It’s a freezing cold and snowy Tuesday, January 30, 2018 evening here at the Jersey Shore. As music lovers make their way from the parking lot into Toms River’s warm and inviting Grunin Center of the Arts lobby, they ready themselves for a rare New Jersey appearance of the band, Las Cafeteras.
Las Cafeteras is a Chicano band from East Los Angeles, CA which boasts a unique East L.A. sound, a positive message, and an energetic stage show featuring lively Mexican-style zapateado dancing.
Their Afro-Mexican beats, rhythms, and rhymes deliver socially-conscious lyrics which they deliver in both Spanish and English. One of the prime messages they deliver is “Yo No Creo En Fronteras” — “I do not believe in borders” — which the group says applies beyond political borders to matters of art and of the mind suggesting that in art, as well as in life, borders are meant to be crossed.
Incorporating spoken word and rap, Las Cafeteras creates an infectious mixture of sounds from traditional Mexican music to rock to hip-hop.
They use their music as a vehicle to help build bridges among a variety of cultures and communities and encourage people of all backgrounds to cherish both what makes them unique and what unites them all.
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Las Cafeteras originally started out as a group of students who came together at the Eastside Café — a community space in Los Angeles — to study folk music in the son jarocho style of Veracruz, Mexico. Eager to share what they learned with the world, they started performing together as a band in 2005, deciding to adopt their group’s name from the organization from which they originally took lessons.
Currently, Las Cafeteras consists of six performers.
Lead vocalist and dancer Denise Carlos grew up in South East L.A. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s to work and raise their family.
Although Carlos holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Loyola University, she’s been a dancer for over half her life. She also sings and plays several musical instruments including glockenspiel and jarana, a guitar-like stringed instrument from Mexico.
Vocalist, dancer, and jarana player Hector Flores was raised in the neighborhoods of San Gabriel Valley and East L.A. Growing up, Hector listened to such musicians as Al Green, Tupac, The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine.
Flores graduated from California State University with a degree in Chicano Studies before going on to work as a community organizer for ten years in East Los Angeles, South L.A., and in New Jersey.
Guitarist Daniel French hails from the San Gabriel Valley of California. He, too, plays the jarana and sings. He additionally plays the keyboard and emcees for the group.
French graduated from Azusa Pacific University with his B.A. degree in Sociology. In addition to music, French enjoys sharing oral histories and storytelling.
Drummer Jose Cano was born and raised in Oxnard, CA, a place his parents immigrated to from Jalisco, Mexico. He started playing music in his middle school concert band and got his first drum set in high school after watching friends perform at a family party.
Although Cano has a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from California State University, Los Angeles, he has decided to dedicate his life to music on a full time basis.
In Las Cafeteras, Gloria Estrada plays the “u-bass,” a small acoustic ukulele-like bass. In addition to playing a variety of different instruments, she’s also a composer, arranger, producer, and Latin Grammy-nominated recording artist.
Estrada began playing the guitar at the age of 14 and received her B.A. in Music from the University of Southern California. Her work can be heard on a number of television shows including Weeds, Entourage, One Tree Hill, and The Bridge.
Lastly, Enrique Chi is a vocalist and guitarist who is currently performing with Las Cafeteras. From Kansas City, MO, Chi is also member of the American rock band, Making Movies.
With that group, Chi has not only toured with the likes of Los Lobos, but his music has appeared on several Billboard charts including the Latin Album and World Music charts.
At Toms River’s Grunin Center of the Arts, the audience excitedly awaits tonight’s rare concert experience. Soon, the lights dim inside the beautiful auditorium and the six members of Las Cafeteras take their places on the stage.
Denise Carlos welcomes the small but devoted audience of world music lovers who made their way here on this snowy January evening announcing, “Buenos noches, we are Las Cafeteras from East L.A.!”
Opening with an energetic rendition of “Café con Pan,” Carlos dazzles the audience right from the start, exuberantly singing in Spanish, “Yo le canto a las mujeres mis hermanas compañeras/Somos fuertes luchadores brillando por las estrellas” (“I sing to women, my sisters’ companions/We are strong fighters shining for the stars”). She’s accompanied by acoustic instruments including 12-string guitar, drums, acoustic u-bass, and jarana.
The audience claps along with the tune’s catchy rhythms before responding with hearty applause.
After asking “How ya doin’ New Jersey?” and noting, “It’s cold outside, but it’s hot inside!” the members of Las Cafeteras launch into “Chuchumbe.”
As they perform, Hector Flores pantomimes bullfighting, quickly moving across the stage while Denise Carlos smiles and dances to the music.
Inquiring, “How many were born in New Jersey? How many have parents or grandparents born outside of this country?” the group performs a self-described “movement song we’ve got to do together.” Here, the audience energetically claps along on “Ya Me Voy” (“I’m Leaving”).
Daniel French takes the microphone to announce, “This is a shout-out to the Lenni Lenapi Indians who settled Toms River!” Asking the audience members to “Raise your hand if you come from somewhere,” French adds, “We have to protect the land. Thank you for the food and water we get from the land.”
At this point, the musicians of Las Cafeteras perform their own unique rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Starting with a rubato introduction, the group shifts into a hard-driving up-tempo rhythm which the audience can’t help but clap along with as the group sings in both English and Spanish.
“You’re good with clapping!” exclaims the group, before rapping, “Who’s gonna dance for the land? Hands up high. Shake shoulders. Wiggle your hips. Stand up, it’s time to dance!”
As members of the audience dance, the group raps, “Say thank you!”
Following enthusiastic applause, Enrique Chi takes over the lead vocal on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” As the other members of Las Cafeteras sing background harmonies, members of the audience sing along as well.
“Anybody love ice cream?” asks Hector. “We love ice cream!” he explains. “In L.A., we’d get so excited when the ice cream man would come, we wrote this song about him,” before adding, “even though the song is about the ice cream man, it’s also about making a sweet life.”
Launching into “Paletero” — a song which features lyrics like “Vienes a visitarme/Con tu sonrisa/Todos los dias/Hasta quieres abrazarmethe” (“You come to visit me/With your smile/Every day/You even want to hug me”), the audience responds as the group sings, “Hey, hey, hey.”
“Here’s a new song about the beach!” exclaims Denise, who spins in circles as she dances and sings with childlike exuberance on “Vamos to the Beach.”
During this number, percussionist Jose Cano takes a solo where he plays his drum set with his hands!
Hector states, “Tonight is the State of the Union by the President of the United States. But what is the state of your union? Of your community? Of your relationships to your loved ones?”
At this point, the group performs a song from their latest CD, Tastes Like LA, entitled, “If I Was President.” With Daniel French on keyboard, the piece opens as a ballad, but shifts tempo as Hector raps a la Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, “If I was president, well, there’d still be drama/It takes a village to heal our generational trauma/So shake your spine/Put your hands up high/We got a different kinda party in the White House tonight.”
The audience claps its approval.
Slowing things down, Las Cafeteras performs “Luna Lovers,” a number in which they sing in English, “Won’t you walk with me, Luna/Through the park/Won’t you walk with me, Luna/Though the dark/Won’t you take my hand/Help me understand.”
As Denise Carlos handles the lead, we see Hector illustrating her words in sign language before he’s featured on a rhythmic tap dance accompanied by Enrique Chi.
Chi also performs a beautiful high vocal descant to Denise’s lead melody which the audience clearly enjoys.
Asking “Are you all having fun?” Hector declares, “This is my favorite song to play live,” before stating, “This song goes out to everyone who came before us — we thank them.”
Here, the group performs the highlight number of the evening, “Trabajador Trabajadora,” which can be translated to “Hard Worker.” On this outstanding number, the group says, “In case nobody told you on your job today/Las Cafeteras would like to say/Thank you,” before rapping a “thank you” to all the hard workers we rely on every day including “mothers,” “fathers,” “farm workers,” “teachers,” “waiters,” “bus drivers,” “writers,” and many more.
As audience members sing and dance in the aisles, the group shouts out, “Are you with us, New Jersey?” to which the audience emphatically responds “Yeah!” — the concert hall filled with former strangers suddenly transformed into a party atmosphere of friends!
Following enormous applause from the entire crowd cheering on its feet, Denise announces, “Thank you! We are Las Cafeteras!”
The band leaves the stage, but is soon brought back for an encore.
“Thank you all for coming out on a Tuesday night where it’s 20 degrees!” says Southern California native Hector before joking, “It’s like a polar vortex!”
Adding, “My dad immigrated from Mexico but he loved American music from people like Al Green and Marvin Gaye,” Hector introduces an encore of a medley of Richie Valens’ songs including “Angel Baby,” which is sung by Denise.
As Denise warbles the song, an older couple can be seen slow dancing up near the stage.
Also included in the medley is a clever version of “Oh, Donna” sung by Daniel French in which he changes the lyrics to “Oh, Jersey.”
Hector ends the song by saying, “In New Jersey, the most important thing to know is: No matter what, we can last for an eternity.”
Following animated applause, the group says, “Now we’re gonna take it back 40 years. Everybody stand up!” before they launch into their own rendition of “La Bamba” entitled “La Bamba Remelde.”
As the audience dances and sings along with Las Cafeteras, each member of the group is introduced one at a time to avid cheers and applause.
When group members notice a teenager in the audience holding a large yellow sign, they invite her to the stage. Las Cafeteras has her display the sign with its “WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS” message as the music builds to an exciting climax.
“Thank you very much!” shout the musicians of Las Cafeteras, before heading out to the lobby to greet friends, fans, and audience members alike.
In the lobby, we take a moment to chat with a special Las Cafeteras’ fan in the audience.
Megan is a 16-year-old student who traveled to Toms River from Green Brook, NJ tonight to see Las Cafeteras. In fact, she is the one who created the big yellow “WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS” sign.
Comments Megan, “I’ve been a fan of the group for a while and I support the group’s message which is ‘We Don’t Believe in Borders,’” explaining, “That message is important to me. To me, it means people shouldn’t have to be afraid to go where they want to go and to be able to live where they want to live.”
Out in the lobby, we also chat with two key members of Las Cafeteras.
First, we talk to Hector Flores who recalls, “When I was 19, I was an organizer, and I came here to New Jersey to work. The diversity in this state has always struck me.”
Going on to add, “Nowadays, many artists like to perform in the big cities — like New York,” Flores continues, “but we want to bring our music to places where it might not otherwise be heard — like New Jersey,” before concluding, “For us to be in Jersey is an honor. There are beautiful folks right here in this state.”
Next, we chat with Denise Carlos who comments, “It’s amazing to be here in New Jersey,” noting, “The aesthetic here is beautiful. We don’t get snow where we live in L.A., so I’m in awe of the beauty of New Jersey — like today, when the snow came and covered the trees and created that magical look everywhere.”
In talking about performing live with Las Cafeteras, Denise says, “The beauty of any kind of music is that you can connect spiritually with an audience.” Acknowledging that she wasn’t born into a family of musicians, Denise suggests that she is able to channel music through her body when she says, “I don’t know what happens to me on stage, but it feels magnificent — I think that’s my role in the music-giving process — there has to be someone else who’s coming through.”
With respect to the audiences who attend the group’s shows, Denise remarks, “We never know who will show up at any of our concerts, but we feel that the people who are here are meant to be here.”
Adding, “We hope everyone who comes to see us will tell their friends about Las Cafeteras and they’ll come see us, too,” Denise concludes by stating, “If they do, we can become friends in an hour!”
To learn more about Las Cafeteras, please go to lascafeteras.com. For information on future performances at Toms River’s Grunin Center of the Arts — including An Intimate Evening with Rickie Lee Jones on Mar. 22, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters on Apr. 21, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow on May. 11 — please go to grunincenter.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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