If a band ever personified the "Houston Sound," Los Skarnales would certainly need to be on that list. Last year group was inducted into the Houston Music Hall of Fame, after being Houston Press Music Award nominees and winners countless times. With shows that are always sweaty, soulful and a skanking good time, Skarnales celebrate their 20-year anniversary this Friday night at Fitzgerald's.
However, their origins can actually be traced all the way back to the early 1960s. In the Mexican border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, drummer Raul Galvan and the rest of his pioneering Mexican rock band Los Johnny Jets defied convention by playing American-style rock and roll translated into Spanish, which later evolved into go-go jams and psychedelic-rock breakdowns. Meanwhile in Guadalajara, Jalisco, a beautiful young singer whose stage name was Rosita Del Llano found success in traditional rancheras and other mariachi music.
Today his parents' passion, talent and the history in his blood has propelled Skarnales singer Felipe Galvan to become one of the most energetic and magnetic front men that Texas music has ever experienced. Along with guitarist Jose Rodriguez and bassist Juan Garcia, Galvan and his crew hit the Houston music scene in 1994 as the enthusiastic punk trio called Desorden.
At the time, most Chicano musicians in Houston were either playing with Tejano bands, dabbling with rap or doing the Rock en Español thing, covering songs from both north and south of the border. Desorden wanted no part of that scene, opting instead to follow their love of the Clash and other punk bands.
Later on, leaning on the wonderment they found in the ska-punk sounds of Mexico City's Maldita Vecindad and other strictly ska groups such as Britain's the Specials, Desorden recruited a few more members and changed their name to Los Skarnales.
They encountered early success when the now-defunct alt-weekly Public News named them Best Latino Band in 1995 and Best New Band in 1996. The next year, acclaimed Latino author and illustrator Lalo Alcaraz obtained a copy of the band's first release, Vatos Rudos. The title was a chicanization of the Jamaican rude boy moniker, and Alcaraz called Skarnales "one of mis favoritos from Houston, who play ruff [sic] Spanglish-only ska-punk."
Due to life and love, some members left and new players joined the crew, adding new sounds and influences each time the lineup changed. An EP called Suavecito Style was released in 2000, although the full-length album that was planned at the time never came to light.
A major shift occurred soon afterward when Nick Gaitan and Roberto Rodriguez, now of the Umbrella Man, joined the band, an era that saw Skarnales go without a horn section for the first time. Pachuco Boogie Sound System was released in 2004, but the band went on hiatus soon after.
In September 2007, the "vatos rudo" sound returned at the Continental Club with an experiment called Felipe Galvan y Sus Carnales, who originally formed in order to play non-Skarnales tracks. But the appeal to start again was too strong to ignore.
Armed with a new horn section, as well as an interest in adding cumbia, mambo, danzon and blues to their already diverse repertoire, the band set about creating the fun and fierce sound fans know and love today. Dale Shine!, released in 2010, became Skarnales' most successful release to date.
And to think that they almost didn't make it that far.
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"He's a family man now" says Skarnales' percussionist/vocalist Nestor "El Tiburon" Aguilar of his bandmate Galvan. "But he is still very much rock and roll."
"There have been times when I've almost quit the band," Felipe says over dinner at his home on the banks of White Oak Bayou. He admits his partying has led to headaches and temporary rifts between himself and his fellow Skarnales.
One such episode led to the removal of former keyboardist and manager Joshua Mares, currently the marketing director of Houston's Arena Theatre. Mares says that he holds "so much respect for Felipe's talent," but that the "music business" and other life trials prevented Skarnales from catapulting toward even greater local and international success.
Once the band had the ear of several major labels including Universal and Emilio Estefan, adds Mares, but lack of leadership and drive kept those opportunities from flourishing. But that was then.
"That was a little slow, wasn't it" inquired current Skarnales drummer Jose "Chapy" Luna during a recent rehearsal for the band's anniversary show. The first-floor room at the East End's iconic Francisco Studios practice space was as full of life and history as the band itself. With an abundance of cervezas and the amplifiers turned all the way to 11, remaining focused and sane became difficult while observing the controlled chaos.
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Former members Benny Tamayo, Rick Ramirez, Ralph Hernandez, Albert Garza, and founding member Juan Garcia were invited to the practice, some of whom hadn't touched their instrument in more than ten years. But the spirit of Los Skarnales erased all the rust and left each player with a wide smile, eager to showcase himself onstage again soon.
"I feel like my hand is about to fall off!" proclaimed Luna.
That manic, unrelenting stage presence has endeared Skarnales to their legions of fans, most of whom jump at every opportunity to see the vatos rudos in action, dancing and singing along. It certainly feels as though the band could go for another 20 years.
Watch this space next week for more on Skarnales' 20th anniversary. The band plays with special guests the Jungle Rockers, Reyno Sabanero and Heart & Soul Soundsystem, next Friday at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak.