In the traditional son jarocho song “Señor Presidente,” a peasant laments the sad state of his neighborhood. In each verse, the narrator asks the president if the common people will ever have things as good as they are in the president’s neighborhood. Will their streets ever be as safe? Will they ever be as rich? The questions go unanswered, but after all, they are rhetorical. The answer, it is clearly implied, is no.
Las Cafeteras perform their own version of the song on their new album, Tastes Like L.A., which comes out this week. The East L.A. band is known for their love of son jarocho, but that doesn’t mean there’s no downside to carrying on the centuries-old folk tradition from the Veracruz region of Mexico. For instance, Las Cafeteras member Leah Gallegos wouldn’t mind at all if songs like “Señor Presidente” weren’t so relevant today.
“Four hundred years later, we’re still singing about the same needs,” says Gallegos by phone, as the seven-member band prepares for an album release tour that comes to the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Saturday, April 15.
On Tastes Like L.A., “Señor Presidente” leads into an even more direct comment on our times, the hip-hop-driven “If I Was President,” featuring lyrics like “If I was President/I’d free all my poor black and brown kids that got caught up in three strikes/And when they get out/They gettin’ free bikes.”
Few bands can find the humor and joy in a political protest song the way Las Cafeteras does (another great line from “If I Was President”: “My first lady would be my mom/Cause she’d slap me at the first thought/Of drone strikes and dropping bombs”). Gallegos doesn’t even see it as political, really, singing about the human experience.
“I think we sing about very basic human needs,” she says. “A lot of times that gets named ‘political’ or ‘radical,’ and I think that’s a little off.”
Perhaps the difference is that, as most of the band members come from immigrant families, the issues people have been most alarmed about since Trump took office are ones they’ve had to be worried about their whole lives.
“It’s become a little more loud, it’s a little more in everyone’s face,” says Gallegos. “But it’s not that new to us.”
Neither is the internal turmoil they had to deal with in 2015, when Annette Torres left the band; Torres released a statement claiming the members of Las Cafeteras weren’t living up to their stated feminist and democratic values, saying the women in the band were being pushed around by the men. The other band members denied most of her claims, and Gallegos took issue with anyone speaking for her. Any band that finds success—as Las Cafeteras has since the release of its popular last album, 2012’s It’s Time—is going to have tension, she says, but the story she saw represented by Torres and much of the media coverage was not her experience at all. Because Torres is the aunt of two of the band members, brothers David and Hector Flores, the break-up was that much harder.
“We’re still broken-hearted about it,” says Gallegos. “But I think internally it sort of allowed us to grow stronger. It really tested our caring for one another, because we lost a family member. We lost a friend.”
Weirdly, the conflict also pushed them to complete their long-overdue follow-up to It’s Time, which kept getting pushed back year after year as they continued to tour.
“It kind of put us in a place where we wanted to create, and be in the studio making music,” she says. “It was sort of our medicine.”
The finished product represents a lot of musical growth by the band, which has created a sonic stew on Tastes Like L.A. that goes well beyond their origins in traditional sounds and songs.
“We have a lot more originals. We’ve kind of strayed away from son jarocho,” says Gallegos. “We’re starting to experiment with more instruments and more sounds.”
INFO: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $25. 423-8209.