Trials and Tribu-lations

"'It's coming,' she finally explained. 'Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.' " Thus said a villager in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was describing the arrival of the first-ever train in the village of Macondo. The description could very well describe the sound of Austin's 14-piece salsa orchestra La Tribu. The band members might even agree with it, if they weren't so awestruck themselves.

While it's every working band's dream to make the Rolling Stone charts, they usually have some prior indication of it. So imagine their surprise when the members of La Tribu flipped open the April 26 issue to find their debut record, ¡Ataca! (Music Lane), resting comfortably at No. 17.

"I was pretty shocked, but it was great," remembers saxophonist and bandleader Carlos Sosa. "To have that kind of success was very [rewarding]."

Sure, the chart was a guest one submitted by Waterloo Records in the band's hometown. And it happened to be the only week that the band appeared on it. But it's still a quick start for an ad hoc group of musicians who began playing together on a weekly basis only last year. The fact that those Wednesday-night sessions took place at Antone's, Austin's ancestral home of the blues, is just another quirk in the unfolding story of La Tribu.

"We don't have any formula for doing things, but we really did find the right people for this band," Sosa says. "There's so many different influences just among the players that we just try and perform and record good songs whether it's straight Latin or whatever."

Indeed, the 11 tracks (in English and Spanish) that constitute ¡Ataca! run the gamut of Latin styles and feelings, from the monstrous mambo-inducing title track to the elegance of "Tú Vas a Saber" to the romanticism of "Sylvia" to the dance workout of "Lo de Nosotros." Lest you think La Tribu is for the salsa purist only, there are also vestiges of disco ("Dark and Dangerous"), rock (Scabs holdover "Tarantula") and even humor ("La Tuna"). So while Ricky, J. Lo, Enrique and gringos like 98 Degrees may give pouty lip service to melding Latin and American music, La Tribu's unique synthesis -- best experienced live -- is worthier of serious consideration.

"I know there's a lot of people who like Latin music in Houston. I just hope they find out about us, because we're not playing a [traditional] venue for it," Sosa says, referring to the band's gigs at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. "And we've found that Houston audiences have been great for us so far, more like home. But not Dallas. Dallas sucks."

La Tribu is the direct manifestation of Sosa's long-held dream; the group is years in the making despite a seemingly organic creation. Though born in Paraguay, he grew up in San Antonio, absorbing that city's rich heritage of conjunto, Tejano and salsa. But those monster-big funk and soul orchestras of the '70s, like the Ohio Players, Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire moved him, too. He began blowing sax and playing in bands at age 15. In high school he met Raul Vallejo and Fernando Castillo, a trombone and trumpet player, respectively, who would later return to the story.

While attending college at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, Sosa made pilgrimages to Austin's fabled Sixth Street to soak up the music and sit in when he could. After graduation, he moved to the city and again hooked up with Vallejo and Castillo. Dubbing themselves the Grooveline Horns, the trio began picking up work with local acts, including a tour with a promising jam band, the Ugly Americans, after that group signed with Capricorn.

Things would not pan out for the Uglies, though, and front man Bob Schneider folded the horns into the Scabs. At first a side project, the nonet (with members nattily attired in suits) is probably the only rock/funk/ska/salsa/rap/Tex-Mex/ country/doo-wop group, one equally notorious for its pornographic song titles ("Big Butts and Blow Jobs," "I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy") as its unpredictable live shows (see "Scabba-Dabba Doo," by Bob Ruggiero, May 6, 1999).

"I know there were a number of times I wanted to quit….It was like a big joke band," Sosa says looking back. "And it was very unorganized, at least [in the beginning]."

Yearning to play something closer to his vision, Sosa began rallying his allies from around Austin, slowly piecing together his dream orchestra. Calling their first official rehearsal in March 2000, the musicians had, within months, landed the Antone's gig and then began recording tracks for ¡Ataca! It helped, of course, that Sosa co-owns a recording studio.

Sosa specifically went to Antone's management after learning through bitter experience that Austin's Latin clubs didn't measure up. "Players would bust their asses playing happy-hour gigs for no money, and those clubs came with a lot of rules," he says. "Then they would charge these huge $10 covers at night, pack the place because of the band, and then only give them like $1,000. I wanted to do better."

And better they have done, though their lineup has shifted slightly. Just for the record (get out yer score cards!), the current lineup, in addition to the Grooveline Horns, includes Rey Arteaga (vocals, maracas); Tito Duffus (vocals, guiro); Christian Fernandez (vocals); David Pulkingham (vocals, guitar); Luis Guerra (vocals, bass); percussionists Carmelo Torres, Michael Duffy and Jose Galeano; Mark Gonzales (trombone); Paul Armstrong (trumpet); and Scott McIntosh (sax).

It's McIntosh -- writer or co-writer of most of the tracks -- whom Sosa refers to as the band's "saving grace" on the record, bringing in both his songs and his jazzier, Count Basie-style influence.

As for Sosa's other band, let's just say the Scabs may have been picked for the last time. The critical acclaim for Schneider's Lonelyland has put his solo career into orbit. It also doesn't hurt that Schneider's girlfriend is an Austin resident and actress by the name of Sandra Bullock. (Hey! Remember that Lenny Kravitz first won fame for dating a Cosby kid!)

"The Scabs' days are definitely numbered. The next show in Houston is billed as 'The Bob Schneider Band featuring the Grooveline Horns,' " says Sosa, who thinks his bandmate will find even bigger success, perhaps fronting a large Lyle Lovett-style group. "I go way back with him, and he'll make it … but I'm going to start doing my own thing now."

In typical fashion, Sosa's wasting no time. La Tribu has already been booked on a short European tour, including a concert series in London's Hyde Park, which he notes will also feature acts ranging from Radiohead to Sting to Tom Jones. Singer Arteaga continues to visit Cuba and build friendships with members of the Buena Vista Social Club. And the band has begun putting together material for the second record, which Sosa hopes will feature guest appearances by Schneider, Kim Wilson and guitar whizzes Ian Moore and Eric Johnson.

"The next record will be more song-oriented," he says, hinting at a less overtly straight-Latin approach. "The band is still trying to find its identity," he says with a laugh.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero