Prior to the Internet, most of us wouldn’t have any idea of what was going on musically in the city 200 miles away from us, let alone across the continent. Now, with bands having access to YouTube and sites like SoundCloud allowing them to post music on line for audiences around the world to hear, you can be living in the Yukon and listen to a bar band from Southern California. While this means bands can now reach people around the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will become any more popular or well known because of it. Faced with the work of having to sift through thousands of hours of music online, sorting the gems from the dross, most people will elect to stick with what they already know.
As a critic, I receive countless press releases each day regarding bands of all genres from all over the world. To be honest, if I don’t already have an interest in what’s being promoted it will take something quite extraordinary to prevent me from hitting the delete button on my email program, let alone requesting a copy of a CD. Reviewing anything is a sizeable investment of time and energy which I’m not about to expand lightly. However, once in a while I’ll get a feeling a band might be something special and request a copy of their disc. Such was the case with the newest disc from the San Antonio-based Pinata Protest, El Valiente, released by Saustex Media and Cosmica Records.
Maybe it was the words “accordion-fronted punk rock band” which attracted my attention, or the fact they supposedly combined the raw energy of punk with the music of their Chicano heritage. Whatever it was, I’m glad I took a chance on listening to these guys. Front man Alvaro Del Norte, vocals and accordion, J. J. Martinez, drums, and twin brothers Marcus and Matt Cazares on bass and guitar respectively have created some sort of perfect alchemy which allows them to inject the anarchy and berserker tendencies of punk into traditional Latino music. The results are an odd mixture of four guys having a really good time creating musical havoc and pointing a not-so-subtle middle finger at American stereotypes of Hispanic culture.
Being from the northern reaches of North America, not only don’t I speak a word of Spanish I couldn’t tell the difference between norteno and conjunto if you paid me. Probably the closest you can get to a Latino cultural experience in Eastern Ontario, Canada, where I live, is whatever is on the menu of the local plastic “Mexican American” franchise eatery. My only exposure to Latin music has been whatever has managed to seep into American pop music courtesy of people like Willy DeVille, seeing Tito Puente the one time I was in New York City and the cliches which show up in television cartoons. Of course, like anyone else, I can recognize a Mariachi tune when it hits me in the face, but otherwise the music and the history is as alien to me as if were from another planet.
However, none of this prevents me from recognizing that Pinata Protest is doing something special. Maybe it’s the fact an accordion features in both band’s sound, but one of my first impressions was these guys are a Latino version of Irish punks The Pogues. If anyone ever doubted there was a cultural connection between the Spanish and the Irish, listen to a song from each band right after each other and you’ll be amazed at the similarities. It’s not just because both bands have taken traditional folk music and ramped them up to warp speed or even the in your face attitude they share. Listening to Pinata Protest, you’re as liable to want to dance a crazed jig a la Lord of the Dance on speed as anything else.
It’s not who they sound like though which makes these guys great. It’s what they do with their sound which blows me away. First of all they might play fast, loose and loud, but they are also incredibly tight. While Del Norte is pummelling the accordion and letting loose with rapid-fire vocals (unless you listen closely there are times when you can’t tell if he’s singing in Spanish or English), bass, drums, and guitar are laying down the solid foundation required to keep the music from descending into chaos. They do their job so well even at the speed they are playing you are able to distinguish the differences between their music and straight ahead punk.
I may not be able to tell one type of Latin music from another, or be conversant with the varieties of traditional Mexican folk music, but I can tell when the melodies and rhythms a band are using for the basis of their sound aren’t typical blues-based rock and roll. In the case of Pinata Protest, the band does an amazing job of ensuring whatever flavour of music they happen to be interpreting is never lost in their chaotic presentation.
As for their lyrical content I had to rely on Del Norte’s ability to communicate intent through vocal inflections and the way in which he sang the songs on the disc rather than listening to what he was saying. Thankfully his voice, while rough, is also remarkably expressive. Whether he’s singing in Spanish or English it doesn’t make a difference, for he is able to modulate his tone and his delivery in such a way as to ensure listeners get the general idea of what he’s trying to communicate. In part I think this is because he’s most concerned with ensuring his audience remembers the purpose of popular music is to inject a little anarchy into our lives. If you think of his vocals as another instrument, and not worry about what he’s saying, it’s hard not to let yourself get caught up in the wild fun of what you’re listening to.
However, that doesn’t preclude the band’s music from occasionally having a rather pointed message. There’s probably never been a song more associated with American stereotypes of Latinos than “La Cucaracha”. Pinata Protest perform a version of this song done at the speed of light and with a snarl that turns it into declaration of defiance and anger. It’s like they’re daring you to think of them as cute little sombrero wearing mice. This is one mouse who isn’t going to be pushed around by anyone any more. Watching the video for this tune will not only give you a good idea of what I mean, but it’s a quick introduction to the band and their sound.
El Valiente is the name used to refer to the masked Mexican wrestlers, but it also loosely translates as the valiant one. Pinata Protest’s music may or may not be valiant, but it sure as hell is strong, powerful, and a whole lot of fun to listen to. For those used to a diet of the Serena Gomez’s and the plastic world of Chi Chi’s, this might be a little hard on the digestion. But if you’ve got the stomach for something hot, spicy, and spiked with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle, you’re in for a treat.