The new interpretation of "La Bamba" sung by the dynamic young L.A. band Las Cafeteras isn't your abuelito's version of the classic Mexican folk tune. Nor is it Ritchie Valens' 1958 hit rendition, or Los Lobos' smash 1987 remake.
So what's different about Las Cafeteras' "La Bamba Rebelde" (The Rebel La Bamba), which appears on the group's just-issued CD "It's Time"? For starters, there are the punchy, quasi-hip-hop vocal cadences that overlay the traditional instrumental matrix of 10-string jarana and four-string requinto guitars known as son jarocho.
Then there are the very L.A., very timely lyrical updates. "It's the rebel 'La Bamba' that I will sing because we are Chicanos of East L.A., ay, arriba!" the brassy lead female vocalist declares on the track. "I don't believe in borders! I will cross them!" Moments later, a male singer gives a proud shout-out to his San Gabriel Valley roots, while yet another voice chimes in to denounce "leyes racistas" (racist laws).
That kind of politically cognizant attitude-to-burn propels "It's Time," which will be released digitally on Tuesday.
"I think music has to be relevant," jarana player Daniel French said during a recent interview with his colleague Annette Torres, a marimbol and zapateado percussionist, at the Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake. "And I think our goal is how do we write music that's relevant to what we're seeing and we're hearing."
Respecting tradition while opening space for innovation is the mantra of Las Cafeteras, a bilingual ensemble of three women and four men, all in their late 20s or early-to-mid 30s, whose music blends ska, punk, hip-hop, marimbol, spoken-word and urban-contemporary elements with the rich heritage of son jarocho, the Afro-Caribbean-influenced folk genre from the southeast Mexican state of Veracruz.
The group, which has opened shows for Lila Downs and took part last August in the annual Encuentro de Jaraneros jarocho festival in downtown L.A., will be part of the musical lineup at Saturday's Dia de los Muertos ancestor-worship celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They'll be performing at the noon to midnight event in rotation with the bands Ozomatli, La Santa Cecilia, Very Be Careful and Tribu.
Upcoming concert dates for the band — whose other members are Denise Carlos (jarana segunda, voice), Hector Flores (jarana tercera, voice), David Flores (requinto), Leah Rose Gallegos (vocals, quijada del burro, a.k.a. donkey jawbone) and Jose Cano (Native American flute) — include November shows in Ensenada, Tijuana and San Diego and a slot in March at South by Southwest.
In keeping with jarocho's slave-music origins, Las Cafeteras has maintained its sharp political edge. That perspective stems in part from the band's 2005 genesis as a group of student-friends who took son jarocho classes together at the Eastside Cafe in L.A.'s El Sereno neighborhood, and were inspired to use their music as a story-sharing, community-building, teaching tool.
"Our CD is called 'It's Time' because we live in urgent times," French said. "And we didn't say what it's time for, because you know what it's time for — you know and I know. You know what you're supposed to do, and we want you to do what you're supposed to do. And we're doing what we're supposed to do. And when everybody does that, the world, it's already changing but it's going to come quicker."
One song on "It's Time" addresses the epidemic of murderous violence against the women of Ciudad Juárez. Another tune, "Trabajador Trabajadora," gives a sympathetic shout-out to working-class families struggling to pay the rent and keep their kids fed in recessionary times.
"For the women of Las Cafeteras, we want to be the voice for other women that don't have that voice anymore, or that are finding their own voice," Torres said.
But the CD's title could be read in another way. With its quicksilver 6/8 guitar lines, and the propulsive beat of its sibling art form, fandango dancing, a few bars of son jarocho inevitably signal that it's time to party. That combination — part political rally, part pachanga blowout — has made Las Cafeteras one of the most talked-about, and, at times, argued-about, of L.A.'s third- and fourth-generation bicultural bands.
"They have this wonderful way of appropriating the music and combining it with present-day issues affecting Latinos, affecting Mexican Americans," said Betto Arcos, a native of the Veracruz city of Xalapa who hosts "The Global Village" weekly radio program on radio station KPFK-FM (90.7) and organized the Encuentro de Jaraneros.
Arcos said that Las Cafeteras' other most distinctive quality is the energy it brings to its live performances, allowing it to engage listeners in a kind of spontaneous musical civic dialogue.
"They engage in a more direct way" than other jarocho bands, Arcos said, "almost breaking down that barrier between the audience and them."
In adapting son jarocho to the musical modes and cultural landscapes of Southern California, Las Cafeteras is following in a long tradition of L.A. Chicano artists, from Valens and Thee Midniters to Los Lobos and Quetzal.
About three years ago, a sort of California son jarocho family feud erupted between Las Cafeteras and several more established son jarocho-influenced artists who felt Las Cafeteras was taking too many liberties with a venerable music form. According to several accounts, the quarrel is now largely in the past, and Las Cafeteras, for one, is eager to put it behind them.
Meanwhile, more up-and-coming Spanish- and English-dominant musicians have been turning for inspiration to son jarocho. Among the new enthusiasts is David Wax of the duo known as David Wax Museum, who studied jarocho as a Harvard University student and has become friends with members of Las Cafeteras.
"You just fall in love with this sort of open, musical, energetic community-building that happens," French said. "I think that David Wax picking that up and other folks picking that up is a testament to the beauty of that music."
Where: Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd.
When: Saturday, noon-midnight