Music and Conversation with Las Cafeteras

Kelly Gallagher ‘22

Chief Features Editor

Video courtesy of Arts Transcending Borders.
Missed the live demonstration? Watch the recorded conversation and performances here!

In demonstration of music’s ability to bring people together, dozens of College of Holy Cross community members joined members of Las Cafeteras for a live conversation and demonstrations through Zoom. Sponsored by Arts Transcending Borders, “Beyond La Bamba: Music, Storytelling, and Activism in the Time of Corona” gave community members the opportunity to gather, connect, and enjoy Las Cafeteras’ inspiring music. 

ATB ambassadors Brandon Brito ‘20 and Maggie Hannick ‘23 hosted the event on April 21, with band members Denise Carlos, Daniel French, Hector Flores, and Jose Cano joining in from Los Angeles. While the band members were confined to their own homes, they gave several demonstrations of their favorite instruments. Carlos introduced viewers to the Quijada, a donkey jawbone reinvented as a percussion instrument, and Zapateado dancing. She explained how dancing becomes a percussion instrument when performed on a tarima, which she described as “the heartbeat of the gathering.” French showcased the jarana segunda, adding that his particular guitar was actually hand-crafted by another band member, Jorge Mijangos. 

Despite the physical separation of participants, the event preserved a sense of collaboration when attendees, after watching Las Cafeteras’ music video for “If I Was President,” shared what they would change if they were president. French, also fondly called Frenchie, took these comments from the chat and turned it into a freestyle rap. Attendees flooded the chat with their ideas and, with equal enthusiasm, French wove their suggestions into the rap.

Band members shared not only their music, but what their music means to them. French told the audience, “What I love about son jarocho music is that it’s this mix of rhythms and stories from West Africans, from the indigenous people of that gulf coast of Veracruz, the Spaniards, so out of colonization, out of the pressure cooker of extremely difficult times, our people came together – were pushed together – and we made something beautiful out of it…. So if you’re wondering, why are they talking about the style? It’s because it came to us at a moment that we needed it and it gave us wings to tell our story.” 

Flores added, “We always say everyone’s a musician. The first instrument is your vocals, is your hands, your feet. For us, part of working and traveling is to let everybody know, ‘Yo, you a musician, you a poet, you can make music, your heartbeat is on time.’ We’re trying to deconstruct what a musician is, what a storyteller is, because we should all be doing that work.”

The band has their origins in activism, having formed out of the protest movement to protect South Central Farm. They’ve continued to blend music and activism ever since. Carlos elaborated on how she combines her two passions, explaining, “My activism right now, and I think always as a psychiatrist, is rooted in valuing stories and experience. I think with music I’m also able to do that…. What I love about the music that we do is that it’s rooted in really giving value and voice to marginalized experiences like our parents’ and ours, and just giving space for other people, because everyone is building their own revolution.”

French added that his personal journey of blending music and activism started with the desire to not only “do something for the common good,” but to do something that gave him “joy.” In Las Cafeteras, he found a vehicle for activism “that’s not only screaming and losing my voice and putting my fist up, but dancing, music, and things that bring people together.”

The discussion eventually turned to coronavirus, specifically the current living conditions and what the world will look like once the threat of the virus diminishes. Flores encouraged collaboration, saying “Unless we stand together, we will fall together.” Every individual is capable of contributing to this group effort, so “as individuals, we have to be the light in the darkness.” When it comes to personal productivity, Flores recommended students to focus not on finding a particular job, but on developing skills such as organization and communication, and to think about what skills they’ve learned from home. 

Cano also had insight on making the most of the difficult current climate. He told community members, “I keep remembering this quote that said, ‘If you can’t go out, then go within.’ I repeat that to myself a lot, and it provides this amazing opportunity to really spend some time with yourself, to understand yourself, to get to learn about yourself, and you’ll be that much better for all of the people around you once we’re able to be with folks.”

While a Zoom call can’t quite substitute the live performance ATB originally envisioned, the event demonstrated community members’ determination to continue gathering together for uplifting music and thought-provoking conversations. As evidenced by their thoughtful answers, the members of Las Cafeteras were remarkably self-aware, the very image of artists who know exactly what their art means to them and move forward with a clear purpose.

Cover photo courtesy of NPR.org

Categories: features

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