Rex Tillerson is proselytizing on TV about the president’s revised travel ban that goes into effect next week, but I’m reading about Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, an undocumented father of three who was arrested in front of his daughter and his wife while dropping another daughter off at school. He’d lived here and worked hard for 20 years, only coming onto ICE’s radar for a nine-year-old DUI conviction and accidentally leaving an old registration sticker on a car 20 years ago.
We hear about this often, all of a sudden. Acknowledging how many families ICE has torn apart in the last month is a nightmarish reality, as is listening to 13-year-old girl cry while as her father is forcibly taken away from her as she and her mother watch on, filming the arrest for posterity.
We know that all art is political because culture, and the decimation of culture, has become fair political game, too. But art becomes a knife to old modes of thinking when practiced with subversion. And one cure to such division is, as countless cultures before us have learned, a call for unity and congregation, a ceremonial bursting of bubbles.
L.A.’s Chicano Batman are happy to burst bubbles on their third LP, Freedom Is Free, released last Friday on ATO Records. Shedding those pithy “world music” labels that traditionally inhibit any music conceived with a multicultural lens, Freedom is a culmination of individual identities connecting to become universal.
Frontman Bardo Martinez’s personal history fuses with those of bassist and singer Eduardo Arenas, guitarist Carlos Arévalo and drummer Gabriel Villa as Martinez explores his Columbian/Mexican heritage through funky, felt narratives of dissent and celebration. Just as the intrepid travelers of Brazillian Tropicalia, Columbian Cumbia and Zambian Zamrock music have done before them, Chicano Batman understand how to reclaim the language of an oppressive regime in order to turn it back on the oppressor.
Recorded at Diamond Mine Studios LIC, owned by the Big Crown Records crew of former Daptone Records OGs, it’s also got that warm vintage soul vibe thrown in for good measure.
When you go deep enough, the African diaspora through Latin America lays a groundwork for connection between people from cultures with seemingly nothing in common, illuminating their unending feelings of otherness in American life. The jams on Freedom understand the thread that links people’s desire to express their deepest sense of self.
“The label of whiteness in our society gives you the credence to appropriate and take whatever you want…” Martinez tells me. “And it’s not the fault of anybody who’s white, but that’s just how society functions.”
So I’m on the line with Bardo from Chicano Batman—lead singer, guitarist, organist, conceptual artist. Do you always carry an extra bowtie?
You know what, man? Out of all of us, I lose it the most. [Laughs] That’s just my personality. But lately I’ve been remembering it and putting it in the right place. It actually looks better when we don’t have it on for pictures and stuff like that, at the end of the day. I’ve been resisting it for a long time, I’m already tired of it. We’ve been doing it for 10 years.
Also kind of a stigmatized garment in men’s formal wear. It can be a symbol of subservience but also a “fuck you” if you wear it right.
I guess so, yeah. I think that’s always kind of the point. I’m talkin’ about the late ’30s when you had these musicians who always had to dress up in formal wear, to dress the part in the Dominican Republic and around Latin America. In music it’s always been part of making waves into society or whatever.
I wanted to ask you about this lyric when you mention “the only living creature that kills its companions for food.” What will it take for man to gain back a respect for natural law in your mind?
I mean, I feel like people all over the world still do it. It’s a reality. There’s people who are not capitalist in the world. What is it gonna take? I think it’s gonna take somebody like Trump to really show the extreme effects of capitalism, to really get people to start connecting with each other and creating new economies.
“[I]t’s really a song about narrative, and I feel like not enough artists do that. It’s such a necessary role as an artist, to subvert those really dated statements and slogans.”—Bardo Martinez
Exactly, you know, and that’s really what we’re doing with our music. That’s what music is for a lot of people. We’re creating our own economy.
A year ago you might have seemed idealistic to me, but there’s a pretty sound sentiment going around now that our systems are failing. That our relationship to agribusiness, to our military industrial complex, to our economy, they’ve all run their course. And you can look at someone like Trump as someone who’s expediting that process to hurry us up to the conclusion. Bringing things to their end and mobilizing people together. Wasn’t this the 2012 prophecy? A sort of infrastructural realignment?
Growing cities to the point where [they] are unsustainable has always been that way, from the Athens capital to Rome. All cities fall because you’re essentially taking resources from everywhere else and pouring them into once place, and that’s unnatural. No other animal in nature really does that. Everything travels, everything moves, everything migrates. It’s kind of our false pattern, we’re all takers. That’s me, that’s you.
We’re all also members of the same creative class. You’re not just a member of one vulnerable community right now because you’re also an independent musician, too. Trying to make your way in this economy and urban infrastructure.
We acknowledge what’s going on, we’re conscious of what’s going on, and we’re trying to find ways to survive within it without having to work nine to five, you know? [Laughs]
Yeah! Left out of the narrative of Chicano Batman when your music is connected to tropicália is the extreme political nature of that genre, the context around how it was born as a reaction to the political climate. I’m wondering if you feel a sense of piety around your own music, being at this severe political juncture where goodwill is being tested. Does it feel like the stakes are higher?
We have to be careful what we say, you know, because there are a lot more ears. But now’s the time to say what we wanna say. Dialectically we jumped on board with this concept of Freedom is Free, which connects with what you said about Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Phrases and propaganda, you know, have always been the highlight of Pop Art in the ’60s and ’70s, you know. Freedom is Free is an homage to that, done in the spirit of “É Proibido Proibir,” “It’s prohibited to prohibit,” a Caetano Veloso song from ’68 or something like that. It’s this amazing track, man, one of the fieriest tropicália songs, a B-side that nobody’s heard. It’s a very strong statement.
But yeah, we all know the war propaganda “Freedom Isn’t Free,” we’ve seen that on a billion bumper stickers, especially if you were coming of age in the early ’00s, you know, around the Iraq War. So I’ve always felt the urge to contest that with all my heart. I’ve always felt like what Rage said, “Fuck no, I won’t do what you tell me,” you know? [Laughs] That teenage-style angst. Because really, this concept of freedom, this philosophical idea, is innate to everybody.
But it gets perverted by Manifest Destiny and other concepts we seem to value in America, too eh? And sloganeering is a few degrees removed from propaganda, ad copy for governments.
Yeah, it’s really about narrative, and I feel like not enough artists do that. It’s such a necessary role as an artist, to subvert those really dated statements and slogans.
How do you understand your own multiculturalism as it exists in your music now that you’ve studied and earned your master’s and have a wider perspective on Cumbia, now that some of the links between different sonic influences have become illuminated for you?
I’m Mexican and Columbian. My mom’s from Cartagena and my dad’s from Mexico, from Jalisco, so I’ve always grown up with this mixed heritage, which was always part of learning who I am. I’ve always been interested in history since I was a kid, you know, so advocating it through the educational system I actually got a master’s in Latin American Studies [from UCLA].
My whole life has been trying to understand, how come I don’t fit in this culture I grew up in here in Southern California? I grew up with Mexican kids, I’m first generation. I connected with the Mexican kids more than the Mexican-American or Chicano people, you know, who’ve been here a longer time.
“We’re all trying to just be ourselves and communicate the life force that’s within us, but unfortunately we don’t live in a society, a culture, an economy conducive to that.”
But in relation to music, I’ve really dug into the roots of my Afro heritage. I went to Cartagena for the first time when I was 11, and felt like I was Jamaican because it was the principal slave port for Columbia.
A history people don’t acknowledge.
Right, so that’s part of my history, and I’ve definitely seen how the Afro diaspora touches every musical form. Blues and soul in American music, definitely, but also Cumbia, all these different rhythms from Columbia, from all over Latin America. That’s why I characterize myself as a “National Latino,” where I take pride and work hard at being a part of it, in the way that I project myself and the way that I project the music. So that’s something I’ve personally been working on. I also love a lot of Zamrock and all that psychedelic African music.
Yeah, exactly! All those psychedelic comps from the ’70s, it’s all very similar, whether from Saigon or Cuba or wherever.
I guess they had this golden period in Zambia right after an oppressive regime ended and they could make music without being under a curfew. Maybe a six-year period before the government got super-authoritarian again, and it’s just fascinating how the second that energy went away on a state level, trippiness emerges. A pulse.
Definitely, and the same thing happens everywhere. I came upon the Ethiopic catalog, it’s a group of people who created this music that was banned in Ethiopia, and extremely amazing and super-cool. So that’s always a reality. People are just trying to be free, and music is just an expression of that. We’re all trying to just be ourselves and communicate the life force that’s within us, but unfortunately we don’t live in a society, a culture, an economy conducive to that.
How do you work outside these ubiquitous labels like “world music” that get slapped on bands who embrace their music through a multicultural lens? If Latinos are so often left out of pop culture, how do you use your work to blur the distinctions while still staying true to where you come from? How do you create your new models from inside this system?
You work hard. [Laughs] People have this idea of the music and they have this stigma attached to you, to how you look or whatever. Latinos are not like black folks. Black folks cast themselves, and rightfully so, as the standard of American music, which is dope. And obviously white folks have appropriated black music. Nobody’s gonna question four white fools playing soul or funk, it’s just gonna be some shit that people like. They have a credibility and authenticity, they don’t have to explain what they’re doing.
The label of whiteness in our society gives you the credence to appropriate and take whatever you want, that’s the whole point of whiteness, right? And it’s not the fault of anybody who’s white, but that’s just how society functions.
They’re the benchmark, the bellwether of normalcy.
Exactly! That’s a very good way to put it. And so as Latinos, we have to work hard because of that benchmark. We have to play Coachella, we have to make a commercial with Johnnie Walker, you know what I’m saying? These are all things that legitimize what we’re doing and give credence, but at the end of the day we’re still being ourselves.
I know you guys were very close to the late, great Ikey Owens. Such a kind, sweet man who I had the pleasure of meeting once. He was obviously connected to The Mars Volta, too, who were a great example of what you’re talking about. They embraced arcane Mexican mythology and were so verbose on purpose, they almost had to create this psychedelic alternate universe to transcend those assumptions about them. All the aesthetics were kind of a dress for the substance.
I’ve seen Cedric make this little speech before shows like, “You guys don’t know anything, you guys don’t know shit, you have no idea!” I was always inspired how they always draped the Mexican flag over the bassist’s amp, right? May he rest in peace, man, Ikey was an amazing cat. It was a pleasure and an honor knowing him.
I love how your singing switches to Spanish on this record, and it’s just as you’re about to tell us a story about the cops.
That’s actually Eduardo [Arenas] singing.
Well can you help this poor gringo unpack the story?
Yeah, sure man. We co-wrote that one. I think he was in college at the time. He’s from Boyle Heights right here in East L.A., and he heard this story. This cat who was in a gang, he had just gotten out of jail, just came back home. The story that he heard was, he was walking and there were some cops behind him bugging him. He was like, “What, what the fuck you want? Leave me alone!” and kept on walking. They shot him in the back eight times. He was just dead on the street around eight hours.
I reject the idea that all art is not political now. Because anybody who says that all art doesn’t need to be political is making a statement from a place of privilege. That’s coming from someone who’s never had to make something in order to make peace with something like that happening to their people or their community.
Definitely. That shit comes out of a particular position in your head that nothing has a purpose, and that’s understandable, but the world is not like that. They’re just in a particular bubble, you know? But the community is larger than that.
We’re gonna need to widen that sphere just to trust what we read, to understand where we’re getting our truths and expand our definition of what a narrative is.
I agree, and I think that’s happening naturally, as well. Like I said, everybody is working on whatever they’re working on, and a lot of us are working on music and art, which is great. Slowly but surely, things are changing the mainstream narrative.