Latin music has always been a vital part of Coachella Valley culture—but it hasn’t necessarily received much attention outside of the Latino community.
However, that’s started to change, and Goldenvoice—the mega-promoter that puts on Coachella and Stagecoach each year—has taken notice, last year adding the event known as Chella in between Coachella weekends. The concert, at the Riverside County Fairgrounds, is returning this year, on Wednesday, April 17.
Ocho Ojos, a local cumbia band (right), performed at last year’s Chella, but is not on this year’s bill. Instead, the group is playing at Coachella itself—and is even listed on the official poster. This will actually be the band’s second Coachella appearance; Ocho Ojos was one of the local bands selected to play at the festival in 2017.
I recently talked with the members of Ocho Ojos at the La Quinta Brewing Co. taproom in La Quinta about the band’s sound.
“It’s electronic music, but it still connects to the roots of cumbia,” said guitarist Cesar Flores. “It’s a modern sound. We use this SP device for backing tracks, but we also have a drummer that incorporates the rhythm. It’s pretty modern—because we’re hip guys.”
Keyboardist Daniel Torres elaborated on the band’s modern direction.
“It’s much more modern because of technology and things like that—and we’re trying to create new content within this genre,” he said. “All of us have different styles that we’re into, so that alone brings something different to the style of cumbia that we play. Even people who have an untrained ear and people who don’t necessarily know a lot about certain styles can listen and say, ‘Oh yeah, sounds like cumbia!’”
Ocho Ojos was formed in late 2016, and the members—all between the ages of 26 and 30—remember a time when it was almost impossible to find Latin music in the Coachella Valley.
“If it was, it was usually a Top 40 band that was at a restaurant or hotel. They would play covers and not any original content,” Torres said. “They were playing popular songs that were in Spanish from different genres. There wasn’t necessarily any (Latin) band or group in the music scene that we were involved in. … There was definitely no band playing anything Latin.”
Added bassist James Gastelum: “I think that came from a lack of resources. There were no bands to watch, so you don’t get inspired.”
However, that slowly began to change.
“Little by little, we met people through the years. We didn’t necessarily grow up with (them), and we’re from different age groups, but we’re all going to come together,” drummer Rafael Rodriguez said. “There’s always the scene of bands that play in the casinos for money and stuff, but we’re one of the groups people really like because we’re doing original music.
“Latin people have always had a presence here in the music scene.”
One newer venue in particular has been vital in helping foster the Latin music scene: Kilos Cantina in Thousand Palms.
“Kilos is dope, and I can really appreciate them hosting all the bands that are coming through town,” Gastelum said. “They have the right idea, and they own a great space. They have a great location, and they’re running it well. They respect the performers and set up some pretty dope shit. I don’t even question it at all, because it feels like it belongs there.”
Torres added: “Felipe Oros from Kilos has treated the local musicians and touring acts really well. Even though it feels like it’s geared more towards a Latin club, he’s had metal shows and had D.R.I. at Kilos. It’s a little bit of everything … and that’s what creates a sense of community in the music scene.
“Michael Murphy, who owns Bart, is the same way.”
When Ocho Ojos played at Coachella in 2017, the band was invited only a few days before the festival—as is often the case with local bands that earn a spot on the Coachella lineup. This year, however, the band was invited well in advance.
“We were on their radar and listed as a band that people should check it out. That’s how we got asked to play again,” Torres said. “We got an email back over the summer, so we knew about it months before. We put in a lot of time and a lot of work. We’re really excited to be playing Coachella again.”
Gastelum said the band has indeed worked hard to create new fans and a good reputation.
“We put out good recordings that are available on all platforms,” he said. “We also put out some music videos. We invest in ourselves as far as being consistent with recordings and shows.”
While Ocho Ojos is not part of this year’s Chella lineup, Giselle Woo and the Night Owls is, joining Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Mon Laferte and Cola Boyy for the show at the Riverside County Fairgrounds.
Woo talked about how she received her invitation to play at Chella.
“We were performing at a mixer back in February for young professionals,” she said. “That was taking all of my attention, and I got this message on Facebook. One of the representatives of Chella asked me, ‘Have you seen it yet?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Between sets, I checked my e-mail, and I had received an e-mail from him asking me if I’d perform at Chella if we were available. Obviously, I said yes without thinking twice about it. I didn’t even know who the other bands were going to be. I just knew this was awesome (based on) what the event is and what it stands for. I feel like they made an awesome decision, and it’s a great opportunity for us.”
Woo grew up in Cathedral City in a family that listened almost exclusively to Latin music.
“Latin music is pretty much all I was exposed to,” she said. “A lot of kids I know who are Mexican American and who grew up in the valley, their parents listened to the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. My parents didn’t listen to that stuff. It was strictly a lot of the cumbia bands and all the older Mexican big names. It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I first heard Sublime, and was like, ‘Whoa! That’s cool!’
“My parents listened to all Spanish music. I don’t regret any of it, though, and a lot of the reason I have what I have in me … is because of that. It’s music with a lot of meaning and heart.”
Woo sings in both English and Spanish and often performs Latin music at “mainstream” venues.
“Most of my experiences have been good, but not all of the time,” Woo said. “I’ve been singing in Spanish for a while. I’ve had ugly experiences that have made me really sad, like hearing comments like, ‘Are they going to sing something in English?’ I still, to this day, have this insecurity of whether it’s a good idea to sing in Spanish in certain places, and I’m always reminded by my good friends that I shouldn’t worry about that.
“People love me for what I do, and that’s what I do, and I shouldn’t ever feel that way. I’ve been pushing through the past few years and even (feel insecure) when I would perform with Machin’ and would see bands like Elektric Lucie, who are doing original Latin music. It’s nice to see people embracing their culture, even when it’s kind of intimidating in a way, because you want to be all-inclusive. I feel like it’s important to stay true to yourself and stick to it.”
While she didn’t grow up in the east valley, Woo has a strong connection to that part of the Coachella Valley and its Latino traditions.
“My family joined me, and we went to the (brand-new) Coachella Valley Food Truck Park in Coachella. I remember telling my parents, ‘I love this place,’” Woo said. “As soon as we make a left on Grapefruit Boulevard, I feel like I’m in Mexico. It’s been a long time since I went to Guadalajara, where my dad is from, but I volunteer my time for a church that’s located in Coachella and work one or two retreats a year. I spend a lot of time in Coachella for that. I love listening to all of the music out there, and that really gets my blood pumping. I feel like I’m at home, and I love the camaraderie of the community.”
Woo said she’s excited about performing at Chella—and about what it means for the community.
“I think the excitement is really going to hit me once it’s time to rock. Right now, I’m trying not to think about it too much, because then I’ll start getting freaked out. I feel truly honored,” Woo said. “Mon Laferte is a woman I’ve been admiring. All the Latino girls are rising right now. … Opening for Mon Laferte, and Los Tucanes de Tijuana, which I grew up listening to—it’s a true honor.
“My perspective on Chella is that it’s great, and I think adding Chella is a celebration of community. I hope that Goldenvoice truly understands our community in the Coachella Valley, and I hope they know how much love resides here in the valley for one another. I feel something special in the desert that can’t be replicated. Naturally, I’m protective of my home, and I consider this whole place my home. I want this event to really be a positive thing, and I’ll do my best to make sure that is what happens. … It truly does bring us all together, and I hope we can pack that place.”
Chella, featuring Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Mon Laferte, Cola Boyy, and Giselle Woo and the Night Owls, takes place at 6 p.m., Wednesday, April 17, in the Fullenwider Auditorium at the Riverside County Fairgrounds, 82503 Highway 111, in Indio. Tickets are $30. For tickets or more information, visit www.goldenvoice.com/#/event/370991.