Brothers in Arms

Chicano Power Revival brilliantly crosses cultural boundaries with its wildly eclectic grooves

"We've already got him negotiating contracts for the band," chides Raul.

Hearing the brothers' genetic harmonies and authentic feel for their musical roots, it makes sense that the Yáñez clan is only one generation removed from the family's home in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Living there in the early '70s, Raul Yáñez's father, Raul Sr., was an engineering student and aspiring musician when he first met future wife Diane during a gig in the small New Mexico mining community of Silver City.

The elder Yáñez would stay in New Mexico, marrying his sweetheart and raising a family of four sons. (the youngest Yáñez brother, Julian, is still in high school).

Listening to him talk about his childhood, it's clear Raul Jr.'s dedication is rooted in those early years watching his father struggle to make the transition as a new immigrant in America.

"He was a very hard worker," he says. "I mean, when you move to a different country and you don't speak the language, the only way you can survive is to work hard. My dad taught us that."

To support his young family, the elder Yáñez worked as a jack-of-all-trades -- plumber, electrician, custodian -- while his wife held various administrative jobs. A tireless work ethic wasn't the only thing the boys inherited.

"Our mother's side of the family were all painters; they had a custom body shop in Silver City. And my father's side of the family were all musicians."

Their father exposed the children to the joys of music early on, setting them up on piano and guitar before they'd even reached kindergarten. Before long, the Yáñez kids were accompanying their father to weekend gigs, backing him at religious festivals, weddings and quinceañeras.

Growing up in Silver City, a small but overwhelmingly Latino suburb of Santa Clara -- the kind of place where, as Raul jokingly puts it, "even the white people all spoke Spanish" -- the brothers became steeped in the rich cultural and ethnic heritage of their ancestors.

"But," adds Yáñez, "when it came to music, my father was very open-minded and he gave that to his kids. He didn't just expose us to Hispanic music or traditional music only. I remember him giving me a record of Wes Montgomery, turning me onto [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Chick Corea, you name it."

A gifted and precocious talent -- he was writing his own charts by the time he reached elementary school -- young Raul developed into something of zealot, spending endless hours hunched over his piano. "All I ever did was practice," he remembers, laughing. "If I'd had a refrigerator and a toilet by my side, I would have never left my room."

Before he'd turned 17, Raul had already earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. The fledgling bandleader was planning to attend the Massachusetts school after graduation, when -- during a jazz competition -- he caught the eye of Arizona State University jazz professor Chuck Marohnic.

"I was impressed. He had natural ability, but more importantly, it was obvious he'd been doing a lot of listening," remembers Marohnic, who would go on to mentor Raul. "He knew about the jazz idiom and had made a real effort to make it happen for himself."

Choosing to attend ASU, Raul would study in Tempe for three years before deciding to pack it up for a bit of adventure in the Far East. Returning to ASU to complete his degree in the late '90s, he found brother George had also arrived on campus to study music.

In the summer of '99 -- amid the facile Latin-pop explosion of Ricky Martin -- Raul began to feel his roots tug at him. Having performed with all manner of bands -- from jazz to rock to country -- he suddenly felt himself a child again, itching to play the music of his father: rancheras, corridos, boleros, cumbias. He envisioned a group that would merge traditional Hispanic styles with South American dance rhythms, a heavy percussive attack and wrap it all up in a package of improvisational jazz.

But the ambitious and broad-minded Yáñez was quickly put off by the rigid divisions within the Valley's Latin music scene -- a place where such disparate genres rarely, if ever, mixed.

Even more discouraging than the musical segregation was the slavish adherence of many Latin nightclubs to a "covers only" policy that discouraged any attempt at original work.

"The idea of doing covers, it just seemed like a dead end to me," he says. "So I just started writing my own songs, and after a while -- even though I knew it would be hard -- I decided, what the hell, I'll put a Latin band together."


"The whole thing started as a party," remembers CPR trumpeter George Yáñez of the group's formation.

Younger brother George was among the family, friends and neighbors who would regularly turn up at Raul Yáñez's place for the house party-cum-jam-sessions that spawned the group.

"He'd make a bunch of food and we'd just have a good time. We'd be eating, drinking and he'd tell the guys 'Hey, I wrote this song.' The next thing you know we'd all start jamming together," he remembers.

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