Spanish Flies

Orixa doesn't need a major label to make white people shake their asses.

At first glance, the Starline Club in Fresno could be an ideal venue for Saturday night hayrides and honky-tonks. Capping a long strip of Starbucks-biting cafes and vintage clothing stores, the all-ages club doesn’t hold much promise for Orixa, Oakland’s stalwart Rock en Español band. In fact, drummer Juan Manuel Caipo is informed by one patron that a Latino rock group won’t easily find favor with the Starline’s majority-white clientele. “He wanted to know why we were playing there,” Juan says, “because the crowd could have been transplanted from Concord.” Indeed, he emerges from the club prior to the gig with his brow furrowed: “I think there’s a bunch of white moms and dads in there.”

His three bandmates glance at each other in consternation. This Friday night show marks the culmination of a whirlwind West Coast tour for Siembra, the band’s first album in four years. After two explosive release parties at SF’s Independent and Hollywood’s the Gig, it looks like Orixa might have to settle for one night of bemused white kids (and their parents), all asses permanently stuck to the Starline’s rubber barstools.

Fortunately, these fears are unwarranted. Onstage, frontman Rowan Jiminez redirects his consternation into berating the audience: “Everybody sitting down, get off your freakin’ booty. If you haven’t gotten off your booty by the time the night is over, you’re gonna realize your ass is flat.” Within minutes, the whole dance floor is crowded with tight-skirted, flat-assed girls gyrating their hips to Siembra‘s slinky title track. Guitarist Michael Cavaseno plays Santana-style licks over Juan’s groove-driven rock beat, while Rowan straddles the mic and belts the song’s hook: Cha cu cha currucu cha cu cha! Pretty soon, more than one mom in the audience is making big, crooning cow eyes at the men onstage.

The members of Orixa may defy easy categorization with their blend of congas, Zeppelin-style guitars, and Spanish lyrics. That confusion, in turn, has contributed to a rocky twelve-year career of star-crossed business ventures and just-missed mainstream flirtations. But all of that doesn’t matter: In person, they can seduce any crowd.

In its earliest 1992 incarnation, Orixa was a Latin jam band, with Rowan singing in both English and Spanish between eight-minute bass solos. When he met drummer Juan at El Cerrito’s Guitar Center the following year, the two bonded instantly: “Rowan had long hair and looked like a total rocker,” the drummer recalls. “I’d hear him talk about his band and think, ‘Wow, this guy sings in Spanish!'”

Shortly thereafter, the two drifters — both South American émigrés enamored of Latin music and stuck with an endless string of minimum-wage jobs — decided to hook up. Juan wasn’t too keen on the original Orixa’s shiftless wankery, which he deemed just one sax removed from easy listening. Under his new drummer’s influence, Rowan caught a rock bug, the other members cut out, and the band found mooring. After recruiting Juan’s cousin Mark to play bass and the Peruvian headbanger Ronald Mackee to handle guitar, Orixa started invading East Bay rock clubs, and soon negotiated with the now-defunct Berkeley Square to play a weekly Rock en Español event. Called “Rockola,” the event showcased regional Latino bands in a traditional, down-and-dirty rock venue. “It was like the Paradise Lounge of the East Bay,” Rowan says. “Black and shitty, with ‘What the fuck do you want?’-type bartenders.”

Naturally, it didn’t take long for Orixa’s musical concept to catch on, luring local moguls and venture capitalists, including Bay Area lawyer John Melrod, who started the Latino-oriented rock label Aztlan Records in 1996. Rock en Español was bubbling: After signing to Aztlan, Orixa graced the Bay Guardian‘s cover for a celebratory piece about the future of rock ‘n’ roll in an increasingly Latino Bay Area. “I was working at Noah’s Bagels at the time, and our picture was all over the newsstands,” Rowan says. “People would come in and say, ‘Oh my God, my bagel is being made by a rock star.'”

But the hype was premature: Neither Orixa’s local entrepreneurs nor the music industry proper was ready to fully invest in this bilingual, cross-pollinated genre, which assaulted everyone’s conceptions of what rock ‘n’ roll should be. Rowan recalls that Aztlan’s founders didn’t speak Spanish or know anything about the Latin music scene, “so they made a lot of bad marketing decisions and poured money into the wrong places.” The band ended up producing and mixing its own self-titled debut album, which tanked along with the label.

“I gotta give Aztlan credit for believing so much in the band, and being captured by our live performance,” Juan says. “But things didn’t happen the right way. Our first record had a great concept of combining rock with ska, Latin roots, and bongos, but it sounded scattered, and the whole process of recording that album wasn’t healthy.” Bound by a stringent contract, Orixa had to raise $2,000 to buy back four of its demo masters from Aztlan, which the band compiled over the next four years to make the 2001 underground hit 2012ed, released on its own label, Elegua Digital. More sample-driven and futuristic than its predecessor — the title portends a future in which televisions and VCRs come to life, “so you can kiss your own ass goodbye, grab a partner, and just boogie,” Juan explains — 2012ed quickly sold five thousand copies in the States alone. Juan attributes this success to studio innovations like singing into megaphones, guitar feedback and delays, and looped conga samples that provide a retro feel.

Suddenly, good things were happening again. Orixa had emerged from a rocky adolescence period — guitarist Ronald quit and was replaced by David Shul (and later the Puerto Rican guitarist Paul Yturriago-Lopez, when David decamped to join Spearhead) — but the guys were finally enjoying a bit of rock star grandeur, touring the Southwest and East Coast while hobnobbing with A&R reps from major labels like American Recordings and Electra. The brightest promise in late 2001 was Hollywood Records, whose Latin division ambassador, Cameron Randall, had made four SF trips to prove his devotion. Meanwhile, Orixa traveled to Los Angeles to film a Carl’s Jr. commercial, in which the bandmembers gorged themselves sick by eating chicken strips for four hours and singing about how much they liked chicken, spitting in a cup between takes.

But excess chicken was just a minor hazard in an otherwise glamorous life: They had a national TV spot and plans to sign a major label deal — Hollywood would call to wrap it up within two weeks, and the band would return to the Bay Area triumphant and blingin’.

And then, poof! It was all gone.

Two weeks went by with no word from the record company, so Orixa sent its lawyer, Mario Gonzales, down to Hollywood to see what was up. When he got there, he found the label had just merged with Atlantic Warner and liquidated all the offices — the site already looked like a ghost town. By the time Orixa got back in touch with its jonesing A&R, he’d been fired.

“At that point, everything completely froze,” Juan admits.

Juan and I have been together for so long that I’m learning how to make a good sales pitch,” Rowan says. The singer may dominate Orixa’s public image (bandmembers joke that he takes up two sides of tape during an interview before anyone else can get a word in), but on the business tip, he won’t hesitate to give Juan respect. “I’m the artistic vision behind the band, and Juan is the sales person,” the singer gibes. “He’ll fucking sell you a piece of gum that’s already been chewed, and make you think you’re getting a good deal. He’ll sell you your own underwear.”

Shortly after the Hollywood Records imbroglio, Orixa underwent another severe transformation, during which Mark and Paul both absconded. Juan recruited guitarist Michael Cavaseno from the SF-based rock band Storm; in turn, Michael introduced Charles Gasper, who played bass for the self-described “avant funk” band Alien Lovestock, and ended up joining Orixa in early 2003. This band’s new mélange of personalities and styles shines on in Siembra, which kicks off with a leisurely ska song (“The American”) — a favorite with the Bay Area’s activist-chic, skirt-over-pants crowd — and leads to exciting, driving songs like “Tiempo,” which sets a hard-rock guitar riff against a fast samba break. You can actually apply classical conceptions of musicianship to most of Siembra, which mixes Latin jazz chords and punk-rock surfer bass lines in equal measure, and sounds more studied and varied than the Rock en Español label implies.

Orixa still keeps its ears open for major record deals, but expectations are much, much lower now. “Even though our music is a fusion of many styles, we happen to be boxed into a genre that doesn’t sell to large numbers of people,” Juan reasons. The drummer bemoans commercial labels’ penchant for roping all Latino groups together: Metal bands get shelved next to Latin pop divas and pompadoured bolero players. So for now, Orixa is resigned to independence, and released Siembra on its own Elegua Digital label.

Hybrid, urbane, boundary-defying styles are a real selling point in the Bay Area, especially when a band can actually make the rock-jazz thing work. And granted, Orixa has garnered its share of fans among local fashionistas: Performing at El Rio in the Mission, the group provides an ideal soundscape for those drum-circle dance moves that white girls invented in order to take up as much space as possible. Yet, by the end of a long night of microphone-humping — followed by burritos and beer at El Farolito — Rowan is blinking at the digital clock on his dashboard with sunken eyes. “It’s 2 a.m., and I was gonna get up at 6:30 for work tomorrow,” he sighs. “I’m a real rock star with a fucking nine-to-five.”

Orixa may put on one of the most seductive live shows in the Bay Area, but its members have always had a tough time finding a viable commercial market. Before the band put all its eggs in the Elegua Digital basket, its members spent a lot of time looking for moguls who didn’t think “Latin” automatically translated into smooth hair and mambo drums. For Rowan, dealing with those inviolable market categories got really annoying: “Sublime can rip ‘Kung Fu Grip’ and get a hit, but it’s really just gringos from the OC singing raga and Spanish lyrics,” he says. “It’s not okay to have actual Latinos playing rock.”

Granted, Rowan and Juan came a long way from being immigrant kids with quixotic musical aspirations and below-minimum-wage jobs — even if they’ve got a ways to go before attaining real rock star status. In the meantime, they fake it pretty well.

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