“What’s up with the Midwest and winter, dude?”
Daniel French and his band, the East L.A.-based Chicano sextet Las Cafeteras, are currently on tour, deep in the Adirondacks Mountains, slowly making their way to the freezing Midwest. On Friday, February 16, they’ll land at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, part of a traveling installment of globalFEST. Joined by indie-mambo-post-punk band Orkesta Mendoza, Las Cafeteras will bring a dash of warmth and positive party vibes to the wind-chilled area. Goodness knows we need it.
Formed in 2005 when its members were students at a community space in El Sereno, Los Angeles, Las Cafeteras use traditional Son Jarocho instruments like the jarana and requinto—as well as a donkey jawbone (quijada) and a wooden dancing platform (tarima)—to cook up a heady mix of Spanish- and English-sung folk, rock, and hip-hop. The group’s 2017 album, Tastes Like L.A., features songs both sunny (“Vamos To The Beach”) and politically minded (“If I Was President,” a life-affirming take on “This Land Is Your Land”).
In advance of Friday’s show, Milwaukee Record spoke to French about navigating the country’s political climate, the importance of controlling your own narrative, and doing squats to “Eye Of The Tiger.”
Milwaukee Record: How has the tour been going so far? Any highlights or surprises?
Daniel French: One of the things that has been really fun has been playing with Orkesta Mendoza. We started sitting in on each other’s songs, jamming backstage, so it’s been really fun. When we played in New York City two nights ago some of our band members, all the Cafeteras, joined Orkesta Mendoza on one of their closing numbers, and then they joined us on our version of “La Bamba.” The jam vibe has been really good. When you spend enough time with creative folks you just start making music together.
Oh, we were also doing push-up and squat challenges on the bus yesterday while we were driving. We were playing…what’s the Rocky song?
MR: [hums the Rocky theme]
DF: [hums “Eye Of The Tiger”] We’re from L.A., so we’re close to the border. [Orkesta Mendoza] are Tucson, Arizona, so they’re on the border. Combined, I think we create a really nuanced and interesting glimpse of what’s happening in the Southwest, and what’s happening along the border. I think folks will get an interesting view, not just into our East L.A. perspective, but also a bigger Southwest narrative. I think that’s something special.
MR: Musically speaking, what can Milwaukee expect from Las Cafeteras?
DF: We’re going to bring that L.A. flavor! People can expect it to be a couple degrees warmer that day in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, because they’re going to feel it!
You’re going to see zapateado, which is a kind of stomp dancing. It’s a lot of call-and-response, it’s English and Spanish, it’s traditional folk music from the Gulf Coast as well as new stuff. It’s got hip-hop and rock and acoustic instruments and stuff that’s plugged in. It’s going to be like where the country meets the city. High energy. If anything, people can expect a really good time and lots of energy. We will have the room on their feet.
MR: Changing gears, how do you see yourselves, and your music, fitting in with what’s going on in our country today?
DF: Some people are with Democrats, some people are with Republicans, some people are independent. We invite everybody, from all the parties, to get together for one big party. It’s the people’s party. People gathered, united, celebrating our humanity, celebrating what we have in common. Inevitably someone will disagree with something we say. That’s fine. We often disagree with what people leave out, and what they choose not to say. But the point is to have a good time together, to get our bodies moving, and to make human connections. People are trying to build borders right now. We’re trying to build bridges.
We’re trying to get people dancing, smiling in the same place, connecting. Sometimes music is meant to help people forget, but we’re really trying to help people remember. Remember who they are, and to dance through the pain, to dance through the division, and to meet somewhere out there on that dance floor, somewhere in that magical space that happens when people come together and enjoy music. You see what it does to people’s spirits. It’s medicine.
It’s a positive space, but we also don’t pull any punches. We’re being honest about the stories that we feel need to be heard. Maybe people in Milwaukee haven’t tasted this kind of Latino and Latina experience, but that’s what makes it cool, to spread the fresh air.
MR: You mentioned disagreeing with things that people leave out…
DF: In this political environment, the real currency of the press is one-liners and catch phrases. We feel what is being left out are the real stories, the human stories. It’s easy to call a Latino person an illegal immigrant. We’ve had that happen on this tour. People say we’re liberal illegals…well, you don’t even know us. You might not even realize that my ancestors have been here longer than yours.
There’s a sense of amnesia. That’s a narrative problem with our country. Our country is not educating its citizens on our story, on how we became a nation. We haven’t dealt with colonization and slavery, amongst many other things, and we haven’t forgiven or apologized, and we haven’t made things right. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.
What happens when you come to our show, you’re going to experience something that might confuse you. It might complicate your idea of what a Latino is—or in my case, I’m also Mohawk. I think those are the things that frustrate us. Sometimes the loudest thing in the room is the thing that’s not said.
We’re telling stories that we think need to be told, from our community and our families. But we’re also saying, “Tell your stories.” Love who you are. Love where you come from, and lift that up. Don’t get caught up in the narratives that are told about, say, your town, your state, or your ethnicity. I think we’re trying to invite people to be active citizens, be active participants in the creation of their own narratives. We have that power, that’s our right. For everybody. Whether you’re undocumented, whether you’re a Trump supporter, whatever your support, this is the time to listen to other people’s stories, and share your story, and not get caught up in this hateful rhetoric. If you love yourself, why would you hate somebody else?
I think that’s maybe the essence: We want people to love themselves so they can realize that there’s no need to hate somebody who seems different than them.
“globalFEST On the Road: The New Golden Age of Latin Music” comes to the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts Friday, February 16, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office or online.