Rude Boys

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."

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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."

Adds Rodriguez, "The thing is, I didn't know much about the Spanish rock scene. I was just playing punk with Felipe barking in Spanish."

Still, both Rodriguez and Mares admit that in the beginning, there were some rather earnest sociopolitical overtones to the '90s rock en Espanol insurgence, which has produced a number of bands admired by Los Skarnales -- King Chango, Yeska and Voodoo Glow Skulls. But predictably, that all got watered down when money entered into the picture. "Now that major labels have gotten involved, it's really become a business," says Mares. "It's like this is their gimmick now. They know that there is some success, and there isn't that much competition."

Competition from other bands has never been much of an issue for Los Skarnales. Back in 1993, when the group was formed, those Spanish-oriented rock outfits that were performing around town had little, if any, lasting value to contribute. Though there were exceptions, the Basics being a big one, most Spanish rockers were content to churn out generic covers of tunes by popular Mexico-based rock bands or, even worse, lame interpretations of American hits.

Los Skarnales co-founders Galvan, Rodriguez and John Garcia, on the other hand, were tearing up the nascent scene as an aggressive punk trio called Desorden, an edgy alternative to the more traditional Spanish rock acts. Desorden came of age on-stage at Latino nightclubs around the Richmond Strip, playing off-night gigs at places such Cache and the Olympus Disco. Initially, club owners were more than happy to accommodate the group, seeing as how they were bringing in business on normally dead evenings. But it was only a matter of months before local promoters were at odds with each other over what sort of Spanish rock would bring in the most money. Their patience eventually wore thin with Galvan, Rodriguez and Garcia's hard-core music and image, and the trio was blacklisted.

"The punk thing didn't go over well," says Mares. "Eventually, Desorden got banned. Even though they helped create a scene, they wound up outcasts."

Banished from the Richmond area, the group turned its focus to underground rock venues inside the Loop, changing its name to Los Skarnales (loose English translation: Brothers of Ska) in 1995. That year, Mares -- a fan from the group's Desorden days -- dusted off an old keyboard and joined the band. A talented artist and designer, Mares is also the band's graphic mastermind. He and Galvan collaborate on all Los Skarnales CD cover art and promotional material, including a fanzine-style "coloring book" that, among other things, documents the Los Skarnales' rude boy evolution in an offbeat comic strip.

The turning point in that evolution came -- more or less -- when Galvan and Rodriguez, increasingly drawn to classic surf and rockabilly, began sprinkling those elements into the mix. As the group's sound expanded, its audience also grew. Regular gigs at clubs such as Fitzgerald's and the Abyss followed in short order, as did a full-length debut CD (now out of print) and the formation of the band's own Pinche Flojo label.

In 1996, a mini-tour of the West Coast and the Southwest saw the band open for reunited Two Tone architects the Specials in Phoenix and perform with King Chango and a host of other acts at the Guateque Festival in Los Angeles. The band also traveled to Mexico for a series of gigs that culminated in a performance on the nationally televised variety show Desvelados.

Meanwhile, back home, Pinche Flojo was beginning to find an identity all its own, and original Los Skarnales bassist John Garcia left to devote his time to developing the label. So far, two local releases -- the Texas compilation Scene? What Scene! and the debut CD from neo-punk traditionalists Latch Key Kids -- bear the Pinche Flojo imprint. As for Los Skarnales, they've been featured on no less than seven ska and punk compilations in the last year, and one could credit them with shaking awake a sleepy Spanish rock scene in Houston -- or, at the very least, snapping it out of its sound-alike funk. Newer groups such as Moscas (formerly Flies in Paradise), Seres Ocultos and Desgracia de Inez have vision and chops to spare, and there's plenty more where they came from.  

"There's definitely more bands out there," says Mares. "Hopefully, we encouraged that."

So it would seem that the only task left undone locally is winning the respect of their homies. Still, the members of Los Skarnales aren't in any hurry to reopen that can of worms.

"We'll always be a Latino-based band, but we should broaden our horizons," Rodriguez says. "We already have a couple of English songs, so why not sing a little more in English and Spanglish?"

He's got a point there. After all, why hang around where you're not wanted?

Los Skarnales perform at 5 p.m. Sunday, October 19, on the Westheimer Street Festival's Latin Stage. Also performing: Tribu de Ixchel, Disgracia de Inez, Seres Ocultos, Templo de Suenos, De Sangre and Suprazero. Free. For info, call 520-1520.

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