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Pulling Together: The members of Blues Experiment fuse jam-oriented rock with strong Spanish vocals.

A New Sound Rising

Dia de los Muertos at Fuel celebrates the young stars of the Chicano Groove

By David Espinoza

Give 'em hope, to all the people of the sun, to rise and rise to the occasion, revolution just begun. --Quetzal

AS THIS MUSICALLY idiosyncratic decade hits the home stretch, and the talking heads and their respective pundits intensify their efforts to recap its greatest and lamest moments, something will be missed. Between the Top-100 song countdowns and best-of-grunge specials, a generation of musicians who play what some have dubbed "Chicano Groove" will go unrecognized. That is, of course, if you only read Spin and watch MTV.

To be sure, the cultural identity behind the word "Chicano" (sometimes spelled Azteca-like as "Xicano") might never have been incorporated into a musical setting if it weren't for its own reclamation in the '60s. At the time, the seeds for bands like Santana, Tower of Power and WAR were being sowed as Mexican-American activists took cues from the Black Power movement in carving out an empowering identity.

Flash forward to the year 1998: The movement has come full circle. An aguacero of artists with names like Lysa Flores, Quetzal, Aztlan Underground, Yeska and Ozomatli have just released their first full-length albums, many of which come from independent labels such as Xicano Records and Film, Aztlan Records and Son Del Barrio. Unlike the generation past, the '90s Chicano bands are more diverse in style, playing music that draws from rock to rap, funk to punk, cumbia to corrido.

"We're lucky to be on the West Coast, where it's all coming out of," says Chris Esparza, head of San Jose's Giant Arts & Entertainment. This coming weekend, Esparza, along with Son Del Barrio Records, will host a series dedicated to the burgeoning Chicano Groove scene with two full nights of music and festivities. Serving as a backdrop will be the traditional Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos--a celebration of the afterlife.

Kicking things off on Saturday will be the Bay Area's own Los Otros, who will play alongside San Diego's Agua Dulce (Sweet Water). Founded over two years ago, Los Otros' independent record label, Son Del Barrio, a division of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Justice Matters, has been a crucial force in coining the phrase "Chicano Groove." In recognition of the dual culturalism that drives many of these bands, Chicano Groove refers to a sound that bridges American styles such as funk and blues with Mexican-American folk music and Tex-Mex. At the heart of this sound is the mentality of two distinct cultures existing in harmony.

Lysa Flores Mapping a Star: Lysa Flores is one of the rising stars of the new Chicano Groove.

"The smell of your body has stained my skin, like cheap perfume you wish you'd never drowned yourself in," sings Lysa Flores (who performs Sunday) on "Queen of the Blvd.," the third track from her debut album, Tree of Hope. The song boasts an irresistible swirl of danceable beats and throbbing bass lines, but Flores is also a folk singer. In other tunes, like "Arizona Winds" and "Matisse," the young diva's voice ranges from the dramatic crooning of Polly Jean Harvey to the angelic whisper of the Cowboy Junkies.

One of the few female solo artists in her field, Flores got her start playing in her hometown of East Los Angeles, creating her own record label. Landing a part in the 1997 film Star Maps, Flores got to test out her acting skills in her role as the protective sister of an aspiring Hollywood actor made to work the streets by his pimp father. Even more impressively, Flores produced the entire soundtrack for the film, bringing together high-profile rock en español artists like Colombia's Aterciopelados and Mexico's Control Machete.

As in many small, close-knit scenes, today's Chicano musicians often find themselves helping each other out by selling CDs, spreading the word and playing gigs together. Often when a band is trying to raise money to produce a CD, friends will get together to hold a benefit show.

A good example of this is the Blues Experiment, a seven-plus-member Santana-sounding band that has worked hard to keep the movement going. Close friends of the hugely successful Ozomatli, the musicians in the Blues Experiment fuse jam-oriented rock & roll with strong Spanish vocals by lead singer Gus. The band also incorporates congas, trumpets and funky keyboards into the mix, resulting in some very danceable tunes. The Blues Experiment plays on Sunday.

In a bit of an ironic twist, many of California's '90s Chicano bands often get mistaken for rock en español. But Chicano bands do not fit the rock en español persona in the sense that they play music strictly in Spanish. Instead, groups such as Quetzal, Flores and Blues Experiment seem to fall somewhere in between the two worlds of Spanish and English, as they sing in both languages--a reflection of a generation raised with two cultures.

Artists like Los Angeles' Aztlan Underground have opened for Mexico's Maldita Vecindad, and just recently Lysa Flores opened for Mexico's Jaguares. Chicano Groove--it's a phrase you won't see in most record stores, not even if the store is a Spanish one, but it's there, you just have to look.

Dia de los Muertos Festival runs Oct. 30-31 at the Fuel 44, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Saturday's Halloween Ball features Los Otros and Agua Dulce. Starts at 8pm; $15. Sunday's events include the Artist Gathering with a concert by Hounddog. The event also includes a public discussion about Chicano music. Doors at 4pm; feast 4-5:30pm; $20 includes feast. Sunday evening's lineup has Lysa Flores, Grito Serpentino, Blues Experiment, Keepers of Tym and Robert Kariml performing new Chicano music and spoken word. Doors at 9pm; cover $7. (408.295.7374.)

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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