By Daniel Hernandez, Special to the Los Angeles Times
March 18, 2012
On a wide but quiet strip of Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles, in the run-down Casa Honduras dance hall, the ska kids are waiting for the next band to start.
Couples are making out in the corners of the venue, attached to a Honduran restaurant. They sport dreadlocks, Afros and spiky punk ‘dos and are dressed in everything from camouflage and combat boots to Chucks and suspenders.
A sound check ensues with a band called Blanco y Negro. Once its members get going, blasting the room with a frenetic Latin-punk sound sung both in English and Spanish, the young crowd forms a circle and begins to skank. The dance has them lifting their elbows and knees rhythmically to the ska beat, rushing and pushing against one another when the music accelerates into punk or metal.
Bodies are in motion, sweating, pounding skin to skin. Though just eight miles from downtown L.A., by the sounds and faces, this could be a jam in Mexico City or Tijuana.
Ska — the Jamaican sound that expanded into a variety of rock and reggae subgenres in the United Kingdom and then the United States in the late 1970s through the ’90s — is booming again in Southern California. It is experiencing a comeback after a decade of relative exile, but this time around it’s influenced by ska from Latin America.
Underground shows are happening in backyards and warehouses across Southern California, with mini-scenes developing in areas such as South and southeastern Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire.
“Do you remember the swing days? This is the new era of that,” said Hollywood resident Josh Morales, 24. “But it’s more ska-reggae.”
“It’s like a combination of cumbia with ska,” Morales said as the band Los Chiles Verdes began warming up for its set. “It’s like Spanish rock…. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
Few of the bands that play this diverse, hybrid style are signed to a label. Most consist of self-taught musicians in their late teens or early 20s who produce and promote their work for free online.
Perhaps the only common characteristic of the groups is that they consist mostly of children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America or are immigrants themselves.
Gustavo Torres, a carpenter who plays saxophone in the South-Central band Los Chiles Verdes, called the scene a “regeneration” of the movement in Mexico City, where he grew up. At 32, he’s the oldest member of his band, thus his nickname — “El Abuelo” — the Grandfather.
“The chavos [dudes] are looking for an identity that they can’t find somewhere else,” Torres said. “They really don’t know a lot about Mexico, but they don’t like their parents’ music…. And they free themselves.”
Ska put its indelible imprint on Southern California in the 1990s during the genre’s so-called third wave, in which bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, No Doubt and others became widely popular. By the 2000s, rhythmic, trumpeting ska beats were even fusing with hip-hop. The sound gradually fell out of favor in the U.S.
But by then, ska had been flourishing for a decade in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, with Mexican acts such as Panteón Rococó, Salon Victoria and Tijuana No! becoming internationally recognized. There, ska came to represent a movement of musical protest, just as it had during the second wave across England and the U.S., with bands often aligning themselves with social justice causes.
Torres recalled that in Mexico, ska was rooted in “an ideology of protest, with Panteón, even [the band] Maldita [Vecindad], they are songs that have a positive message, more about struggle.”
Southern California’s ska scene might not have all those historical references, yet there’s a distinct political awareness, reflecting many teens’ concerns with topics such as immigration reform and the federal DREAM Act, which would give immigrants an alternate path to citizenship.
In February, the band Los Rudos played to a packed room at a cozy bar called Worthington’s in downtown Riverside. Its vocalists — one screaming, one singing and rapping — launched their sonic attack over percussion commonly used in salsa and cumbia bands (meaning drums, bass and the popping of the timbales).
The young audience — African American, white and Latino — danced and sang along to the band’s mixed-language verses. A skank circle formed. People sweated.
The next night, Los Rudos — most of whose members are in their early 20s — were practicing at a house in a southeastern part of Riverside where the sidewalks are unpaved. Holed up in the small garage at the home of drummer Marco Beraud, the guys were keeping warm with a homemade mixed drink that included a neon-green mystery juice.
Between songs, they recalled how they’d met in high school and began driving out to ska shows at places such as the Allen Theatre in South Gate and other venues in East L.A. The band formed around 2005, influenced by acts such as Alien Ant Farm and the Voodoo Glow Skulls — groups that are also from the Riverside area. They said they were also influenced by major rock en español bands in Mexico. (The band members say their parents are natives of Orange County and, in Mexico, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Jalisco and Michoacán.)
“Back then, all my influences were like Maldita Vecindad. To me that was ska, or Panteón Rococó. I think it just evolved from there,” said Frankie Meza, the bassist.
“We just saw it as music,” said vocalist Roland Rojas.
They gradually found an audience, joining a growing movement of bands popping up across Southern California. Now Los Rudos plays frequently across Southern California, in Arizona and once in Tijuana. The band has recorded and released an EP independently and is working on another.
“You could say over here they’re a little more hard core,” Meza said of the group’s fan base in the Inland Empire. “The kids out here who go to our shows are more like punk kids. It’s not strictly ska,” offered Beraud. “It’s more greasers, punks. Even metal heads go.”
The bigger scene, Los Rudos acknowledges, is in Los Angeles, where promoters such as DeadEnd Ska Production and LA Shows frequently fill the calendar with ska sets.
Geneva Noriega is a 19-year-old L.A.-area ska promoter who organizes parties with bands she describes as being “818, 323, 213,” for L.A. area codes. She said she doesn’t like to charge more than $4 a ticket for a full ska night, with profits split with bands that play. “I wouldn’t mind if it got ‘commercialized’ and started spreading to people everywhere,” Noriega said online. “But I would really mind if prices went higher, bands get pickier on who they play for and where they play.”
She used a political analogy to describe the possibility of the mainstreaming of the underground ska scene: California’s fight over the legalization of marijuana. “If it gets legal, they might start putting taxes on it, raising prices, changing things you wouldn’t want changed,” she said. “It’s an example.”
At least one band, Los Rudos, doesn’t pretend that one day it’ll be playing monster venues or performing on network television. Its scene remains largely untouched by big promoters, labels or marketers — for now.
“Music doesn’t pay the bills,” vocalist Agustin Tinajero said with a shrugg.
“It pays for gas to the show,” Beraud said, laughing.
Daniel Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times’ Mexico City bureau.