From Woody Guthrie in the United States to Mercedes Sosa in Argentina music has played a central role in surfacing the perspective of workers. Furthermore, in times of trouble, artists have often been at the forefront of articulating defiance against oppressive forces. The music Quitapenas and others are developing remind oneself that questioning the powerful and resisting against injustice is meant to be celebrated.
Since releasing their debut album three years ago, Quitapenas has helped shape the vibrant Los Angeles based Latinx music scene. They have also developed a following. Their success has led to performances at the world renowned Coachella music festival, headlining a major Midwest festival in Iowa and bringing their nourishing rhythms to the emerging latinx Twin Cities community.
Quitapenas draws from the aesthetics of their Latin American heritage while instilling the sensibility and imagination of the larger Latinx diaspora in the United States. Recently they released a music video for their song Campesino. The song is a vignette of contemporary workers set against archival footage of the United Farm Workers union organizing defending the work and lives of agricultural workers in the fields of California.
I sent some questions to the band to better understand the dimensions of the video and their intentions. Answers to the questions are a combination of Eduardo Valencia and Daniel Gomez unless otherwise noted. (Edited for brevity and clarity)
The imagery that the song conjures is incredibly raw, painful in some ways and simultaneously elegant. I appreciate the minimalism and directness of it. Can you say more about the choices in imagery?
This story is essentially broken up into three parts. The first describes a "brother" who spent the majority of his life working and now has callused hands that remind us and him of growing old and the daily grind. However, he has no shame for being old and "worn out" because he did what he felt had to be done for himself and his family. The second describes a "sister" who counts the days based on how much time she has to do her next task. She is hardworking and is always worrying about what to do next and how much time she has to get it done, but regardless she spends her days singing and inspiring. The third describes a mother. She hustles not just for herself but for her children. She might complain and be tired but she the bravest and most hardworking of all and being around that kind of love and sacrifice is inspiring and beautiful. We may not be field workers, but our personal experiences have given us insight into a relatively new human experience of long work hours, low pay, family disconnection in an urban environment. Therefore, we are Campesinos urban. The inspiration for the lyrics came from those around us. I was starting to see loved ones less and less because of work schedules and life priorities and it first it was saddening, but then there was a realization that it was okay to be a hard worker and that people still found a way to bring happiness to others lives.
What is the most important message or statement in the video that Y'all want folks to come away with? What is the story you are telling?
The message is that our people are hardworking. They migrated far from their home and had sacrificed time and health for the people that they love. The story is about the brother whom you have not seen since he left to work, your sister who works so much but still has a positive spirit and your mother, who has sacrificed the most for the family, but with that courage inspires you.
In prior writing, I have been highlighting the way contemporary Latinx music is speaking from a US political perspective rooted in a Latin America aesthetic, instead of pursuing an aesthetic that appeals to a white audience. Do you agree that something specific is happening? If so, where do you see Campesino and Quitapenas fitting into whats happening in Latinx music?
We cannot divorce the personal and the political. The music itself is a political statement. We are carving our place within this larger narrative that says that the children of immigrants in this country have ideas and when we say them out loud you get excellent dance music like ours or dope blogs like El Huateque or Shop Latinx or getting Columbus Day removed as a holiday in Los Angeles. Something is definitely happening, and financial support is coming. There are festivals like Tropicalia or the dozens of events that occur weekly across the U.S., for example.
Campesino is this song that tells a familiar story about immigrating and working these jobs that are crucial for the economy yet are underpaid. So Quitapenas turns it into a song that is painful but you can dance to, and that is a necessary component of our cultural expression… If you have ever danced to a song by La Sonora Dinamita, you know that dancing the pain away is nothing new. We are part of that first generation expression.
What other bands should we pay attention to within this musical shift?
Buyepongo, Thee Commons, Brainstory, Combo Chimbita, El Santo Golpe, Yanga, El Haru-Kuroi
How has the ascendance of Trump and the targeting of our communities impacted your music?
It definitely brought us closer together. Seeing this neo-nazi shit rise makes you well aware that racism is alive and thriving in 2018. It gave our music and performance an added critical dimension and purpose. We wanted our shows to feel inclusive and safe. Daniel’s lyrics having been evolving, exploring nature, the revolution of the self and our community.
What inspires the Quitapenas sound?
It comes from the Afro-Latin diaspora rooted in the dominant sounds of the 1950-1980's with attention to the 1970's music boom. Quitapenas take the elements we love from all of the different genres, and we reinterpret; some of these include Champeta, Konpas, Rumba, Semba, Funana, and Soukous. However, we are not from South America, and we were not born in the 60's so there are influences of Rock and Roll, Jazz, Hip-Hop from the perspective of having been raised in the 90's in California. Basically, our sound comes from our desire to hear music we like, and if we can be part of it and play it, even better!
Having the video and music entirely in Spanish while performing and speaking to US English speaking Latinx folks (among others) is fascinating. What are you saying to us with that choice? Is there something unique about our generation that we can glide between both languages with ease? How have festival producers etc. and other venues responded to the language dynamic?
At this point, most of the shows we play are relevant to the experience we believe in. So the people we collaborate with have interest in this movement as well. We did not think much of it at first because its second nature of us to speak and hear in both languages.
Our most Significant festival experience was Coachella 2017. The Sonora Stage team was dope. They took their time and made sure we sounded right, and they were also all Latinos. Typically the issue when we perform is working with sound techs that are not familiar with how to mic hand drums and cowbells or anything with percussion. Shout out to Rene Contreras for curating a proper stage at a festival like Coachella.
UFW imagery is prominent. What was that choice about?
We felt that we needed imagery that was relatable. A familiar story, not unique to the UFW movement, but it would help bring this feeling of active resistance.
This question is for the director Shireen Alihaji. The drawn, graphic novel look of the video is very evocative. What do you think is so compelling about that method? Who made that choice and why?
Giving the footage a treatment draws the audience's attention to people that may otherwise be ignored.
As a society on the cusp of mass desensitization, there is a tendency to train the eyes to focus on everything but the truth. Sometimes we may prefer ignorance because learning about the conditions of labor requires us to recognize our own privilege and step out of our comfort. So there is a lack of consideration when it comes to learning who makes our clothes and picks our food.
I spent time in the highlands of Guatemala hanging with indigenous Maya farmers. In that context Huipiles are ubiquitous. I found myself immediately drawn to the women in the Huipil. What was her role as a character in the story you are telling? Was it an intentional choice to draw attention to indigeneity?
This was our friend Marina Hernandez. She is also a badass dancer. The choice to wear the Huipil is iconic. Just offering representation. Very simple and we are happy you saw it!
Do you have any new music on the horizon?
We have lots of new music coming out. We have an EP coming out early this year with Names You Can Trust and a full-length album shortly after that. We are exploring new genres and old ones too. We have songs about education, dangerous roads, love, nature, and traditions. We also continue to explore our interests and expressions of reflecting what is happening in our world while at the same time trying to include an audience in an experience that is moving, rhythmic and enjoyed.
Callos en las palmas de tus manos
Cuentan la historia de ti hermano
Hace dias que no hablamos
Cuenta los dias ya por hora
Pero se la pasa cantando
Su linda voz me voy imaginando
Madre que por dos se mueve
Se queja ya mas frequente
Pero es la mas valiente
Doy gracias por su gran ambiente
Reprinted from El Huateque, with permission.