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Orixa, the rock-reggae-ska band from San Francisco (not to be confused with the hip-hop-son outfit Orisha from Paris), is coming to Miami, and nothing can stop them. That much is clear after the group's appearance at last month's SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas. With Orixa's photo on the back cover of the program guide for the five-day event, the furious fivesome had their faces peeking out of everybody's back pockets. But a traffic snarl between their motel and the clubs on Sixth Street almost kept them from their big moment. "We were calling a cab for two hours," recounts drummer Juan Manuel Caipo over brunch at the Austin diner Las Manitas on the Sunday after the gig. "Then I told [guitarist] Paul [Yturriago-Lopez] to just take everything downstairs; we would get there somehow."
While the drummer and guitarist piled equipment in the parking lot on faith, singer Rowan Jimenez; Juan Manuel's brother, keyboardist Eddie "El Brujo" Caipo; and his cousin, bass player Mark Caipo, were up their own creek. The three were stranded at a nearby shopping center, cut off from both the showcase and the hotel by a wide stream. "We tried to walk to the hotel," says Eddie, "but we couldn't get across." Hitchhiking did not help. "Who's going to pick me up?" asks Eddie, opening his arms to display his imposing figure, then gesturing to the Crayola dye job on his head. "I've got red hair."
Eventually Juan Manuel convinced a Chicano truck driver "who was picking up his brother and his cuñada" to let him load the instruments onto his trailer. "We all crammed in the front seat," he laughs, "listening to banda music the whole way to our gig." Quips Paul: "It was like Spinal Tap." Juan Manuel corrects him: "Only it was Espinal Tap."
If the movie Spinal Tapplays rock and roll as an old joke, Orixa goes right to the punch line of the burgeoning Latin-alternative movement: It may be only rock and roll; but it's ours. "We want to have our own sound," says Juan Manuel, "like Led Zeppelin had their own sound." Embarrassed as soon as the comparison slips out, the drummer quickly refers me to Orixa's official phrase for what the band plays: "Latin ruckus."
Ruckus indeed. Take three kids from Peru, a Venezuelan folklore singer, and a guitarist from Chicago with Puerto Rican and Mexican parents; raise them on a diet of rock, salsa, hip-hop, jazz, and everything else under el quinto sol; and you get Orixa's very eclectic nine-track release 2012 e.d.From the opening heavy-metal version of a Brazilian soccer chant, "Umbabarauma," to the roots-reggae consciousness-raiser "Sacudete," to the emo-rocker "Adixion," to the safer-sex ska anthem "No Importa," Orixa packs a hemisphere's worth of influences on to an infectious slate of feel-good pop.
Orixa feels even better live. At SXSW, Jimenez could have charged the amplifiers on his own electricity, igniting the tough industry crowd at the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) showcase with maniac dancing and ad-libbing. "Don't come and talk to us after the show," he teases in the Latin twist on English that often surfaces in his lyrics. "We don't want to smooch with you." The rest of the band backed Jimenez's antics with the tight ensemble playing that comes from sticking together for nearly a decade.
A San Francisco staple since forming in 1992, Orixa has steadily expanded its base from Latin-only to mixed audiences, leading to recognition by the New Times-owned SF Weekly as "Best International Band" and a nomination by the California Music Awards for "Best Latin Album." If those categories seem woefully inadequate (in the first case Orixa was up against bossa nova rather than other rock acts; in the second its Latin competition ranged from Mexican regional music to jazz), that's just another sign that the music industry is still playing catch-up with the diversity of Latin styles. In the meantime Orixa e.d. is being pushed into stores by Miami-based DLN Distribution as far afield as Best Buy in Albany, New York, and the group's tour extends, for the first time, all the way from the West Coast to the East, with two shows right here in the Magic City.
The SXSW panel Latin Music's Building Momentum revealed that for the industry, Latin-music basics can be big news. Introducing the panel, Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said last year's Latin Grammys taught him that the event could not only bring Spanish- and Portuguese-language music to the mainstream U.S. masses but, "even more important," could make Spanish and Portuguese speakers around the world aware of each other's music. He confesses, "I guess I had always assumed that big brush called Latin music included everybody."
Greene learned Latin diversity the hard way. Last year Gilbert Moreno, the general manager of Mexican-owned record label Fonovisa, called for a boycott of the Latin Grammys, alleging that Mexican regional artists had been given the shaft by crossover-friendly tropical acts. The SXSW program guide listed Moreno among the participants, suggesting the panel might represent a reconciliation of sorts. But Moreno was a no-show. In his absence the panelists agreed Mexican regional is the engine powering the growth of Latin music. Just how much power the average Chicano consumer packs is hard to determine, however, as these hard workers tend to shop at mom-and-pop stores that do not register on SoundScan. In addition to these hard-to-track purchases, one panelist estimated that as much as 40 percent of the sales of banda, Tejano, grupera, and norteño music were lost outright to pirates.
Nevertheless the record execs on the panel crowed about the recent double-digit growth of Latin music. Popularity among the more affluent mainstream can have its downside, according to Jeff Young,vice president of sales and distribution at Sony Discos. The crossover success of Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony drained the Sony Discos coffers, because their earnings also crossed over to the English-language Sony Music. "You can't make up overnight for five or six billion units lost to the English-language market," he reasons. "When an industry loses its marquee artist, it's very difficult to keep up growth at twenty percent."
Young has a dream that someday Latin music in Spanish and English will sell as one: "Not only do we want to hit the 35 million Hispanics, we want to hit the 240 million in the United States as well." The civil-rights-minded exec even struck a Rosa Parks pose. "We don't want to be at the back of the stores," he declares. "We want to be at the front of the stores." As funny as it might seem to hear a record exec make like Cesar Chavez, the accordion-pumping, trumpet-blaring sound of Mexican regional music drives the Latin-music industry, just as that Chicano truck driver drove Orixa over highway and stream to SXSW.