Los Angeles is renowned as the entertainment capital of the world, and for its long love affair with the automobile. L.A. is also world-famous for its rich Latino culture: besides the fact the actual name of the city is in Spanish, the city was once part of Mexico, and Latinos make up about 48% of the city’s population, according to the latest census. With such a strong presence, Latinos have influenced everything from the city’s arts to architecture, food and especially its ever-bustling music scene.
Everyone knows Los Angeles Latino music classics like Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos and Ozomatli. To celebrate Latino Heritage Month, here is our list of the top ten L.A.-based, Latino-centric music groups. From synthesized cumbia sonidero to soul-ska rocksteady and raw punk rock, these guys and girls are standing out from the bunch and representing the City of Angels with their bold musical styles.
The Bloodhounds are a product of the thriving East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights backyard music scene. Rather than the more prevalent punk rock, these guys chose a bluesy, classic rock and roll R&B path - imagine if Bob Dylan was born and raised in East L.A. and you have the sound of The Bloodhounds. The band is musically ambidextrous, with a foundation in the traditional guitar-drum-bass setup, but they are equally skilled in old jug band style, complete with DIY washtub bass, washboard with percussive cans and thimbles, and of course, a banjo. They are the youngest group on this list and you’ve probably never heard of them, but that will likely change soon: they were recently signed by a local record label and are about to release their debut album, Let Loose.
Chicano Batman have generated a cult following in the last couple of years for their organ-guided bilingual beats. Their instrumental-intensive songs are inspired by the 70s golden era of Los Bukis (Mexican-style romantic music, a genre in its own) and good ol’ late 60s psychedelia with a little early Brazilian samba thrown in for kicks. Add these guys to your soon-to-be-classics category, in the same realm as other great American Latin alternative groups like Los Lobos and Richie Valens. In other words, legendary stuff that will probably be played really loud out of low-rider cars in a decade or so.
East Los Angeles has been enjoying a rocksteady-reggae renaissance lately, largely thanks to The Delirians. They formed the band as teenagers in 2007 and have made the dub-heavy Jamaican genre their own, blending the slower-than-ska-but-faster-than-reggae traditional riffs with those signature East L.A. sounds of soul, funk and R&B. The group has been widely accepted by rocksteady legends like Thee Jamaicans, Pat Kelly and Derrick Morgan. The Delirians have also opened for Toots and the Maytals, toured with The Skatalites and they keep on climbing up the ladder. Their first-ever full-length album, Get Up! was recently released on Angel City Records. You can also catch them live, since they play somewhere in Los Angeles almost every single week.
It’s a little known fact that rockabilly music is the most underestimated genre of music in Latino culture. Like Johnny Cash and Morrissey, this style of music has an eternal special place in the hearts of many tatted-up, pompadour-sporting Mexican-American Angelenos. It’s safe to say that an upright bass is god in this genre, since it’s the most representative instrument and leads the beat for most songs. El Monte’s Gamblers Mark perform songs that are classic honky-tonk: twangy rockabilly with a couple of faster psychobilly (the genre’s punk rock alter ego) thrown in to rile you up just a little bit. Did we mention the amazingly awesome upright bass solos?
These humble homegrown heroes just won a Grammy Award in the “Best Latin Rock, Urban Or Alternative” category this year, need we say more? The powerfully dynamic voice of lead singer “La Marisoul” is destined for radio play around the world. The group’s poppy pan-Latin sound is packed with culturally meaningful lyrics that appeal to the working class demographic everywhere. Not to mention, it’s easily danceable - even the shyest of wallflowers will hear La Negra and want to get on the dance floor.
An integral part of growing up as an American descendent of parents born either in Mexico, Central or South America is tapping into your parents’ and ancestors’ homeland traditions, culture and therefore, their music. Las Cafeteras beautifully embraced this rite of passage by taking the historically celebrated sounds of Mexico’s Veracruz region, Son Jarocho music - celebrated for its ukulele-like jarana-jarocha miniature guitar ensembles and tap-danced zapateado metronomes - and made it their own. The addition of modern urban alternative sounds and politically-charged lyrics makes for a truly unique L.A.-Mexican music experience.
Cumbia is the music of the people in Central and Southern Mexico, and parts of Southern America. Its repetitive, percussion-lined beats are derived from the Caribbean coastal regions of Colombia and Panama. The DJ trio known as Metralleta de Oro is L.A.’s answer to the cultural revolution of cumbia reappropriation, dubbed "Nueva Cumbia," that’s happening all around Mexico. It’s enjoyed by alternative-minded young adults that embraced and sometimes revamped their culture's time-honored genre of soulful music. Metralleta remixed it electronically in Mexico City’s sonidero style of cumbia, with modern hip hop and indie rock samples. They use some kitsch and satire in their musical and visual selections, in order to criticize, depict, exaggerate, or comment on the spectacle of different Mexican popular subcultures, such as their own cumbia sonidero specialization.
The underground backyard scene of East Los Angeles punk rock bands exists in a world of its own, in the communities of Boyle Heights, East L.A. and all of the San Gabriel Valley. Since the late 70s, the scene has been growing strong, incubating hundreds of bilingual punk rock bands that come and go over the years. Out of these countless groups, only a few bands ever receive recognition outside of their scene. Hailing from Boyle Heights, Union 13 is one these breakouts, the only band of its peers to get signed by Epitaph Records in the 90s and tour the world. Their punk rock style is fast, loud and just melodic enough in the right moments. It’s a style that could only have been created in the streets of Boyle Heights.
In Colombia, cumbia has much more emphasis on the accordion. This extremely rhythmic sub-genre is called vallenato, which made its way to Los Angeles and got picked up by a group of guys called Very Be Careful, who took this hyper-regional style of cumbia and added - of all things - a dark, gothic approach. Their songs are almost hypnotic, all the better to enjoy with your significant other and dance the night away. They’ve independently released seven full-length albums that are all available online for your head-bobbing pleasure.
Ska music is dearly beloved by Latino kids in Los Angeles, and it has a huge presence in Latin American countries like Mexico as well. Locally, there is no better band to exemplify this phenomena than Viernes 13. Show up to any of their shows and you’ll see why: their Spanish-sung masterpieces go from harmonized horn-heavy ballads about love lost and tequila - like their hit sing-along single Lagrimas de Agave - to bouncy, fast and fun beats about characters that like to drink, like Johnny Pistolero. No matter which song they play, you can count on their mosh pit to be full of skanking fans young and old (“skanking” is the official term for dancing to ska). Most importantly, these fans are friendly, so don’t be scared to jump in and push around.