Utah Arts Festival 2021: Music highlights include headliner Las Cafeteras from East LA; local standouts Fry Pan Band, La Calavera, Mel Soul, Brent Yo and The Messenger

Las Cafeteras (Aug. 28, 9:30 p.m., Festival Stage)

It has been three years since Las Cafeteras, the acoustic alt-folk rock band from East Los Angeles, performed in Salt Lake City, at The University of Utah. They appeared then with the all-female mariachi crew Flor de Toloache, who had won a Latin Grammy just a year prior.

Since the band’s six members, all children of immigrants, first assembled during their student days at the Eastside Café, a community space in East Los Angeles, they have manifested the quintessential experience of synthesizing their genealogical musical roots with the sounds of hip-hop, ska, funk, rock and dance music they heard in the Chicano neighborhoods since their early childhood days. “We speak five languages in our music,” Hector Flores says in an interview with The Utah Review. “That is, peace, love, English, Spanish and Spanglish.”

Las Cafeteras. Photo Credit: JP

In their formative years, the band learned to play son jarocho, a centuries-old Afro-Mexican musical language originating from the Mexican state of Veracruz. They also learned to play the eight-string guitar known as the jarana as well as the percussion instrument known as the quijada, a donkey jawbone which produces a scraping sound and the tarima, a wooden platform for dancing. As Veracruz writer Rafael Figueroa, who has documented how son jarocho has continued to flourish both in Mexico as well as the U.S., explained in an interview with NPR, “If you become interested in son jarocho, you belong to a community almost right at the start. Of course, for us from Veracruz, it’s important, but [also] for people from Mexico City, from California, like Chicanos, Anglos, whatever. They feel like they’re participating, right from the start, in a community.”

Flores emphasizes that their music springs directly from their passions as community organizers, a distinction that extends far beyond sociopolitical boundaries. The band’s activism comes through their music, for instance, in songs such as Long Time Coming, which was recorded last year and featured in a music video to support the get-out-the-vote efforts for the presidential election and as allies for the Black Lives Matter movement. With an infectious dance beat and smooth vocals, the song, which also features Los Angeles musicians Scarub, Kimsly,and Stefani ‘La Mera’ Candeleria, clarifies and ignites the motivation to answer the call to activism and respond. After the election, the band released again its protest anthem If I Was President, which originally arose in 2017 during the Trump Administration. The song, with lyrics about a future to make life equitable for all Americans, including immigrants and all BIPOC people, was released again earlier this year, reiterating the aspirations of the original lyrics. The song’s latest remix with its culturally versatile hip hop vibe features Sa-Roc, Boog Brown, QVLN and Mega Ran.

Las Cafeteras. Photo Credit: Farah Sosa.

The band’s activism is cultural, exemplified in a bountiful catalog of songs popping in dance rhythms and stories that resonate with the Chicano folk traditions. “We’ve learned that tradition is much more fluid than what we have been taught,” Flores says. “The idea of purity in the tradition of music is not the case. There is so much mixing involved, with the migration of people who bring so many different foods, cultures and sounds with them.” Flores mentions Norteño music and how the influx of German immigrants nearby brought the accordion into the musical tradition. Then, there is the corrido, which has given ballads their storytelling the cultural impact. He also cites the west African roots of son jarocho. “The point is that, ‘let’s not box ourselves,’” Flores adds, “and that by learning the tradition, we can break the rules to our benefit.” Indeed, as Flores notes, growing up in a family of immigrants in Los Angeles, young people listen to a lot of hip hop, funk and other music before coming into their twenties and rediscovering the folk music of older generations. “Folk is more about authentic stories,” he emphasizes.

An excellent example of what Flores talks about comes through in Las Cafeteras’ fantastic reimagining of the classic R&B hit from 1966, I’m Your Puppet, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham with the definitive recording by James and Bobby Purify. In Las Cafeteras’ rendering, the members add a small but mighty twist that transforms the original brilliantly. Now, the song is I’m Not Your Puppet, which resonates in a generation where the emphasis is on reclaiming one’s self in all types of relationships by removing the most toxic and debilitating influences involved. One still hears the R&B soul of the original but with the use of the tarima and other Afro-Mexican musical instruments, the version lifts it out of sobering melancholy into an uplifting, promising and delightful vibe.

Flores says that the pandemic quarantine proved to be a flourishing creative period for writing love songs of all types – romantic and personal love as well as love for peace and justice. “We wrote 20 songs and we already have recorded 15 so we have enough for a full album as well as an EP,” he adds. One of their newest songs is about falling in love with a mermaid and how the worries about forbidden love can be overcome by embracing the joy of two people coming together from different worlds.

“We are like troubadours and ambassadors giving people a taste of the future and adding more spice to the American soup,” Flores says. “We can’t have a movement without a movement and we want people to dance to good music. Our responsibility is to create a world where many worlds fit. If it’s possible on the dance floor, then it’s possible in our neighborhoods and then it’s possible in policy. If we can create many flavors in a song, then they can fit in a neighborhood’s apartment complex and then it’s possible to fit in an entire country.”

“A soup without spices might be okay if you’re hungry but why have bland food when we can have something more to feed our souls,” he explains. “In Mexico, we have menudo that is food as medicine. Music also is medicine and we need to put some medicine in our American soup. The point is it can be good all of the time.”

Fry Pan Band (Aug. 27, 4:15 p.m., The Garden Stage)

While drummer Bob Smith says that he has played individually with the other five members of Fry Pan Band before the group finally came together, he explains, “I always had thought about that this would be the type of band I would like to have.”

Thanks to some serendipitous timing, the band finally came together with Smith being joined by Steve Mansfield (trumpet), Dale Lee (saxophone), Reed Chadwick (trombone), Wally Barnum (bass) and Dan Featherstone (guitar). There had been retirements, according to Smith. The saxophonist said that he could enjoy playing more often. The bass player had quit earlier to raise and family but then slowly reemerged on the band scene. The guitarist studied with the trumpeter and the trombonist had been involved in many local music projects. “It was cool how it all came about,” Smith says. “It was a perfect storm.”

Fry Pan Band.

As a result of each musician’s extensive portfolios, the band has finessed an eclectic palette of all sorts of styles, including jazz, rock, funk, Eastern European, Cajun, Middle Eastern, Greek, kletzmer, gypsy and Americana roots. Smith says his fellow band members are “writing maniacs” so they are prolific in writing new material. Smith says the song writing has been smart and works out well, with strong horn parts, tight rhythm sections and natural sounding licks. “I like to call it a groove mish mash,” he adds.

“The one thing during the pandemic was that it gave me more time to practice,” he adds. He had a liver transplant during the lockdown. “But, the pandemic went on much longer than my recovery, so I was anxious to get back to playing,” he says.

Smith says the band is slowly moving toward recapturing the momentum it had before the pandemic. Prior to 2020, the band had built up a slate of plenty festival and club gigs including The Hog Wallow Pub. “We are not a typical bar band so our emphasis is on festivals and special events,” Smith adds.

The band’s name came after the usual tedious experience of trying to figure out the perfect label. “For about an hour, we were drawing names seriously but then it become silly, obnoxious or ridiculous,” Smith explains. “and then Steve [Mansfield] and I were talking about how ‘fry pan” would be a good band name, especially as a funk name. The next rehearsal, we announced the name and nobody objected so it was good.”

The one drawback was what happens if someone Googles “fry pan,” which is why “band” is added to the name.

Mel Soul, Brent Yo & The Messenger.

Mel Soul, Brent Yo & The Messenger (Aug. 29, 2:15 p.m., Garden Stage, Aug. 28, 6 p.m., Relaxation Through Verse Poetry Salon, The Round)

This eclectic musical collaboration has proven quite successful as the members have performed all around the Salt Lake City metropolitan area including downtown destinations such as Boomerang (formerly Murphy’s) on mainstream in downtown as well as the Urban Lounge and Park City’s Park Silly Sunday market. They have performed at busker festivals and have been on tour along the West coast.

Everett Spencer (The Messenger) says the group’s makeup enhances the multicultural influences and creative possibilities in their music, which includes originals and covers representing indie, folk, country and Americana roots. Mel Soul, who is a native of Micronesia and lives in Orem, is an accomplished singer/songwriter who has recorded under the Sony label. Brent Yo is guitarist as well as production engineer. Spencer runs Hi-Hat Studio in North Salt Lake. Spencer says his musical influences include Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode, David Bowie, Black Flag and Michael Hedges.

Spencer credits Mel Soul and Brent Yo as the true songwriters while he describes his own role, which includes managing three other bands, as akin to Barry Gordy, the Motown executive and founder. Mel Soul’s songs include Love Is Pain and Evolution of Wild Women, which references her Polynesian background and the generations of women who have come before her and the legacy that has taught her the wisdom of communicating love and good spirit through her art. Likewise, Good Woman, a song that Spencer says is emotional and sensitive, champions the integrity and presence of good women. Mel Soul and Brent Yo are familiar performers to the local LGBTQ+ community as well.

Spencer says their upcoming performance, their first at the Utah Arts Festival, will mix ballads with fast-paced songs. Their set list includes song originals and covers such as Lights Down Low, Ain’t No Sunshine/Another Son, Mas World, Brave, Billy Jean/Don’t Let Me Down, Wicked Games, Bliss I Hear, Relativity and Cjam.

La Calavera (Aug. 29, 4 p.m., Park Stage)

Since 2015 when, as Victor Viveros describes, “a bunch of friends interested in and inspired by the metal band sound and Mexican banda rock, decided to come together,” La Calavera has cultivated a solid local presence. He says the pandemic has given the band the opportunity to hone its sound through rehearsal and songs they wrote and shared online during the most extensive period of social distancing.

Their Utah Arts Festival appearance will be the first formal show since the pandemic and the band members are excited about finally returning to the stage, Viveros adds. Each member brings his particular inspiration to the sound of the band, with influences from ska, punk, banda, classic metal and heavy metal. They also performed in 2019 at the Arts Festival. The band alternates between mellow ballads and energetic guitar melodic riffs with appealing chorus sections.

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