Brothers in Arms
It's a sharp, almost violent drop leading to the back entrance of Beeloe's bar.
Down a steep flight of concrete stairs just off Mill Avenue -- currently teeming with baggy-pantsed high schoolers out for some Friday night cruising -- past a silver-painted door, and you're inside the club.
Inside, the stage is set lower than the entranceway floor. To get close to the music, you have to be willing to descend into it, which makes for an especially apt metaphor.
At the moment, Beeloe's is steeped in a sound many would brand as "ambient jungle music." But the style has a proper name: It's an old Afro-Cuban dance rhythm called a guaguanco, part of the rumba family. Tonight, Beeloe's might as well be a side-door juke joint in the Caribbean; the bubbling, sweat-soaked atmosphere filling the place simmers like tropical heat.
It's just after midnight and the Chicano Power Revival Orchestra has started to hit its stride. For the past two hours, band members have been doing what they're best known for, pinballing back and forth between a bevy of musical styles and generally creating a sense of unhinged euphoria in their audience.
Pressed against the foot of the stage is an unlikely assortment of characters: young, single Latinas in high heels and black dresses; aging bearded hippies in flowery shirts; leather-clad couples out for a night on the town. All of them, of course, dancing furiously.
Later, when the first few notes of a Mexican drinking song called "Por Ellas" ring out, there's a grab for bottles and glasses to hoist in the air. The cantina vocals and call-and-response chorus have made the number a crowd-pleaser, if not something of a signature tune. As the shimmying masses erupt in the song's Spanish refrain -- "For the ladies!" -- there seems little point in resisting, so you join in.
At the center of this boozy mayhem is keyboardist and bandleader Raul Yáñez. Resplendent in a dark, well-tailored suit, he's doing his own little dance steps in place, occasionally looking over his shoulder at the band to signal a cue or change. The rest of the 11-piece outfit is in various states of action: rhythm players keeping the groove, the horn section harmonizing licks, percussionists driving madly at the beat.
Introducing a beautifully stoned jazz-funk excursion, Yáñez raises his fist into the air: "This one is called 'Sigue Tis Sueños, Hermano' -- 'Follow Your Dream, Brother.'"
Since 1999 -- depending on the particular moment -- CPR has been the best Latin band, dance group and jazz combo in the Valley. Unwilling to confine themselves to any one genre -- often convincingly covering a dozen Mexican styles alone in the course of a set -- they've chosen instead to embrace a ferocious brand of alchemy that few would even dare flirt with.
Such willful eclecticism has cost them some small things along the way, but like the dreamer in the song, Raul Yáñez has always had bigger things in mind.
A few days later and a few blocks up Mill Avenue, Raul Yáñez is standing in the dining room of RA sushi restaurant, waving wildly.
It's hard to see or hear anything in the darkened, noisy eatery, as speakers blaring the latest pop hits compete with the rising din of drunken sorority girls at the bar.
With a thin mustache and shock of black hair, Yáñez could easily pass for an old revolutionary soldier in some sepia-tinted photo, if not for the warm, soft features of his face.
Tracking Yáñez down can be quite a chore. With his multiple duties as a teacher and grad student at ASU, a high school band conductor, a church music director and in-demand composer, the endless succession of 16-hour work days leaves little time for anything except the occasional bit of bed rest.
But it's a relaxed Sunday night in Tempe and Yáñez has finally decided to give himself a break, joining his fiancée, Gloria, for a buffet of salmon rolls and Sapporo beer.
Yáñez's courtly manner belies his intense passion for music -- a subject he eats, breathes, sleeps and speaks about with an unshakable conviction.
For Valley musos, Yáñez's name should be a familiar one. The multi-instrumentalist has been a consummate sideman in recent years, playing backup roles with venerable turntablist DJ Radar, the East Valley Big Band, rock experimentalists Yearofthemule and even hitting the road as part of disco divas Sister Sledge's touring combo.
Yáñez is just through recounting some memorable tales of the three years he spent playing the Asian jazz circuit in the mid-'90s, when his two younger brothers and fellow CPR bandmates arrive.
Like Raul, both brothers possess round features and gentle demeanors. The shy Xavier teaches band and choir at Santa Maria Middle School in West Phoenix, while the younger, more talkative George is still a student at ASU -- where he recently switched majors from music to political science with an eye toward someday becoming an attorney.
"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.
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.
Among those taking part in the proceedings were a collective of talented percussionists and horn players -- many of them fellow jazzniks in the ASU music department.
From the outset, the parping trumpets of George Yáñez and Peter "Papa Verde" Green and the warm brass of saxophonist Jake Gabow and trombonist Steve McAllister served as the catalyst for the band's rich, sinuous groove.
"The horn section has been there from the beginning," Raul says. "Also, with the horns, the improvisational element is essential. Being skilled jazz guys, not only can they change things up in the middle of a song, but they can switch it up on the fly. They're extremely versatile."
With cascading polyrhythms also at the forefront of the band's sound, CPR is able to captivate listeners with a varied percussive attack that keeps audiences both listening and dancing.
"I really see what we're doing as a tribal thing," Raul says. "Sometimes we'll play the same groove over and over, and it becomes a trance -- similar to electronic music movements like drum 'n' bass or even hip-hop. That goes back to a primal thing, all the way back to the roots in Africa. And we're the same. But we're just using different rhythms."
While there is a progressive, barrier-breaking element to the band, at its foundation CPR is rooted in a bedrock of classics, with songs that reference the work of Latin jazz piano titan Eddie Palmieri, congueros like Ray Barretto and his famed Fania Allstars and the even the frenetic dance vibe of Tito Puente during his great Tico records period.
If there is a single defining element to the band, however, it might well be the grit 'n' gravel quality of lead singer Leon Santiago's voice. Santiago -- a Puerto Rican native -- was performing with local rock combo Blacksheepchoir when Raul Yáñez first approached him about CPR.
For many, Santiago's feral growl and back-of-the-throat singing style will conjure up memories of a young José Feliciano, or perhaps even Joe Cocker. Others will be reminded of a pair of fellow Puerto Ricans, Mon Rivera and Angel Canales. Like Santiago, both were distinctive and irreverent vocalists with a cheeky flair. (Santiago, on occasion, has been moved to sing Bob Marley lyrics over classic Chicano tunes.)
As CPR's weekend jams became more focused, the band decided to move things from the living room to the stage. Rather than chance it on the local Latin circuit -- where the band's eclectic style would likely have had audiences shaking their heads instead of their asses -- the group looked to a more welcoming arena, the East Valley's rock and roots clubs: the Green Room, Lucky Dragon, Nita's Hideaway, Beeloe's.
"For a group like CPR, rock clubs were a natural environment," says longtime Valley promoter and Nita's impresario Charlie Levy. "The expectation in a traditional Latin club or bar is different. They want to hear covers and familiar sounding dance music, so they aren't into the adventurousness of a band like CPR. But with rock audiences who are used to -- and even expecting -- original music, it was much easier for them to get a foothold."
Quickly, the band found favor with younger, ethnically mixed crowds, who weren't afraid to express themselves in their own unique way.
"When you come to our shows, you see Mexicans, Chicanos, the whole Latino gamut is there," Raul says. "But when we play a place like Nita's, for example, there are times when you've got punk guys jumping around or hip-hoppers breakdancing up front. I love that. I love the fact that people feel free to do what they want and dance how they want when we play."
The group's decision not to cower to club owners demanding tired covers of "La Bamba" and "Oy Ye Como Va" had paid off, teaching Raul what he says was a crucial lesson about the fickle nature of popular taste.
"Being in CPR, I've learned something important," he observes. "The bottom line with music is if it's played well and played with conviction, people are going to like it."
Despite the band's early success, Chicano Power Revival hasn't had an entirely easy time of things. Among the problems it has faced has been an all too common misconception regarding the band's name. To some, the moniker is seen as an inflammatory or exclusionary political statement.
"One club called and told us we had to change the name if we wanted to play because, he said, 'How would you feel if I had a band called White Power Revival?'" Raul says. "We've had things like beer company sponsorships fall through, or gigs where people have pulled out because they were scared off by the name. The whole thing is ironic because we're one of the most open-minded and inclusive Latin bands around. We play all kinds of music and all kinds of people come to see us."
Still, CPR's music is suffused with political undertones, like those found in their reading of Little Joe's tejano anthem "Las Nubes" -- a pivotal social song detailing the plight of farm workers -- or in original compositions like "Unidos Mi Raza" (United My People).
The Puerto Rican-born Santiago, for one, initially balked at singing the tune. "He was like, 'What does this song mean? I can't sing this, I'm not Chicano,'" recalls Raul. "But when I was writing that I wasn't thinking of just Chicanos."
Santiago and Yáñez would sit down together and tweak the wording so that the lyrics would reference a bringing together, not just of "my people," but of all disenfranchised Latinos.
"For us the word 'Chicano' means something else, something deeper," explains George Yáñez of the confusion surrounding the name. "Sure, in the '60s and '70s it was more of a revolutionary-type thing. But the way we were thinking of Chicano is the actual Mexican meaning of the word, which describes poor people or working-class people. If you look back at something like mariachi music, it came about in the early 19th century so that poor people who couldn't afford to go hear 'legitimate music' in concert halls could enjoy music as well. It was about making music accessible."
In terms of logistics and economics, keeping an 11-piece orchestra funded and gigging has presented its own unique set of challenges and sacrifices. Most nights, the group members go home with far less than they might otherwise make playing high-dollar resort and hotel gigs.
"They're definitely making a sacrifice to play with CPR," says Raul of his bandmates. "Because these guys are so talented, they could easily be making more doing something else. But they have such a respect for the music that I think they'd do it for free if they had to."
"I've made good money playing music," he adds, recalling his profitable stints as a hired hand touring Asia. "But I'd rather be broke doing this, something I love."
CPR's kinship is rooted not only in a common love for the music, but also in a love of teaching music. Nine of the 11 members of CPR are involved in music education in one form or another, many at the middle or high school levels.
Raul himself has been getting up at 5 a.m. each morning to conduct the Marcos de Niza High School band as part of his master's program.
"No matter where you look in music, people do it because they love it. Teaching music, especially, you have to have a passion for it. Because you're definitely not going to get rich from it," he says, chuckling.
"But one of the things I learned from my dad is that music is all about learning. The learning never stops. With music, every time you think you know something, another door opens up."
Like the portrait that graces the cover of CPR's forthcoming CD, the music contained inside is a vibrant slapdash of color and style, a furious aural collage of old and new that puts them in middle of the broad nexus somewhere between Cachao and Ozomatli.
In the winter of 2000-2001, the band set itself up at Clarke Rigsby's Tempe Tempest studios for a series of loose but productive live sessions. Rigsby, whose own credits include a long list of well-known jazz, Latin and big bands, is effusive in his praise of the group.
After a nearly a year of delays, the CPR Orchestra's much anticipated debut, Chicano Power Revival, is finally set for release next month on Yáñez's own Rrrrr Records label. (The group plans to mark the occasion with a CD-release party on April 5 at Beeloe's.)
The 11-song disc is a compilation of sorts, gathering a mix of originals the band has catalogued since its inception. From the organic piano and percussion opener "Tabula Rasa" to the Marvin Gaye-goes-salsero experiment "La Vid Sin Amor," the album is a broad, bold statement that veers wildly and beautifully, not just song to song, but moment by moment.
"It's going to take people with open minds to really understand the record," says Raul. "'Cause it jumps, man. It will jump from a rock feel to a salsa feel or salsa feel to a Brazilian flavor just like that. But whatever we do we try to respect all the styles. We've really spend time studying the music of all the cultures and pay as much respect to them as we can."
In addition to the band's core unit, the disc benefits from the talents of several gifted local luminaries, among them Navajo/world beat percussionist Tony Redhouse and renowned tubaist Sam Pilafian, who's worked with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Pink Floyd. Both leave memorable sonic imprints: Pilafian with his infectious oom-pahs and Redhouse with the moody Native chanting that closes the disc.
CPR has already amassed more than enough material for a follow-up, which Raul says will likely explore new areas. It's not clear exactly what the next step will be, but with Yáñez brother Xavier bringing a healthy passion for tejano and ranchero music, things may head in a more classic Mexican direction. There's even been talk of opening a few shows as a stripped-down mariachi combo.
"We could go wild and just make whole albums of just one style. Just do a whole album of traditional Mexican music," says Raul. "Or just do a whole album of real organic, ambient percussion and piano pieces. I just have all these crazy ideas that I want to try and accomplish."
One opportunity that may yet break Yáñez into the national spotlight is his collaboration with DJ Radar. Last year, Yáñez helped compose the DJ's groundbreaking "Concerto for Turntable," which the pair performed alongside the ASU Symphony Orchestra. Radar is currently in talks to set up a tour (in conjunction with MTV) that may take the DJ-symphony showcase across the country.
Despite his many activities, Yáñez's heart obviously lies with CPR. It's clear he feels a profoundly personal -- and no doubt, familial -- bond with the group and its music.
"It's like the song 'Follow Your Dream, Brother,'" Raul says. "I wrote that for my brother George. It's about not giving up on the possibilities of life. Even though I wrote it for him, it applies to me and this band as well. Playing with CPR, it really feels like I am following my dream."
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