The music of Las Cafeteras is the best kind of alive. The East Los Angeles-based seven-piece, which most recently passed through town last October for the Santa Barbara Bowl’s Día de los Muertos show, brings a socially conscious blend of butt-shaking, soul-stirring, Afro-Mexican folk-rock that lifts you up while making sure you are getting down. Even better, from Guadalupe to Carpinteria, the youth of Santa Barbara County are about to have an incredible opportunity to soak in the Las Cafeteras experience free of charge as the band is relocating to the 805 this week for a unique five-day residency. “Four letters, man. E-P-I-C,” said Las Cafeteras singer and zapateado player Hector Flores when asked about his band’s upcoming S.B. engagements. “An epic week of music and storytelling and community building is about to happen.”
The residency is just the latest from the folks behind ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara!, a community-minded collaborative effort from UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, the Marjorie Luke Theatre, Isla Vista Youth Projects, County Education’s Children’s Creative Project, and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center, among others. Serving some 15,000 people throughout the county each year since it began a decade ago, Viva el Arte works to provide a wide range of music and dance programming free of charge for school children and their families. “Each year, we make a real effort to bring living traditions to town — most of them Latin American in origin — and maybe introduce the kids and their parents to something they have never seen before,” said Cathy Oliverson, director for educational outreach and manager for performing arts at Arts & Lectures.
The 2014-15 edition of Viva el Arte, which concludes with the upcoming Las Cafeteras visit, has already featured Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, the Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater (whose residence included a flash mob dance at the Santa Maria Town Center Mall), Mariachi Flor de Toloache, and M.A.K.U. Soundsystem. “It’s been a great year, but we are definitely going to end it on a high note with Las Cafeteras,” said Oliverson excitedly.
To be clear, the offerings provided by Viva el Arte are about a whole lot more than just free concerts and dance performances. Public schools, thanks to years’ worth of budgetary bloodletting, don’t deliver anywhere near the same level of music and dance that they once did, and family budget realities often prevent moms and dads from being able to expose their kids to the living culture so often happening on stages throughout the South Coast.
Neither of these two situations does anything to help our youth or, as a result, our community’s future. Quite the contrary, actually. However, thanks to a mosaic of grant funding, Viva el Arte is able to transcend this dangerous deficiency and deliver some much-needed (and enjoyable) music and dance inspiration exactly where it is needed most. “We see it as a great way to reinvest in our local audience and our future artists,” said Santa Barbara Bowl Program Director Eric Shiflett. “There is a definite lack of performing-arts education in our schools nowadays. Kids just aren’t getting it like they used to, so we have to find a way to provide it.”
To that end, the Bowl, as they have in years past with other ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! performers like the Yamato Drummers and the Children of Uganda vocal company, is opening its doors and providing its world-class venue for a full day of free Las Cafeteras shows for school groups on April 22. According to Shiflett, the Bowl will welcome upward of 5,000 students that day and, as he put it, “For many of them, it’s not only their first visit to the Bowl, but it will be their first time in a performing-arts center, period.”
As for the artists who are making the magic happen this week? Well, Las Cafeteras may be the most perfect match imaginable for a residency with Vive el Arte. Not only is the band the living embodiment of what they themselves call “multicultural immigrant music,” but they also play a personal type of Son Jarocho music, the nearly three-centuries-old folk sound of Mexico’s Veracruz region. “Many of us [in the band] grew up poor and without instruments or instruction. As a result, some of us didn’t start playing music at all until we were 19 or 20 and started hanging out at community youth centers,” explained Flores as to why his band is so excited for their upcoming residency. “Bridging music, culture, and youth development is in our band’s bloodstream … For us, music is a vehicle that allows you to get to a personal place of freedom. We want to help create a whole generation that knows this freedom.”
Starting with the Bowl shows this Wednesday (which will also feature Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles), Las Cafeteras will be performing at least 12 times within five days — everywhere from Guadalupe City Hall and Isla Vista School to Carpinteria High, the Franklin Neighborhood Center, and the Marjorie Luke, to name but a few of their stages of call in the days ahead. They will also be teaching a Son Jarocho workshop, playing a set for the County Education Office’s Migrant Education Program, and gigging at a handful of secondary schools and community venues yet to be determined. “Have you seen the schedule, man? I am not sure we will even have time for a nap,” said Flores with a laugh before adding enthusiastically, “This is exactly the type of work we want to do. This is the essence of who we are. We want young people to look at us and say ‘Hey, if they can do it, so can I.’”
For a full schedule of ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara!’s Las Cafeteras concerts and education workshops, go to facebook.com/VivaelArteSB or artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu/Community/VivaElArte.aspx.