By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
Gustavo Angeles had every reason to feel sorry for himself.
The sudden closing of the two Altos Bistros last month brought an abrupt end to a nearly yearlong gig for Angeles' traditional Latin group, Cascabel, the Spanish restaurant's weekend house band. It temporarily left Angeles without a venue to showcase his skills. But it's not in Angeles' nature to mope, so the 30-year-old guitarist asked Steve Moreno, a chef at Altos, to come to his house in West Phoenix on a Saturday evening to cook paella, a Spanish meal of seafood and rice, for his friends and family. He even invited bandmate Quetzal Guerrero, who at 20 is already a veteran of the Valley's Latin music scene.
The evening could have been a setting for a Spanish movie, with different themes and colors vividly decorating each part of the house. The main course was followed by dessert, coffee and guitars. Guerrero led Angeles through the basic chords of a traditional Brazilian capoeira song and, in no time, the Angeles residence had been converted, for one night at least, to Altos West.
If Angeles is good at adjusting to adversity, he's had a lot of practice. Although he's an uncommonly gifted instrumentalist, Angeles's story is not an uncommon one among local Latino players. A Mexican immigrant energized by the explosive rock en español movement, he struggled to find his niche in a local music scene where being a Chicano band that sang in Spanish made you an oddity on the rock circuit, and playing cranked-up, distorted guitars jolted Tejano and mariachi fans in Latino bars. Now, with the rock en español scene having lost much of its local steam, he's moved back to the traditional, acoustic Mexican fare he heard in his youth because that represents his best shot at making a living as a musician in Phoenix.
Angeles and Guerrero have been close since meeting five years ago when their former bands shared a bill on Hispanic Day at the county fair. Angeles was playing guitar for rock en español favorites Casa de Locos, a band that was head and shoulders above the other bands in a small but growing Spanish rock scene.
Angeles' musical direction began to shift once he was asked to perform regularly with Gato Loco, a bunch of young Chicanos barely in their teens. His social circle also began to expand as he played more upscale gigs, and he developed relationships with the Valley's top musicians.
Gato Loco favored a mixture of Santana covers, hip-hop and funk, a distinct move away from the hard rock that Angeles had been dishing out with Casa de Locos. With Gato Loco, and subsequently Vibra, a more sophisticated Latin jazz outfit, Angeles was able to demonstrate the expansive repertoire he had developed during his formative years as a musician in Mexico.
For Angeles, playing music as a child simply meant following in the family tradition. Though he never met him, Angeles's maternal grandfather was a trumpet player, violinist and an accomplished sculptor. He also had a great-aunt who was a guitarist, something that encouraged Angeles' older brothers to pick up the instrument. He remembers that he first attempted to play the guitar when he was 11.
"I would watch my older brothers play the guitar, and then I would play it when they were away from the house. My brother [Eduardo] was an artist," Angeles says proudly, but with an understated demeanor. "He was a painter and a sculptor and he worked with silver and gold, making jewelry, all kinds of stuff." "Lalo," as he was called, passed away eight years ago at the age of 32. He'd played in a blues band in Mexico, often taking the impressionable, pint-sized Gustavo to his band's gigs. His death was the inspiration for Gustavo's tender instrumental piece, "Te Extraño (I Miss You)."
Like his brother, Angeles became a professional musician. At 18, he joined a Mexican cover band that played three sets nightly. "It was like being in three bands at once," he recalls. The music went from slow Santana covers and jazz standards to a middle set of American Top 40. The night would end with a blistering set of salsa, cumbia and anything else that would get patrons dancing. Angeles had the daunting task of learning 60 songs in two weeks, which proved to be too much for the young musician. "They kicked me out, man," he says.
But the experience, like many others in his life, proved to be valuable. "The bass player told me I could play the rock songs pretty good but that I needed to go to school. He also told me that I wouldn't make any money playing only rock music." These words would prove to be prophetic for Angeles. Determined to have a career in music, he enrolled in a prestigious Mexico City music school whose alumni includes members of Luis Miguel's backing band. For two years, he studied harmony, arrangement and jazz improvisation.
When his family moved to the United States in 1992, he stayed behind to pursue a dream of playing the exciting and lucrative Cancún club circuit. One memorable gig included playing in a topless club where his band alternated sets with the dancers, a story reminiscent of what Carlos Santana experienced as a youth in Tijuana. He smiles when he mentions that he got to warm up in the dancers' dressing room. His band then auditioned for a better-paying gig at the Hog's Breath Saloon, beating out 10 other groups. These and other high-paying gigs afforded him the luxury of a spacious apartment that he shared with his drummer. "We got to know Yucatán real good," he says.