It’s late Saturday afternoon the day before St. Patrick’s Day and I’m sitting in a large van with the guys from QUITAPENAS. Most of them are completely knocked out and for good reason: we’re nearing the halfway point of a 22-hour drive out of Austin back home to Riverside following a week-long jaunt at South By Southwest.
The tropical/afro-latin combo was invited to perform at White Iris Records’ showcase at the annual festival with barely two months notice. The band, faced with few connections and even less funding, took the risk and made the trip from Cali to Texas to perform, network and party alongside thousands of strangers.
The experience turned out to be a life-changing one for the band, which has only been together for nearly a year and a half. It was the first time anyone in the band had visited the Lone Star state not to mention the first tour of any kind outside of California for everyone involved.
“I honestly had no idea what this was going to be like,” admits accordionist John D’Alessandro riding shotgun while percussionist Eddie Valencia controlled the wheel. They and bandmates Oscar Rivas, Daniel Gomez, Mark Villela, and Hector Chavez were far more concerned with raising money through Indie Go-Go, scheduling time off from work and school, and figuring out where to stay than to daydream about the possibilities and adventures Austin would provide.
“I was so excited just to go,” he continues, “that I didn’t have time to process ‘well, ok, there’s going to be an overwhelming amount of bands, people, bars are going to be full’…sometimes you just have to go and experience it.”
“It definitely was a lot of fucking fun just to walk down the street and see musicians playing on the street sound real good,” adds Valencia, “and have sporadic jam sessions where a lot of drunk people end up coming over and having fun.”
And there was plenty of fun to be had all over the city whether in the band’s campground in a friend-of-a-friend’s backyard or on the streets of the city. The band performed numerous times in the streets of downtown Austin with differing but always positive results.
For example, the band led a cumbia procession near the city’s convention center one afternoon, which involved dozens of people dancing and clapping along with them for a few blocks. An older, drunk woman was so moved by the band’s music during one late-night jam session on a crowded street corner that she decided to remove her top. And how many times did a few other drunk women make failed attempts at singing along with Chavez? Too many to count! At least they made great dance partners.
There were also plenty of tough times amidst the wild ones. The shower at their host’s home was temporarily disabled and the neighbors got an eyeful when Valencia showered in the backyard with the help of a garden hose. The jam sessions were all fun and games until the dolly broke and the band had to lug some equipment, including a bass amp, by hand and bicycle taxi.
“We thought we had it figured out with the dolly,” laughs D’Alessandro.
“I knew it was too heavy but it was all we got,” adds Valencia. There was also an issue with an overflowed toilet.
“There are realistic things about taking a big band out there like housing and feeding people and getting them washed,” explains D’Alessandro. “For those of us who don’t have the luxury of paying for a hotel or renting out a big tour bus, we have to finagle. It’s tough but we still make it work.”
Their work was rewarded with tons of new fans on the streets and inside the White Iris showcase as well as with an interview and appearance on University of Texas radio program Radio Libre.
Despite the successes, there were plenty of uphill battles the band contended with that taught them how the gears of the industry turned better than any seminar or conversation ever could.
“When we were not playing, it was a good time just walking around, chilling and enjoying the energy of the festival but, it was kind of super classist,” explains Valencia. “A hustling band is gonna feel burnt or feel like it’s not worth it if you’re not connected. If you’re not down to be on the move everyday, then it’s not worth it.”
Luckily, the band had a few connections they were thankful for via their new friends in La Chamba, Las Cafeteras, and Buyepongo, some of whom teamed up with Nor Cal’s Sol Collective for a showcase. The vibe, energy, and collaborative spirit of the showcase was a welcome change from the chaotic hustle and self-centeredness surrounding 6th street.
The rest of the long drive back home was perfect for reflecting on the week’s events and, looking back, the band would all gladly do it all over again, overflowed toilets and all.