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.
But he began to miss his family, who strongly urged him to follow them to the United States. He also wanted to play something more original. In Cancún, he felt like a musical gun for hire, a rented musician, not unlike the mariachis anxiously standing in line to be hired for the next fiesta.
Nonetheless, he was reluctant to come to America, and for the first two months after arriving in Phoenix in 1994, he was depressed and wanted to return to Mexico. His English was weak, and though he was with his family, he felt isolated. He didn't know any musicians and he was far from his desired destination of New York. But the culture shock soon started to fade when he and his younger brother Francisco "Pancho" went to a night of rock en español at Paraiso Night Club at 39th Avenue and Indian School.
Thursday nights at Paraiso were the first nights of rock en español in the Valley, and happened at a time when the scene was just beginning to assert itself. Angeles laughs when he talks about the band that first night, remembering that "they sucked bad, man."
That band, Leyenda Urbana (Urban Legend) had just formed. When the drummer literally fell backward off his kit, the crowd began yelling "Culero, culero" ("asshole, asshole") and throwing anything it could get its hands on. "Limes, anything man, but they kept playing," Angeles says.
For the next three weeks, Pancho bugged Durango, LU's leader, for an audition for his brother. Angeles soon replaced the band's guitar player and LU began playing covers of El Tri, Nirvana and Metallica for a passionate mosh-pit that, on a good night, might number 300 Mexican rockeros.
One night the direction of the band changed drastically when it opened for Sergio Arau, who was in Botellita de Jerez, a famous rock band in Mexico, and is also the son of Alfonso Arau, the Mexican director (Like Water for Chocolate) and actor (El Guapo in Three Amigos!). According to Angeles, Arau played an incredible set of originals with musicians from Argentina and was booed mercilessly by an intolerant crowd that wanted to hear rock covers. Backstage, Arau encouraged LU members to play original music if that's what they really wanted to do. Those words stuck with the band, which gradually started throwing originals into its set lists, until it was playing only its own songs. "After a while, the crowd was requesting the original tunes," Angeles says with a smile.
The money was rolling in, with the band's average nightly take at $650 and reaching as much as a thousand bucks. When the promoters realized they had a good thing going, they lowered the band's share of the door from 60 percent to 20. The group decided to try its luck elsewhere and soon realized that, even after the big reduction, it had left a good deal. LU's momentum was further slowed when Durango moved to Texas for a year. Angeles formed a new group with his brother Pancho on bass, but it didn't have LU's spark.
When Durango returned, he joined the Angeles brothers and formed Casa de Locos. They made up for lost revenue by playing gigs at the Mason Jar and even some out-of-town shows. They also started to open for some internationally known acts at the Celebrity Theatre. Their first gig there was for Ekhymosis, the group Juanes fronted before going solo. "We were treated like rock stars," Angeles remembers.
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Word of mouth was starting to spread, and for the next year and a half, CDL was the mainstay in an exciting period for rock en español in the Valley. It was the house band at Toolies rock en español Tuesdays, and a particular favorite of owner Bill Bachand. But the frustration of trying to find both high-paying and regular gigs, combined with the scene's overall loss of energy, led to the demise of the band. The subsequent Latin music explosion may have had a global impact, but it has yet to return the Phoenix rock en español scene to the glory it experienced between '94 and '98.
The realization that the local rock en español movement was sputtering led to a change in Angeles' outlook. He migrated to more consistent gigs in the non-rock Latin scene, where he's also made an impact. His role in Cascabel is key if only for his experience in Cuba. On a visit there with Guerrero, he learned the tres, a unique three double-stringed guitar that looks and sounds like a twelve-stringed acoustic and is featured prominently in the band's traditional repertoire.
Cascabel, Spanish for rattle, is an acoustic ensemble that also features percussionist Camilo Moreno and guitarist/singer Curt Cichon. They recently started a new Monday night residence at Six in Scottsdale, and there is talk of some exciting international possibilities, including a one-month World Cup gig in Japan, and a return trip to Cuba. If Angeles and his bandmates do visit Cuba, they plan to precede the trip with a two- to three-month stay in Spain. The reason? "To live the life of a Gypsy," Angeles says.