Ever since his band Chango Jackson switched from singing in English to Spanish and later changed its name from Moscas, guitarist-singer Chango Van Jackson has felt a new freedom, but also discovered an ardent desire to do something that has never been done before.
"I'd been real disappointed with English music," he says, as he pours himself a glass of St. Arnold from a pitcher. We're at the Rice Village-area bar Under the Volcano, which with its Day of the Dead theme seems a singularly appropriate place to talk to a band that sings about Frida Kahlo.
"With rock en español you can do whatever the hell you want," Chango Van continues. "There's never been a Spanish-language musician that's really done anything new. There's never been a Hendrix, no Doors, nothing. It's all pop. Not that I think that we are gonna be such a great thing and be the first really original band in Spanish, but no one else has, either. Fuck it, why can't it be us?"
And it is hard to say who or what Chango Jackson sounds like. They sure as hell don't sound like Maná or any of the other Mexican rock bands that have copied them. Elements of jazz, metal, rock, hip-hop and ska collide in a caldo that is all their own, one that bassist-singer Mojo Jackson has dubbed "cock rock for the new millennium." It's not surprising that they're having a hard time selecting singles from their upcoming self-titled album. All of the grooves are caramel-sticky and the melodies hang around long after the disc stops spinning, but right now they have it narrowed down to the ska-like, horn-driven "Sana Sana" and to the Rage Against the Machine-like "Speak English," which actually is a defense of the right to speak Spanish.
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The writing of "Speak English" was inspired by Ted Nugent's 2000 concert/ tirade at the Woodlands Pavilion in which he told Hispanics to learn English or "get the fuck out of America." Nugent's remarks divided the band. Chango Van sided with Nugent's view, while Mojo, who pens all the band's lyrics, says that the fundamental right to freedom of speech applies not just to what is said but also to what language is used. At any rate, Mojo's view is declared in both languages, as the song's chorus runs thusly: "No quiero hablar inglés / I don't wanna speak no motherfuckin' inglés."
Other Chango Jackson highlights include the heavy metalish "La Lana Gana," a lambasting of telenovelas and the women who believe their messages of miraculous transformation, and the jazz-funk album opener, which features the flute of Bob Chadwick and is so reminiscent of War that you can practically hear the Afros growing. Then there's a hard-driving, raplike ode to Frida Kahlo's artistic drive, not to mention a polka about their testicles.
A polka? About their balls? Mention of the song brings up memories of one show in Chicago a few years back.
"We showed up there dressed in the worst cowboy getups we could find," remembers Chango Van. "There was some real rockers in there, leather jackets and the whole bit, and they were really staring at us. And we opened up with the polka. There was this big 'What the hell?' from the crowd "
"We played the polka and just walked off-stage," interjects Mojo.
"You could hear random people like, 'Do we clap or what?' " continues Chango Van. "And then we went back on stage and did the rest of the show."
The band uses lots of different themes for their shows. Their default setting is pimp regalia -- band lore has it that Mojo, Chango Van, guitarist Jaco and drummer Smokey Jackson are half-brothers, all fathered by an obscure Funk Brothers bassist with a weakness for Mexican women. (In reality, Mojo is Faustino Ortega and Chango Van is his former Moscas bandmate Moises Alanis.) They also have taken the stage in chemical suits and gas masks, and at another gig they threw tamales to the crowd. Most shows these days find wild guitarist Jaco with a new message painted on his guitar (sometimes it's Alice in Chains song lyrics, another time it simply read, "Houston bands suck") and wearing a dress, a couple of costume jewelry necklaces and a wig.
"He has three or four different dresses now," says Mojo. "People tend to focus on him. We're busy singing and he's over there having fun and doing shit on stage."
Like Los Skarnales, the band has toured Mexico a fair bit, albeit thus far only as Moscas. To paraphrase the ad campaign about Texas, Mexico is like a whole other world. They started finding out how different it was at the border crossing in Laredo.
"You can only take one instrument per band member," says Chango Van. "We didn't know -- we took all our shit. And they were like, 'Where are you going with that?' They wanted like a $5,000 deposit so we wouldn't sell all our instruments down there. We had to make some phone calls to Monterrey to make sure we had a PA, and we left the equipment at a friend's house in Laredo."
Chango Van says you have to look around the house and see which type of crowd you've got when you're playing south of the border. "There's two types of crowds down there," he says. "There's the rockero crowd with the black shirts and all that, and there's the fresa crowd, Mexican yuppie types. Fresas are very trendy, but if you're good, they'll dig it too. They'll also let you know if they're not into it."
Other Mexican oddities include a preference for cover bands over original acts and the fact that Mexican crowds love to pelt bands with lemons, oranges and wet napkins wadded into giant spitballs.
According to Mojo, there's also a bright side. "If you get stopped by a cop, you just give him $3," he jokes.
The band is somewhat apprehensive about returning to Mexico. Their sound has evolved since they were last there; they didn't have the dream yet of going boldly where no rockeros have gone before. Meanwhile, they're focused on getting this album out -- it was four years of studios closing and managers and drummers getting fired in the making -- and crossing the language barrier here in Houston.
"We've done several shows in Anglo bars in Houston, and we've always done well," says Chango Van. "We always sell more product at them, but the clubs and promoters don't want to take that risk. They'd rather put us on an all-Spanish night or not book us at all. I know from experience that we go over well, but they still don't want to take the chance."
Most of the between-song banter is in English, and many times at Los Lobos and Blazers shows, Anglos will sit through those bands' English-language tunes and dance when they turn to Spanish. And how much of the lyrics can you decipher at most rock shows anyway? What's the problem?
It's a big one for Chango Jackson, still. "Playing clubs like that is the only way we can get a new audience," Chango Van says. "Playing Spanish rock nights, we just see the same people over and over."
But at long last the album is coming out, and the band has landed a sponsorship deal with Budweiser. That funding arrangement almost got off to a bad start when a careening Jaco came close to crashing into the Bud logo guitar they feature prominently on stage as part of the deal.
"We get this sponsorship and he almost breaks the guitar first gig," says Mojo, shaking his head.
But if a gringo beer company has gotten on board, can the Anglos who drink it be far behind?
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