Whoever declared Friday the 13th a bad-luck day should have been at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley last weekend, where a sold-out roomful of Chicano-Latino twentysomethings were grooving out to a superb night of spoken word and music from a phenomenal array of youthful talent with something genuine to say. Organized by raza renaissance man Paul Flores as part of his ongoing "Hecho En Califas" series, the show carried a sense of new movement working toward social change and Chicano-Latino consciousness.
When I arrived Ollin was on stage playing a traditional son jarocho acoustic piece from Veracruz, Mexico. Midway the tight quartet picked up its Fender Stratocasters and transformed the tune into a blaring electrified jam with a pounding 6/8 beat. The four had the crowd spinning with tunes in the vein of the Blazers and Los Lobos, but when singer-guitarist Scott Rodarte declared "I feel a ranchera comin' on," they drove the place into a frenzy with a punk-polka rendition of Doug Sahm's "Soy Chicano."
In between combos largely from East Los Angeles, Bay Area spoken-word artists kept the audience warm. Oakland's Jimmy Salcedo-Malo offered rapid-fire odes to Zapatistas and Che Guevara as the college crowd whooped and hollered.
Slowrider was amazing, with a sound that fused everything from old-school Latin rock and funk to barrio hip-hop and cumbia reggae. With a new album, Mas Alla, produced by Ozomatli's Wil-Dog Abers on the collectively owned De Volada Records, the band rocked the house with a two-horn front line that included sax-flute whiz Vince Maghrouni (who also drums for Mike Watt) and the charismatic rapper Olmeca. Led by keyboardist David Gomez, they jammed through instrumentals that twisted and turned through a variety of beats and slamming solos.
But it was Quetzal that most had come to see. A buzz carried through the crowd that petite lead singer/ conga drummer Martha Gonzalez was not feeling well. Forget about it. When Quetzal hit the stage, she and the group gave the sardine-squeezed crowd an excellent ninety-minute performance including songs from their self-titled debut album as well as transformed Mexican and Cuban classics. Gonzalez is blessed with an angelic, crystal-clear voice, and with violinist Yunior Terry (part of a prestigious Cuban musical family) now part of the group, Quetzal's cohesiveness and musicality is at its prime.
Tunes such as "El Cascabel," born out of Mexico's black jarocho heritage, became long rave-like jams that had everyone dancing. As images of Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos began to flash on the screen behind them, the crowd roared, "Viva Zapata." As Quetzal tore into an anthem honoring the only woman general in the southern Mexican struggle, "Somos Ramona," the place was a sweatbox of joy. Guitarist-bandleader Quetzal Flores smiled quietly, as if knowing they'd reached the depths of this audience's Chicano-Latino soul.
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