Back in about 2003 and 2004, you couldn't find a more consistently great live band in Houston than Chango Jackson. The self-described "cock-rockers for the new millennium" brought it at their shows every time.
The night the first "shock and awe" bombs over Baghdad fell, and the entire nation was queasy with war-fear, the band took the stage at the late, lamented Earthwire Studio in chemical suits and gas masks and uncorked a fierce set.
They sang salutes to Frida Kahlo, ripped the culture of telenovelas and tore Ted Nugent a new one, and in lighter moods, they were known to fling tamales from the stage while wearing gorilla suits, as befits their primate-saluting band name.
And then there was the music: a ferocious mélange of classic rock, jazz, hip-hop, funk and ska. The frontline of twin guitarists Graham Kirby and Moises Alanis and Alanis's fellow vocalist, the bassist Tino Ortega, was one of the most dynamic in town, and the shows would often close with a very memorable cover — notably a positively apocalyptic version of "Helter Skelter." Ortega and Alanis traded vocals, each of them switching back and forth between Spanish and English, and therein lay the seeds of their doom.
The band should have been huge, but the market for American rock bands that mix Spanish and English is still small. Like Los Skarnales, Chango Jackson had as many fans on the other side of the Rio Grande as they did in El Norte, but to many people, they were regarded as too American for Mexico and too Mexican for America. It reminds me of the paradox depicted on the back of an old-school 50 peso banknote — an Aztec warrior and conquistador stabbing each other over the legend "La fusion de dos culturas." "Y nadie gana," it should have added, because it seemed from the picture at least that nobody won.
Eventually this cultural divide broke the band apart. Alanis wanted to focus on moving the music forward into more psychedelic modern rock styles but to sing primarily in Spanish. Ortega, whose father Tino Sr. is a member of Los Super Estrella, a famous cumbia band from the Valley, wanted to do the opposite — to sing primarily in English while taking the music in a more traditional Mexican direction.
In the fall of 2006, the elder Ortega came out of retirement and asked his son to join his band for some tour dates in the Valley and in Mexico. Tino Jr. signed on, and his focus shifted. Gradually, the cumbia enticed him away from his responsibilities in Chango Jackson.
"I started helping out my dad more and more, going to Mexico, going to the Valley, and I guess I kinda neglected Chango Jackson a little bit," he says. "It was partly my fault, I guess. My intention was never for the band to break up. But it is what it is, I guess."
What it is today is Chango Man, the younger Ortega's new band. Last Friday they shared a bill with Yoko Mono, Alanis's new group. Since both "chango" and "mono" mean monkey in Spanish, I asked both Ortega and Alanis separately if they saw the monkey as their totemic beast.
"I can't speak for Moises, but as for me I just wanted to have something from my past, and the next logical evolutionary stage for Chango Jackson is the Chango Man," Ortega said. "And since we were playing cumbias and it's real rhythmic and tribal, it seemed like a good name."
"We were originally Moscas," says Alanis. ("Moscas" means "flies.") "And when we were sort of moving on from that era, I came up with Yoko Mono and that was the one I really wanted to go with before we decided on Chango Jackson. Tino wasn't wild about Yoko Mono."
Alanis adds that the monkey theme was just a coincidence, but not without a certain cosmic bite. "I just think it's funny now with mono meaning monkey, that ties in with what Chango Jackson was, and then there's also Yoko on there, and this is the band that got me out of Chango Jackson."
Alanis was joined by fellow Chango Jackson guitarist Graham Kirby in Yoko Mono. For a time, there was some bad blood between the two camps. Alanis attributes the beginning of the end to Ortega's hiring of a manager that the rest of the band didn't care for. "We were being pulled in different directions, because Graham and myself didn't want anything to do with this manager, and Tino did," he says. "And it was not only managerial stuff, but we were also pulling apart musically. Tino was ready to go into this cumbia thing, and Graham and I were not, so that became a power struggle."
If Alanis had believed a hundred percent that Ortega was smitten with cumbia, that would have been one thing. But Alanis had his doubts. "It seemed to come out of left field and he seemed to get more enthusiastic about it after he helped his dad do it," he says. "It made me question his integrity — did he really want this or did he just see an open market? But whatever, even if that was the case, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just not what I wanted to do."
Well, it wasn't something he wanted to do regularly, anyway, because Alanis did perform with Ortega's band at the show last Friday. But let's back up and take that gig band by band.
Yoko Mono opened what was scheduled as a three-band set but wound up being four. In addition to Kirby, the band is rounded out by a drummer and bassist Rozz Zamorano. The sound was a muddle for much of their set, but when the mix finally got right, what you heard was tough, funky and muy cool. The interplay between Kirby and Alanis was tight as ever, and Zamorano is the perfect bassist to set them off. Alanis busted out an electric sitar on one number and continued Chango Jackson's knack for inspired covers with a Spanish translation of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla."
After brief sets by an unscheduled local band and Zechs Marquise, an El Paso band from the Cedric Bixler-Zavala Barber College and School of Progressive Zeppelin Studies, Chango Man assembled on the stage.
Ortega's is a huge group — few local bands outside of Clouseaux pack a stage like this one, and certainly none with such a variety of people. There was a sax man in a fez and caftan, a trombonist in leopard-skins, a guy in Tejano charro regalia. Right now the band is more fun than it is tight, but it was hard to sit still and keep from smiling through their short set, which closed with a Spanish-language cover of Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Or should that be "Chango Boogie"?
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By mutual agreement, neither band performed any Chango Jackson material except for "Mis Huevos," Ortega's novelty polka ditty about his balls.
Alanis did sit in with Chango Man, though. Before the show, Alanis said this would be the first and last time he would do so. "He asked me to do this show with him, and I agreed to it, and he may think that I am going to continue with it, but I did this as a friend," he says. "Even though I was pretty mad at him for a long time, I got over it, but even if I did like this music more, even if it was something that I wanted to pursue...Now, with having kids, it's hard enough to pursue my band that I really am passionate for. And I don't really feel it for the cumbia stuff."
You can't blame Alanis — imagine what The Edge would do if Bono decided he wanted to start a 12-piece trad Irish party band. But it does seem over for Chango Jackson now, and that's a shame. Here's hoping that Ortega and Alanis will see past their lingering differences and allow each other to give their old material spins in their new bands.