.Major Threat

Vallejo punks Eskapo are speaking your language, even when they aren't.

“I’m really easy to spot,” promises Rupert Estanislao, frontman for the Vallejo punk outfit Eskapo. “I’m a five-foot-tall, shaved-headed Filipino guy, and I only wear black.”

He’s right: It’s no trouble locating Rupert among the gaggle of teens smoking Marlboros and chatting on cell phones outside San Francisco’s Bindlestiff studio. But it’s not his appearance that gives him away; after all, this is an all-ages punk show at the city’s only Filipino arts and theater space, so the people who stand out aren’t five-foot-tall, shaved-headed, gutter-punk-lookin’ Asian-Americans. But 26-year-old Rupert is obviously the most infectious personality among them — he’s throwing jubilant punches at the air and yapping about how cool the show is gonna be. We shake hands no fewer than five times.

That night, Rupert unleashes what his roommate Jamie Kennedy describes as his “baby-faced primal hulk” personality. While Eskapo’s drummer Max Fajardo pounds a kick vs. high-hat rumpus loud enough to beat through everyone’s brains, and the guitars grind lines as cruel and jagged as shards of glass, Rupert scrambles onto the stage speakers and dives into the crowd, holding the mic out for his fans to sing along.

Eskapo’s fans have the lyrics down cold. Normally that’s not surprising — punk songs are generally simple and easy to memorize. But roughly 80 percent of Eskapo’s lyrics are in Tagalog, the bandmembers’ heritage language. It seems implausible that all of their fans — non-Filipinos included — would fluently speak the language. When Rupert asked one fan at a recent Gilman show how she knew Eskapo’s lyrics, she said she’d read them on the Web site, memorized the songs, and asked her parents to translate the Tagalog words for her.

Obviously, then, there’s permeability between Eskapo’s heritage culture and the Bay Area punk scene to which the band has gravitated. By combining the coarse sounds of Tagalog with the strident forms of punk, the guys have created an apt medium to tell to tell their own story and forge their own landscape. To Rupert, this hybrid language is “just what comes natural.”

“I got into a fistfight on my first day at Vallejo High School,” Max recalls. “A kid was making fun of my accent, so when the teacher turned around, I punched him in the face. After that, nobody messed with me.”

Max and his brother Loi immigrated to the East Bay in 1993. In the Philippines, they’d lived on the bottom floor of their family’s two-story hotel, which sat about four blocks away from what Max calls the “squatter” neighborhoods, where they’d go to hang out with friends who lived in cardboard houses. Rupert, who also immigrated to Vallejo a decade ago, grew up in a barrio in the Philippines called Project 7, aka Quezon City. “I went to a place called People’s Park to see Filipino hardcore bands like Philippine Violators and the Wuds,” he recalls. “The music was fast, they always sang in Tagalog, and they managed to stay political through the martial laws of the 1980s.”

During that time, Filipinos were caught in the stranglehold of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose pretensions toward “modernization” were undercut by his penchant for throwing lavish parties and depleting the national bank. Meanwhile, his infamous wife Imelda stocked her closet with an estimated two thousand pairs of shoes.

For Rupert and the Fajardo brothers, immigration was like being a wandering zeppelin roving over alien terrain. Despite hopes of job opportunities and a better education, they endured a shaky adolescence: Getting ripped from your homeland and transplanted to — borrowing Rupert’s words — the “viper pit” of suburbia, where everyone calls you “fresh off the boat,” is a damned hard knock. The members of Eskapo came of age in an East Bay bubble where Rupert says the prime leisure activities consisted of “watching movies, getting fucked up, and impregnating somebody.”

Having lived in what he considered the epicenter of Vallejo, Rupert’s roommate Jamie describes it as a kind of “leeches hangin’ out with vampires” world — after all, the cops showed up at his apartment almost every night, and there weren’t many places to have fun if you didn’t frequent Marine World or the local movie theater. Rupert admits he became a drifter, fell into petty crime, and eventually got arrested, but mostly because the town lacked better creative avenues: “A lot of the city council must think Vallejo’s dominated by geriatrics, but there’s a hell of a lot of youth with nowhere for them to go.” Max says that during high school he mostly connected with the music of Tupac and NWA, whose lyrics represented a lived experience of violence, poverty, and racism. He could relate.

Given that punk is often considered the sole territory of suburban white kids, it seems odd that punk initially appealed to the Eskapo guys. In Rupert’s case, the love affair began at a Skankin’ Pickle show: “I was like, ‘This is awesome — the kids are dancing, the lead singer [Mike Park] is Asian, and none of them are beating each other up. I finally feel like I belong.” Similarly, Max got indoctrinated into punk through the über-high-octane mosh pit at 924 Gilman. Once they started going to shows on a regular basis, Loi suggested that the guys form a band and sing in their own language.

Eventually they recruited Luke Winders, too. “I started talking to Max during my senior year at Vallejo High School,” he says, “because he was a cool Filipino kid who wore all these punk shirts. I was curious to see what his story was. Then Rupert asked me to play bass for the band, and I’ve been there ever since.” Guitarist Bruce Webb joined the band in 2001, when he started working with Rupert and Max selling lemonade at, uh, Marine World. The guys saved up their money and began building a studio, with the help of the Fajardos’ dad and grandpa, both carpenters.

Eventually, the newly christened Eskapo boys finally had space to fling their guitars, jump in the air, and land on their kneecaps. As Bruce indicates, “We were watching thrash bands like Los Crudos and What Happens Next?, and seeing how they’d just go wild onstage. We wanted to try it out.”

Rupert’s living room is cluttered with bric-a-brac: Star Trek Barbie and Ken, Sailor Moon thermoses, a package of Satan Snaps breakfast cereal. He lives in a tiny flat in North Oakland with four roommates, including Jamie — who performs with Rupert in a slam poetry group called the Suicide Kings — and Jason Bayani, a fellow poet from Proletariat Bronze, a group within the Asian-American Spoken Word Collective. Jamie says he met Rupert at Diablo Valley College, where he was flyering for a spoken word event to be held at Vallejo’s Cooks Cafe. “I sized him up as someone who would be more interested in putting kitties in fire than reading books,” Kennedy says. “Then again, I’m sure some of his friends might have pegged me as an art fag. I tried to hype the show by saying there would be a lot of fire and violence.”

At Cooks Cafe that night, Jamie recalls that Rupert seized the mic “as though he was robbing it from the audience.” Rupert had been hiding a revolver in the bathroom for most of the evening; he grabbed it right when he got onstage and started pistol-whipping the air. “People in the front row could smell the barrel oil,” Jamie says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was totally entertained.”

Rupert seems uncomfortable mixing his spoken-word side with his punk side, but it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between the two. At the end of the day, there’s but a hairsbreadth between the vulnerable, puerile Rupert and the vengeful, thuggish one. That pressure-cooker aspect is what characterizes Eskapo as a whole: The boyish looks of its members belie the venom underneath.

“Eskapo is a Filipino Minor Threat,” says indie music stalwart (and Skyflakes bassist) Jesse Gonzales, referring to perhaps the most famous message-oriented ’80s hardcore band. In 2000, Jesse met Rupert at Mambo Cafe in Oakland, where the ersatz-punk singer often performed spoken word. “I’d heard about his poetry by word of mouth, and decided to check him out,” Jesse says. As it turned out, the verse-spitting, “angel-faced thug,” as roommate Jamie puts it — was one of the best-kept secrets in Filipino underground music, which, incidentally, is Jesse’s forte. Eskapo had unwittingly kept on the D.L. by not getting involved in Filipino-American events: Instead, the band mostly played for cowboy crowds in Vacaville.

But Jesse persuaded Rupert to perform at Pinoise Pop, a festival Jesse had launched in 1998 with his brother, Ogi, to showcase Filipino-American independent artists. It was the break Eskapo had been waiting for.

The Tagalog word “Eskapo” means “refugee and escape” — an apt term, considering that punk represents a kind of personal salvation for these guys. The band’s logo depicts three prisoners of war dragging themselves along the 55-mile Bataan Death March of 1943: The Japanese army forced 76,000 Filipino and American POWs to march sixty miles from the Philippine town of Mariveles to San Fernando, and only 56,000 made it, with many more dying later of malnutrition and disease. (As bassist Luke notes, it’s oddly comforting “to know white folks aren’t the only ones who are capable of evil.”)

In fact, many of Eskapo’s songs draw parallels between Filipino history and current events. “Pangulo” equates Marcos’ rule with the Bush administration, as Rupert barks, “How is this different from the Marcos regime?/A presidential puppet of a greater scheme/Within this modern day conquest/The head of the nation is an ignorant racist.” Other songs discuss poverty in Third World countries, the cycle of child abuse in Filipino families, and the prevalence of methamphetamine in Filipino-American communities, as on “Balewalang Samahan.”

“The song’s title translates into ‘useless brotherhood’ in English,” Rupert explains. “The word samahan, which means ‘brotherhood,’ is the root for pakikisama, which translates as ‘loyalty,’ but gets twisted to mean ‘peer pressure.’ So it’s a song about getting tweaked just because your friends are doing it.”

Few would debate that Eskapo’s social conscience is virtually unparalleled in the hardcore punk scene. After all, the band talks about international politics with a fervor that other punks would reserve for 40-drinking and fucking shit up. And granted, that kind of axe-grinding might not appeal to everyone in their mostly teenage fanbase. But when you have young girls enlisting their parents’ help in translating your politically charged Tagalog lyrics into English, the threat Eskapo intends to pose suddenly doesn’t seem so minor.


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