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"I personally think that American culture tends to box things too quickly," says Rowan Jimenez, lead singer for the bilingual rock band Orixa. He's relaxing with the band's drummer and co-founder, Juan Manuel Caipo, on a couch in the spacious Emeryville loft Jimenez shares with his wife. "I think it's just the way the culture works here. You get a product, you line it up, and then you mass produce it, you create a line and make the same thing available everywhere else. And for us, it's always been about trying to break off from that Latin tag, you know, where we come and say, 'Yeah, we're Orixa!' and it sets some kind of place in people's minds where they go, 'OK, Orixa, Latin, Cuban music, salsa -- uh, OK.'"
Anyone who listens to Orixa's long-awaited self-produced and -released new album, 2012e.d., won't be filing the band away with Ricky Martin or Los Van Van. Opening with a sizzling thrash-funk cover of Brazilian superstar Jorge Ben's classic soccer anthem "Umbabarauma," the album veers into an English-language rock ballad, "Adixion," that would sound right at home on Live 105, the high-energy ska of "No Importa," and "Lucha Por La Freedom," which is the kind of track that might appear on a Rage Against the Machine album if Zack De La Rocha actually spoke Spanish.
One of the first Bay Area bands to be part of the blossoming "rock en español" scene -- Caipo himself produced the region's first weekly showcase, "La Rockola," at the late Berkeley Square back in 1993 -- Orixa has faced more than its share of hurdles in its eight-year history. But Jimenez and Caipo are adamant that those who have heard the band -- which also includes Caipo's brother Mark on bass, cousin Eddie on keyboards, and guitarist Paul Yturriago-Lopez -- have never been the problem. Rather, they say the music industry's need to label the band has resulted in its being lumped into a "Latin music" category with which it actually has very little in common. "It's just such a stereotype," says Caipo. "Sometimes I think if we had never said anything in Spanish ever, until people heard the music, it would be like a fair chance for everyone to listen with openness."
It's not hard to see Caipo and Jimenez's point. In Orixa's case, such stereotyping has hidden the hard-rocking band away from its natural fan base. Locally, this was illustrated at last year's Wammies (SF Weekly's local music awards), when the band was nominated in the Latin Music section -- a category eventually won by Vinyl, which has about the same relationship to Latin music as Brian Setzer does to Count Basie. "The Wammie thing was a good example, because it's like, boom! It just nails you. I mean, some people won't even read that section [of the program]!" says Caipo.
Ironically, Caipo and Jimenez themselves would have been part of the throng uninterested in anything with a Latin label on it when they were growing up -- Caipo in Peru and Jimenez in Venezuela. "When I was growing up in Peru," says Caipo, "I had my Ozzy tapes, I was reading Rolling Stone magazine, you know. My dad had all his [salsa] orchestra tapes, and I was like, 'Get away!' I wasn't interested in Oscar De Leon or any of those salsa groups at all."
Given the cultural diversity of America (and especially California) today, it should come as no surprise that there are bands like Orixa, whose members are bilingual and grew up singing along to American rock 'n' roll without understanding the lyrics (which aren't really much different from those in the English-speaking world, as anyone who has tried to decipher "Louie Louie" could tell you). But the truth is that for mainstream America, the "Latin explosion" trumpeted by everyone from Spin to Newsweek last year only refers to a small group of Latinos who were already major pop stars all over the Spanish-speaking world -- like Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony -- and a group of aging Cuban musicians playing a style that peaked in the 1950s -- the Buena Vista Social Club and all its related offshoots. The rest of the huge mass of Latin culture, which includes everything from Brazilian metalheads Sepultura to the phenomenally wide-ranging rock of Mexico City's Café Tacuba to the burgeoning rock en español movement that claims bands like Mana, Jaguares, and Orixa, has gone relatively unnoticed by mainstream media, even as the Hispanic demographic in the U.S. continues to grow.
"The whole thing of doing rock in Spanish was this sense of pride and of keeping the roots," says Jimenez. "And pretty much on the new record what we're doing is redefining ourselves as this group of people who live here. We're bilinguals, we're a tapestry of culture that lives here and engages both sides of it. We eat Spanish food and live our North American lives. We like to go salsa dancing but we could go and check out Korn, you know?"
"Some people can't get used to that," adds Caipo, "because it's like, if you speak Spanish or you're bilingual, you're an immigrant, no matter what. But the reality is, we live here, we're from here. So if we feel like singing in Spanish sometimes, what's the big trip?"
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