“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?”
The Latin tag hasn't always been a burden. When Orixa started playing in 1993, the rock en español label was perhaps an asset in setting the band apart from the pack of run-of-the-mill alternative rock bands and getting it accepted by an already established scene. “There's a little underground scene in the United States that's been going on for the last seven or eight years, and we were probably the first one in the Bay Area that was part of that scene somehow,” says Caipo. “So it benefited us in the sense that there's this scene happening, and people were like, 'Oh, you guys are part of this,' and we could jump on that bandwagon, the rock en español bandwagon. And it benefited us in that we would get airplay, on college stations, Latin stations, alternative stations, faster than we would have if we had just done rock.”
But the band now prefers its own “Latin ruckus culture” moniker, which Jimenez says is meant to convey the fact that “Latin music is not just a piano and congas,” and Caipo sees a kind of glass ceiling imposed by the phrase “rock en español.” “We want to export this, you know, take it international, take it everywhere, without someone saying, 'OK, you can play at this club on this night because it's Spanish night,'” he says. “And that was the whole purpose of the thing, you know. We never wanted to just play for Latin people.”
That need for a wider audience is apparently what doomed Orixa's once-promising relationship with the San Francisco-based Aztlan Records, which signed the band in 1995 and released one self-titled album by the group in 1996. As the first U.S. record label to focus exclusively on the exploding U.S. rock en español scene, Aztlan, founded by immigration lawyer John Melrod, looked perfectly positioned to break Orixa into the wider market that the band craved. But the label floundered for lack of funds and what Jimenez and Caipo both describe as a painful lack of music business experience.
“Most of [the problem] was they were learning the business at the same time we were,” says Caipo. “They were getting people interested, publishers and whatnot, because the rock en español movement is there, it's happening. But they were trying too hard to make money fast. They were cutting corners on everything and it was always really sketchy.”
“It turned into this really sour, bad relationship,” adds Jimenez. “They didn't understand where we were coming from; they didn't listen to us. They had all these people who wanted to take us in a different direction. They wanted us to sound like other bands. It got really complicated. Like for example, Smashmouth comes out. And they're like, 'Fuck! You guys should be playing music like Smashmouth!' And we're like, 'What?'”
Still, the experience with Aztlan wasn't without its benefits, as Caipo and Jimenez are quick to point out. Their one album with the label gave them some exposure for a while, and because they were frustrated with Aztlan's limitations, the band was forced to adopt a more DIY approach that has led to it happily releasing 2012e.d. on its own. “I remember saying, 'We could call all these people, we could do this ourselves,'” says Caipo. “So we learned, we toured, got a record out, we got a little bit of leverage. But we were stuck there for years. We wanted out, and we couldn't get out. That's why it took so long to release this record. That's why this record is like giving birth to triplets! It's like,” he says laughing, “all the time you're like, 'I want to have a kid! I want to have a kid!' But you can't, and then, all of a sudden, boom! Three of them!”
The “e.d.” in 2012e.d. stands for “elegua digital”; Elegua is the Yoruban god of the crossroads. It's an appropriate reference, with the band producing and marketing its own album in stores and on its Web site (www.orixazone.com). It's a crossroads Orixa perhaps stood at when it initially signed to Aztlan, but the outlook seems different this time around. “I think what happened [with Aztlan] was, they didn't really believe in the product. And what's happening now is, we have this record, and it's a really honest record, and we truly believe in this record,” says Jimenez.
“I think right now we're like a little bomb. And it's going, 'Tick, tick, tick.' And the only question is, maybe we're all of a sudden going to go boom! Or maybe in six months, or a year, we'll gradually get out there. But it's going to happen.”