The Chicano Batman Sound
The first time I heard Chicano Batman I was struck. Their sound felt familiar and warm: this was what I had been waiting for since I was a young Chicano learning guitar and exploring the blended sounds of my Los Angeles working class neighborhood. I started El Huateque to explore the Latinx experience in Los Angeles, and has since expanded. Interviewing Chicano Batman seemed like a good place to start since they represent so much of what the LA is. So, three years ago,I had the opportunity to interview the men of Chicano Batman which came to be one of the first El Huateque podcasts.
Then and now it is hard to categorize their sound. Reviews alternate between funk, psychedelic, neo-soul, alternative, and some other catchphrase. Bassist Eduardo Arenas best described it as ,“a 1980s backyard carne asada and their soundtracks.” That sentiment was immediately reinforced by my favorite memories of grilling on Easter weekends with my old Mexican father and his crew..
Their sound also expresses the tension of being Latinx in the United States. As Bardo described in our podcast, growing up in La Mirada, California he needed music to survive the largely white community and not be subsumed by it. Drawing from our Latinx heritage for strength and expression while at the same time recognizing that we are shaped by the structural and interpersonal racism in the United States creates a tenuous blend.
Freedom is Free
Their most recent release, Freedom is Free, draws from the same familiarity that excited me. That said, it’s not a recycling of their style but rather an evolution of musical technique and composition along with a needed centering of their political views. This foursome has a strong political perspective. Their immense talent combined with an insurgent political voice makes this album one of the most important for our community in our resistance to Trump.
The shift in the sound and the increased visibility of their political identities is evident. For example, lead singer Bardo Martinez’s esoteric musings in Cycles of Existential Rhyme contrast sharply with the sentimental expressions of loss and mourning in Friendship (Is a small Boat in a Storm). Bardo is not alone. After having produced a couple of cumbia tracks on prior albums, Eduardo Arenas makes a tremendous impression with the epic and path-breaking track La Jura.
I lost a friend recently. I was in the process of listening to the album several times as I mourned her sudden death. My mourning helped me appreciate the grieving in the music, the strong sense of loss.
La Jura may be the most polemic song within Latinx music in recent memory. Gentle and melodic, the lyrics are pure beauty; assertive and weighty, they tell the story of a young friend assassinated by police. It bridges amazing musicianship with a narrative that questions the role of police and highlights the brutality of state violence. The narrative form has a classic, familiar tone, evoking the most sentimental of ballads passed on to us by our parents. La Jura is the emotional center of the album. It captures the melancholy of moving on but being held back by the pain of the loss.
I have always been amazed by Chicano Batman’s attention to detail and the sense that they are continuously honing their craft. To the last detail, in La Jura the keyboard functions to remind us of the sound of a siren approaching. It conjures the chaos of the moment when police take the life of one of our own.
Chicano Batman teaches us that we have come a long way from the raw emotion and defiance of Rage Against the Machine. Rather, La Jura moves us past the rage of the experience and into the tenderness of the open wound as we continue facing state violence and are likely to experience more both within the bounds of Trump-fueled hate in the United States and in our beloved Americas. As a people in Diaspora we carry so much pain.
The Politics of Latinx Music
Many articles reviewing this album seem to be surprised by the political assertions of Freedom is Free. What these writers fail to see is that being unapologetically Latinx is a definitive political choice. A common refrain I carry from my time in Guatemala is, “our culture is our resistance” and Chicano Batman holds firmly to their Latinx heritage to make a commentary on society. As individuals they all have a political perspective and sensitivity about the experience of the contemporary Latinx diaspora in the United States as well as the experience of our peoples in the Americas. Their cover art reflects this. A female deity figure rising above the history of Latinx peoples, the bloodshed, and the state terrorizing us in what could be both Latin America and the Latinx diaspora in the United States.
There is a precedent for this political voice in Latinx Music. Chicano Batman’s 2014 release, Para Agradecer, references Mercedes Sosa, an icon of the 1960s-70s folk music movement Nueva Cancion. Musicians identified with Nueva Cancion blended overtly political lyrics celebrating the power of mass resistance to state terror with the folk sounds of those that suffered violence the most. Their collective style would stand up to dictatorships and because of their perceived subversiveness few would survive. Through times of trouble these musicians expressed the beauty and the belief in a shared resistance against state terror. Victor Jara, Ali Primera, Violeta Parra, Inti Illimani, these musicians found their voice observing the effects of state terror in their respective countries and throughout the Americas during a time of seemingly endless violence. Our heritage is this sound and music and I am glad Chicano Batman has embraced it.
They are not alone in diving into the rage and the tenderness. Chicano Batman has introduced me to the vibrant emerging Chicanx/Latinx music scene stepping forcefully out of my native Los Angeles and a similar but smaller movement in Chicago. Bands like Quitapenas and Dos Santos have expanded the politics and sound of Latinx music in the United States. There is incredible music on the horizon that will hopefully help us imagine and together birth a better future.