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Inside L.A.’s Thriving, Wildly Eclectic Latino Ska Scene

Inside L.A.’s Thriving, Wildly Eclectic Latino Ska Scene: La Resistencia 2012

La Resistencia 2012

Lincoln Park, just outside of East L.A., is one of the oldest community parks in Los Angeles. Inside, families hang out on quilts and kids run around while teenagers ride their bikes and skateboards. It’s a park like anywhere: lots of green grass, a pond filled with hungry ducks and geese, food vendors wandering along the sidewalk. At the park’s center is outdoor culture and arts center, La Plaza De La Raza. Today, a peaceful Saturday, it’s the location of the Ska Wars festival—one of two annual festivals at the heart of L.A.’s sprawling Latino ska scene. The bands and audience hail primarily from the Hispanic areas of East L.A., Southgate, South Central, Boyle Heights, Inglewood and Lynwood. The show goes from 1 p.m. till midnight, and it will be sold out before the sun sets. That’s 3,000 people.

That’s a lot of heads for a DIY festival made up primarily of local bands, no corporate sponsorship and no alcohol sold at or even permitted in the Plaza, a rule the crowd seems to respect. Other than the bands hawking their wares, the festival only has one food vendor; one booth selling Thrasher hats; and a couple guys selling Sublime, System of a Down and Red Hot Chili Peppers shirts.

While the crowd is roughly 90 percent Hispanic, and mostly between the ages of 16 and 25 or so, the vibe is inclusive. No one looks twice at me, a white guy twice as old as almost everyone else. There are punks, rockabilly kids, metalheads and representatives of just about every other alternative subgenre. But most of them are mixing up the fashion. I see one kid with pink hair, 2-Tone checkered suspenders and goth makeup. Another has long bushy rocker hair, ratty jeans and a Wu Tang Clan shirt.

Nearly 40 bands play the festival’s two stages. They sing in English and Spanish, and kids everywhere know the all the words and dance along with incredible passion. Ska, the bouncy predecessor to Jamaican reggae music, is the common thread, but the bands play any and every mutation of the form. There’s ‘60s-style rocksteady (Delirians, Steady 45s), punk-ska (La Resistencia, South Central Skankers), ska-pop-rock (The Paranoias) and prog-math-rock-ska (Dias BC). One unusual aspect is the number of bands that wedge extreme metal breakdowns and blast beats into their tunes.

All day long, between the two stages, the music is constant, and the audience never stops dancing. It’s one of the most passionate local music scenes I’ve ever seen anywhere.


latino-ska006

Clemente Ruiz, who runs the production company Evoekore Media, is the man behind Ska Wars. When I attended the show this past February, it was in its ninth year. He also books a similar (but punkier) festival known as Skacore Invasion and puts on several non-festival—and generally successful—ska shows all year long. He’s the drummer of one of the groups, La Resistencia, and when he’s not involved with L.A.’s ska scene he’s taking photos for bands like Deftones, Blink-182 and Pepe Aguilar.

“It keeps growing,” says Ruiz, a calm but chatty man of 31. “I always focused having the shows where the people were, in our neighborhoods, just because it makes everyone come out and everyone support it. The bands love it as well because it’s like we’re playing in our home instead of going up to Hollywood.”

“This isn’t just a genre; it’s an actual subculture. It’s a clash of many different ethnicities and languages. That makes us very different.”

At this past Ska Wars, there were a handful of bands from Mexico (Nana Pancha, Los De Abajo, Out Of Control Army), but otherwise every band was from the Los Angeles area. In recent years Ruiz has booked national ska bands from outside of his scene, like Leftover Crack, Mustard Plug, Buck-o-Nine and the Toasters. His shows frequently feature Voodoo Glow Skulls, who are technically outsiders: they hail from Riverside and came up on Epitaph Records decades before this scene emerged. A lot of the younger kids are unfamiliar with them, but they were a big influence on Ruiz and his generation of bands, as one of the only US ska bands from the '90s with mostly Latino members. They even released a Spanish-language version of their second album, Firme.

A lot of the kids attending the Evoecore shows—kids who know every single band from L.A.’s Latin ska scene—are unfamiliar with '90s third wave ska bands like the Toasters and Buck-o-Nine that Ruiz started bringing to his festivals.

“The Mexican ska scene is the USA is a huge shadow scene that the white kids don’t really tap into,” says Robert “Bucket” Hingley, whose band the Toasters is often credited as the first band of ska’s third wave. “Mexican bands like Inspector, Salon Victoria come here and play to sellout crowds.”

Ruiz is hoping to bridge the gap between L.A.’s Latin ska scene and fans of third-wave ska at large, which is one of the reasons he’s actively trying to bring more non-Latino bands to play on his bills. So far these bands have gotten a great response at his shows.

“This isn’t just a genre,“ he says; "it’s an actual subculture. People dress a certain way. They dance together. Most of them are bilingual, but you see all ethnicities: African American punk-rockers, straight up Mexican people that don’t speak English or even Mexican kids that don’t speak any Spanish. It’s a clash of many different ethnicities and languages. That’s something that makes us very different.”

As big as the scene has gotten, the whole thing started out of necessity. When La Resistencia formed in 1999, there was nowhere to play except for backyards, small halls and parking lots. In 2002, shows started happening at a place in Southgate called the Allen Theatre. Ruiz did the sound and booked the ska-punk shows. By 2004, Ruiz was booking shows in clubs as well. The Allen Theatre lasted until 2006. When that fell through, Ruiz took it to the next level by doing all-day festivals, which have grown every year. The backyard shows remained a staple for the scene. To this day, most new bands start there.

Angel Salgado, singer and guitarist of East L.A. band the Delirians, recalls going to the backyard shows as a kid: “It was fun times. Everything was backyards. Sometimes there’s 30 people in a backyard, sometimes there’s 300 people squeezing in there. A lot of kids from South Central would all go to the shows together. You’d see 30-40 people showing up, just walking into the show. You see a 15-year-old drinking 40s. The usual fights and all that stuff. Once in a while, you’d hear gun shots.”


This was the first major ska explosion in the L.A. Latino scene, but there was a thriving Rock en Español scene throughout L.A. in the '90s that influenced it. These bands played a mixture of rock, funk, ska, disco, punk, Latin and metal. Their ranks included Las 15 Letras, Los Olvidados, Madrigal, Viernes13 and Chencha Berrinches. They were largely influenced by the new wave of rock en español bands coming from Mexico; many of them, like Tijuana No, Victimas Del Doctor Cerebro, La Maldita Vecindad and Mama Pulpa, were playing ska as at least part of their overall sound. The L.A. rock en español scene took root at a place in Chinatown called Hong Kong Low, which a decade earlier had been a hotbed for suburban punk bands. By the mid '90s, these bands were drawing big enough crowds to get into the venues in town like the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go, which they packed.

South Central Skankers

South Central Skankers

“We were just called rock en español; there was no difference between the ska and the punk that was being played at the same time,” says Martin Sanchez, guitarist of Las 15 Letras. “To the people, it was exciting to hear something that was moving and in a language they understood. Once the scene grew bigger, that’s when you started seeing separation of gigs. In the beginning, there was not enough of us. We were underground. Spanish rock was not taken seriously. But we did not pay to play. Our managers were very clear to the Roxy and the Whisky. We’re not going to pay to play, you’re going to pay us 'cause we’re going to bring people. And sure enough, we brought a lot of people.”

The prominence of ska in the rock en epsañol scene, along with the thriving American and Mexican punk and ska-punk scenes in the '90s, influenced Ruiz and the other bands that emerged at this time like Matamoska, South Central Skankers, Cafeina and Division Tlacuache. These bands had a heavier punk rock sound and more ska than the rock en español scene, influenced by Warped Tour punk rock bands, Voodoo Glow Skulls and Sekta Core, a ska-punk band from Mexico that formed in 1994 that play kinetic tunes and sing about the harsh realities of life on the poor streets of Mexico. The L.A. ska scene would take particular influence from this aspect, using their music to sing honest lyrics in both of their primary languages about their lives and struggles in Los Angeles—struggles that folks within this distinct Latino culture in L.A. could relate to.


Over the past decade Ruiz’s scene has done nothing but grow. Each year more people come out to festival. Ruiz is even considering finding a bigger venue for Ska Wars—a 3,000-capacity spot might not be big enough.

This is a very different trajectory from the third-wave ska scene elsewhere in the US. Ska developed in the '80s and '90s in the US, and by the mid '90s bands like No Doubt, Sublime, Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger were being blasted on MTV as the next big thing. A few short years later, thanks to oversaturation and rampant homogeneity, ska was mortally uncool, and MTV moved on to the next thing. L.A.’s Latino ska, on the other hand, has never gotten a shred of mainstream interest. And the Ska Wars festivals demonstrate just how much grassroots energy is behind the sound. It’s a completely different scene, even though the music isn’t that different than what third-wave ska bands were playing in the '90s. Some of those '90s ska bands still tour, but the enthusiasm is nothing like the Evoekore shows.

“When it comes to Latinos, we have that thing where we like something because we like it—we hold it to our hearts,“ says Sanchez. "That’s why in Latin America you still have a huge ska scene, the same way that metal is still huge in Latin America, because metal fans have been metal fans forever. One of the problem with the Anglo scene is they’re into fads. Everything becomes fads here.”

La Resistencia Mac Arthur Park 2013

La Resistencia Mac Arthur Park 2013

Latin ska bands exist all over the US, but it’s a much bigger thing in L.A. than any other part of the country. All the elements—large concentration of Latino kids, Ruiz’s savvy promotion skills, proximity to Mexico—have really come together the last 10-15 years to make this one particular scene a force to be reckoned with.

"We go everywhere. Not even in New York or Chicago is it like this,” says Eddie Casillas, guitarist for Voodoo Glow Skulls. “Wherever there’s Mexican kids that are influenced by Sekta Core and us a little bit, we always play with them. There’ll be the one offshoot band that does this stuff on the East Coast. Maybe there’s a couple in Chicago. But here, there’s like 300 bands like that. It’s a weird thing.”

The driving energy of the scene of course is the kids that not only snap up tickets to Ska Wars but star their own bands in their garages, hoping to one day be one of the 40 bands that get to play Ska Wars that year. Groups like the Paranoias and Delirians were kids at La Resistencia, South Central Skankers and Matamoska shows. Now multiple generations of bands fill the Ska Wars bill.


La Infinita - SHG EAST LA 2007

La Infinita - SHG EAST LA 2007

A few days after Ska Wars, I look online and see that Ruiz has several more shows lined up, including a Toasters show with several local bands opening and a 12-band, two-stage show at the Airliner in Los Angeles with a lot of the same bands I saw at the festival. In August, Skacore Invasion will celebrate its tenth anniversary. Kids are already speculating who’ll be playing.

“These kids are anticipating these festivals. On social media, that’s all you hear about for months before the event. Ska Wars especially: It’s one of those events that, the day after it happens, they’re already trying to get their ticket for the next year.

"It’s a great festival,” Says Salgado. “I think it’s going to be going for a long time.”


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