV and hitting the road. (Coincidentally, El Vez appears next Saturday at downtown L.A.'s California Plaza as part of the Grand Performances outdoor concert series.)
Gastelum wound up in Los Angeles, where he had no friends or family. And he got surprisingly homesick for Arizona, recalls Gastelum, who goes to the fridge and offers me a flour tortilla from a special stash he has shipped in from Tucson. Eventually, he got a foothold in the music industry here, working in publicity and promotion.
Gastelum moved briefly to Austin, Texas, in 1999, where he found his first client, singer-songwriter David Garza. Since then, Gastleum’s Texas contingency has grown to include Latino lounge act Charanga Cakewalk, bilingual rockers Maneja Beto, and Chingon, the band led by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
Even back at in the beginning, Gastelum lived by an old-school ethos, the kind of music promoter who genuinely believes in his acts. Today, he says, he only represents artists who meet his artistic standards.
He’s not getting rich right away with that business plan.
Gastelum drives a beat-up red pickup, and his funky pad is not much bigger than some garages. But his overhead is minimal and he doesn’t have the typical worries: He doesn’t bother trying to coax commercial radio to play his roster of artists because it generally ignores his type of music anyway -- so far.
He believes in viral marketing and word of mouth. His strategy? “Just go where the love is,” says Gastelum, who holds a day job at Rocket Science, a music marketing and promotion firm based in Encino.
In the last two years, he has organized showcase concerts for his artists at Austin’s South by Southwest, the important music festival that’s a forum for indie bands. Locally, acts such as Bastida and Monte Negro get airplay on Nic Harcourt’s influential public radio program, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”
Harcourt says Latin alternative bands are part of a wave of good music coming out of L.A. these days. “I think it’s a really, really good time. Obviously, with the diverse population here, young people who are forming bands are from different places and different backgrounds. So it’s not a surprise to me that some of those bands would reflect their heritage.”
Yet after all these years, Gastelum still struggles to bridge that cultural duality he faced growing up in Tucson. Los Lobos opened doors, but they didn’t always stay open.
“It’s tough because I don’t get embraced by everybody, and I get resistance from either side,” he says, sipping Café Bustelo at his tiny kitchen table. “I want people to understand who we are as a culture because there are so many beautiful things that we just can’t let go unnoticed.”
BMI Presents Verano Alternativo, 8 p.m. to midnight Thursday, the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets $7. All ages. Go to www.knittingfactory.com.
Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.