The Basics Aim to Cross the Border

The two guys who started the band are Hispanic and some of the songs they do are in Spanish. So that makes the Basics a Tejano band, right?

That's the sort of facile observation that could drive singer and frontman Lupe Olivarez to pounding his head against a wall in frustration. The Basics, Olivarez explains, is "just a regular rock band, except the words are in Spanish half the time." But that half is enough to set the Basics pointing in a different direction from other local rockers. For while most Houston bands hoping for a break look to either New York or California, the Basics are looking south -- to Mexico City, the home of a huge new popular music market that has gone almost unnoticed by the monolingual, dare we say culturally deprived, Anglo popculture. It's a tough market for a Texas band to crack.

This, gringo, is where things get confusing. The first preconception to put on

he shelf is that everyone with a Latino name and some knowledge of Spanish is a "Meskin" and that they're all alike. The second is that all there is to Latin-American music, as Olivarez puts it, is "Chicanos with big hats and belt buckles."

Tejanos (Hispanics born in the Occupied Republic), Chicanos (Hispanics born in the Estados Unidos) and Mexicans (people who were born in Mexico) are just a few of the cultures that have some version of the Spanish language in common -- which is like making the debatable generalization that Scotland, Alabama and Australia share the same language. The branches of the tree planted by Columbus and the conquistadors often have more differences than similarities, and there are rivalries and prejudices between Latino cultures that make the petty North-South or East-West or Dallas-Houston differences north of the Rio Grande pale by comparison. The challenge facing the Basics, according to Olivarez, is "When this is played in Mexico City people won't say, "Who's that fucking Chicano from the other side trying to do our music?" The intention was that if they heard it they'd like it so much that when they find out we're from Houston, they'll say, "I still like them anyway because they respect the language.'"

The reaction of educated, cosmopolitan Mexicans to the fractured Spanglish of third- and fourth-generation Chicanos is much like that of a suave Bostonian's to a rural Southerner. But the rewards for respecting the language and overcoming the resistance to bands from "up there" may be richer than those sought by a typical Houston rock band whose goal is to make it in New York or L.A.

Olivarez explains: "Even though Mexico has always been a leader in the arts, they would take some boneheaded pop song from the States, change the words to Spanish, and that was their rock. But over the years they've been cultivating and writing [and] they have some killer rock bands that will rival anybody." Drawing parallels between Seattle and Mexico City, Olivarez described a scene that started out raw and underground, was advertised by word of mouth and played only on college stations, then evolved into a mainstream industry that feeds one of the largest music markets in the world. MTV's Spanish network, MTV Internacional, has more viewers than the U.S., Canadian and European MTV markets combined.

The Basics started out as a couple of guys -- Olivarez and veteran guitarist/songwriter Artie Villasenor, long-time friends who had been musicians most of their lives. After years on the bar-band circuit, Olivarez had gone back into theater, citing "band problems, egos, club owners, on down the line ... I was just sick of it. [Artie] was sick of 20 years of playing in Tejano and cover bands. He saw this as a chance to start writing music and work with me as a frontman and a writer. We put together quite a few songs -- the bug hit me again. Artie's a great guitar player, a well-kept secret in this town. We started doing some gigs and it just went from there."

Four years, two albums, a Bud Dry sponsorship, a suicidally underfinanced road-trip to California and numerous lineup changes later, the Basics are still evolving as they move forward. They've established a local fan base that reflects some of their eventual goals -- Anglos who like the songs in English and are inquisitive about what's being sung in Spanish while enjoying the beat behind both languages, and what Oliverez describes as "English-speaking Chicanos who listen to U.S. rock and roll and think Spanish means Tejano, salsa, norteno, mariachi. They take a certain pride, a chicanisimo, listening to rock in their language."

Of course, during the balloting for the Houston Press Music Awards, the rock band with a couple of Chicanos and some songs in Spanish got nominated for Best Tejano. The Basics' latest self-produced album, Cruzado, belies that mislabeling. There's little here that brings to mind big hats and rodeo belt buckles. The accordion work by Bodeans' keyboardist Michael Ramos leaves no traces of a mariachi band as it meshes smoothly with Villasenor's seasoned rock guitar. The jazzy instrumental "Is It True?" is delightfully Santana-esque, but the balance of the tunes, even when it's rock en espanol, are still just rock and roll. That's not just a bad pun; Cruzado's main disappointment is Olivarez's translation of the Stones' "It's Only Rock & Roll," which is inexplicably marred by the juxtaposition of Spanish lyrics with English background vocals. Even the multiculturally deficient fan will recognize this classic chestnut; surely "I like it, I like it" could not have been that difficult to translate.

That one flawed cover is quickly overshadowed by the all-original remainder of the album. Yeah, it's formula rock with some unique twists, but that's what the market responds to. Searing guitars, rollicking keyboards, pounding rhythm, shouted and snarled vocals, all done well enough that the Basics' goal of becoming a bicultural phenomenon suddenly seems plausible enough. Even those whose tastes may have strayed over the years from good ol' rock and roll will instantly recognize Cruzado as the direct descendant of the music that was their first love -- and perhaps wish they had taken better notes while taking "Spanish 101."

Live, the Basics are a bit more complex. Like most Houston bands, they've been through some extensive lineup changes during their development. Veteran drummer-about-town Robbie Parrish, who produced both Cruzado and the earlier Sonido Basico, has replaced Richard Suarez on the kit. The percussion role filled on Cruzado by a quartet of studio musicians is now handled by Joseph Jackson, whose enthusiasm for Afro-Caribbean rhythms adds a world-beat flavor to the Basics' already danceable sound. And blues pianist Marie English, mentored by such local legends as Big Walter Price and Teddy Reynolds, recently surprised her local fans by joining up with the Basics after Alvin native Ramos returned to his touring obligations.

Ironically, despite the Hispanic heritage of the band's co-founders, the Basics' two most recent additions -- a black man and a blond woman -- seem to be the forces driving the live Latino deviations from the band's recorded rock offerings. After discovering similar origins in church music and other mutual influences, Jackson and English have enlivened recent appearances with percussion and piano segues into Cuban rhythms. According to English -- after mentioning that she is taking Spanish lessons "so I'll know what I'm singing" and that she's looking around for a good used accordion -- "Everyone brings a little bit of themselves into it. It's gonna change as we go."

Exactly where the Basics are going is uncertain. The two CDs on the band's private Tormenta label are being shopped around by Rutt-Tanner, their management firm. While negotiations drag on, the Basics are busy writing and recording new material for the band and other Parrish-produced side projects. One of those is a jazzy, Jeff Beck-ish combo called Sancho that features Villasenor, Parrish, Jackson, English and bassist Jeff Balke, another post-Cruzado addition to the Basics. Another project in the works is a studio session featuring the new songs English brought with her to the band.

Like any local band, the Basics wouldn't mind signing with a major label. In the meantime, there's still this problem with misidentification at home. "We get labeled," Olivarez says, "but if people come see the show they come out with a grin on their face. That's what it's all about.


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