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LA La Land – Sneaking through the kitchen of a Moorish club in Chinatown to hear cumbia

Sneaking through the kitchen of a Moorish club in Chinatown to hear cumbia.  

Last year a Corpus Christi Texas DJ by the name of El Dusty was nominated for a Latin Grammy.  He didn’t win, but the nomination helped kicked his growing musical career into the national spotlight, where it has stayed ever since.  A producer, a DJ, and a nu-cumbia pioneer, El Dusty is a self-taught, constantly collaborating translator of the Southern Texas border experience into new barrio anthems and wild cumbia. So it stands to reason that his tour would land in barrio venues across the country. And they do;  but then there’s La La Land.

The LA “barrio” venue he landed in was actually in Chinatown, in a club shaped like a Moorish temple and named after a north African country.  And it was closed.

Well, the Moroccan Nightclub was not exactly closed when I got there;  it just wasn’t open. I knew El Dusty was inside or nearby because his big Mercedes cargo van cum-home-away-from- home was parked in front.  But the club’s doors were locked and no one answered our pounding or cell phone calls. What’s worse, the opening band, La Diabla, had just arrived with their instruments and were milling around in front of the door wondering about their mic check.  

This couldn’t be happening; the poster said doors at 7 pm  – it was 7:15 – and most venues open an hour before for set up and mic check and to stock the bar. It was the right night, El Dusty’s van was there.  There had to be a way in.

The Moroccan’s kitchen turned out to be the secret entrance.  I circumnavigated the building and found another door – screened, but not locked — that led into the kitchen.  I stuck my head in the door inside the screen, surprised a staff member, and told him that I would be right back.  I gathered the band and we trooped through the empty kitchen (turns out they weren’t serving on Sunday night and were using a taco truck) and into the lounge area, surprising the bartender, manager and bouncer.

“Hi, this is your opening band La Diabla; the front door was locked so we came in through the kitchen. They are here for a mic check,” I said.  No problem, come on in was the reply with big welcoming grins.

By coming in with the band and carrying a professional video rig I was given the run of the place, including the green room… and even better, my first beer was on the house.  I took that beer into the Moroccan’s generous music venue where El Dusty and his percussionist Camilo Quinones were mic checking and finished it while I enjoyed the pre-show set up.  After the club’s very professional sound board operator had the levels set, El Dusty came down from the stage, gave me an abrazo and met the guys from La Diabla before they wired up for their mic check.

For a music writer, this is heaven and why I come to gigs early.  I knew the house DJ would not kick off the until 9 pm, but the opportunity to hang out with and interview the bands, have a very interesting conversation with the sound board operator  (who later that night explained why I sometimes have a hard time separating snare hits from female vocals) and enjoy a snack with my beer at a table in the green room was as good as it gets.

Actually it got better when La Diabla went onstage.  Whew, these guys are good! They play old fashioned cumbia with the hand drum called the caja vallenata, güiro, accordion, and a guitar.  The core band, Adrian I. Rodriguez on accordion, Ivan Rodriguez on caja vallnata, and Rene Godinez on güiro was joined by Oscar Vargas on guitar. Two of the group are from San Diego and two from Tijuana, where they record. Their beats are complex but steady and precise.  The melodies, especially with the accordion, are rough and intoxicating and delivered in perfect sync with the machine-gun rhythms laid down by güiero and caja vallenata.  You cannot stand still while they play and no one did.  By the time La Diabla wrapped up, the Moroccan Lounge’s music venue was filled and the dancing was taking on a religious fervor.

El Dusty  came on stage with Quinones while La Diabla was playing their last song and gave them a shout out. He took center stage behind the DJ platform and yelled “Uno, Dos, Tres” over the crowd noise and launched into one of his incredibly long, incredibly fun cumbia mash-ups that earned him a Latin Grammy nomination last year. El Dusty combines samples of traditional Mexican music, cuts from his huge collection of vinyl from years of crate-digging, and the latest up to date electronics like the MPC2000 sampler. Everyone in the room knew the songs and the words, one reason why he was named as a
Rolling Stone  One of 10 Artists You Need to Know and a Billboard and Pandora Artist to Watch in 2016.

As the night rolled on, the crowded room somehow got denser despite some people exiting to the line at the taco truck outside and others into the lounge for a break from dancing.  Between sets I had joined the line outside for a delicious quesadilla and to get two tacos al pastor for the soundboard operator, who needed a pick-me-up. But I timed it so I wouldn’t miss any of the excitement El Dusty was producing onstage.  Fortunately, he had given me an All Access pass, so I could get on stage and video him from behind the turntables, a rare privilege.

Because it was Sunday night, the show wrapped up at midnight, the bewitching hour when many headline acts are just cranking up on weekends.. Group photos and selfies were taken, beers were finished and El Dusty chatted with fans before heading back to his van for the drive next day.  My first visit to the Moorish building in Chinatown (now on tourist maps as The Arts District) to hear cumbia was a success. I can hardly wait for El Dusty’s return visit to LA. Hopefully, I won’t have to sneak through the kitchen to see him.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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