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Rude Boys

Houston's Los Skarnales push past the language barrier

The advisory stamp that graces Vatos Rudos, the latest CD from Houston's Los Skarnales, is issued as a warning, though not in the way you might think. Virtually identical in style to Tipper Gore's indelible contribution to music industry censorship, the imprint hasn't a thing to do with explicit contents -- that is, unless tightly wound ska-punk rants sung in a band's native tongue is your idea of obscenity. Look closer and you'll see that, stenciled in the pair of thin black bars sandwiching the familiar "ADVISORY" logo, are the unfamiliar words "Vato Rudo" ("Rude Boy") and "Spanish Lyrics."

"Eighty percent of what we do is in Spanish," explains keyboardist Josue "Josh" Mares, Los Skarnales' soft-spoken mouthpiece. "When we went to make copies of the CD, they didn't want to duplicate it because the [real] parental advisory sticker [has] to be on the outside of the cover [the fake one is on the disc itself and in the liner notes]. We had to explain to them that it was only a mock-up of one."

Even so, with ten of its 14 tracks written in Spanish, Vatos Rudos can be taken as a heads-up to those of us who, like myself, have been scraping by as denizens of this onetime Mexican province on English alone. Consider it a reality check, a not-so-subtle message to the multiculturally challenged to get with the program. Moreover, Vatos Rudos is as much a raucous celebration of Los Skarnales' Hispanic heritage as it is an infectious open invitation for all of us to join the party.

"We're just trying to play music and have fun," Mares says. "We don't want to limit ourselves to a certain region or a certain culture."

Indeed, exclusion from Los Skarnales' burgeoning clica on any grounds (other than criminal, of course) is a foul of the first order. And yet, the band's hyperkinetic repackaging of punk's bad-ass adrenaline charge, combined with the giddy, offbeat syncopations and irreverent "rude boy" attitude affiliated with ska's Two Tone movement, is hardly earthshaking. In fact, it's become rather routine, thanks in no small part to the likes of Goldfinger, Buck-O-Nine and other silly radio regulars who seem to have posturing confused with personality.

Somehow, though, in the hands of Los Skarnales, the depleted ska-punk formula is nothing if not life affirming. When you're sucked into the sweaty vortex of the skank pit at a Los Skarnales gig, everything makes sense -- language barriers melt away, skin tones merge with ease. With his on-stage air of invincibility, lead singer Felipe Galvan's randy vocalizing -- peppered every so often with "Spanglish," a bastardized barrio hybrid of Spanish and English -- only adds to the tingling rush of rediscovery. And the group's swinging rhythm section and airtight brass drive the goose bumps home with a measured dose of soul. Just like that, a shopworn hybrid sounds fresh and exotic again, its street-level mystique replenished. So what if you can't understand most of the words?

"A lot of kids will tell us, 'We don't know what you're saying, but it sounds cool," Mares laughs. "We've even had some say they're taking Spanish lessons to figure out what we're saying."

Therein lies the weird irony of Los Skarnales, and the source of many a misconception about the band: They're appreciated the most by those who understand them the least. Lovers of low riders, zoot suits, old-time swing and cheap domestic beer, the members of Los Skarnales are resolute about honoring the history and traditions of the urban Chicano culture in which their founding members were raised. Still, there's no escaping the fact that most of their fans are white. That's especially true in Houston, where they're seen as misfits by most young Latinos. But that's nothing new for guitarist Jose Rodriguez.

"I was one of the few Hispanics in my high school," says Rodriguez, a Spring Branch native whose mother was born in Mexico. "While everyone in my school was listening to rap, I was into heavy metal and punk."

Throughout Texas, Latino kids are too wrapped up in Tejano and dance music to pay any mind to a band so heavily indebted to ska and punk, two forms not exactly tops among the state's Hispanic youth. So don't be offended if Rodriguez and the rest of Los Skarnales -- Mares, Galvan, bassist Ralph Hernandez, drummer Benny Tamayo, saxophonist Jason Bird, trumpet player Paul Heuer and trombonist Bryan Moran -- aren't flushed with excitement over the breakthrough potential of the so-called rock en Espanol movement. Of late, the buzz over Latino rock and rollers has industry flacks scouting out Mexico and points even farther south, not to mention the barrios of major U.S. melting pots such as Miami, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, where Tejano isn't anywhere near as prevalent.

"I think a lot of people want to hype it up as a cultural or musical revolution," Mares says. "But what it really boils down to is that some bands in Mexico got tired of hearing English bands, so they decided to sing in Spanish. Some of the bands have messages behind their songs. But a lot of them just want to go out, party and have a good time."

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