Ditching capes in favor of white ruffled tuxedo shirts and black bowties, the members of Chicano Batman delivered their eclectic mix of Brazilian Tropicalismo, cumbia and ‘70s soul below purple lights on the small stage inside Moe’s Alley on April 5.
The space was tight after opener Salt Petal wrapped. Attendees left just enough room to dance as they crammed between the bar and the stage, waiting for Chicano Batman.
Their set was a dreamlike trip through the Latin American soundscape, each song stretching fluidly into the next. Eyes shut and fingers still moving on the organ in front of him, frontman Bardo Martinez moved his face toward the microphone. “Ella tiene aire a teotihuacan, su piel tiene color de mazapan,” he sang, drawing out each syllable with precision. Clearly familiar with “Itotiani,” a single off the band’s self-titled album, the crowd joined in with a resounding chorus of “ooohs,” picking up where Martinez left off.
Formed in 2010, Chicano Batman’s name is a Latino twist on the Caped Crusader, sparked by a cartoon doodled by frontman Bardo Martinez at a party. Martinez combined the immortal Batman symbol with the politically charged United Farm Workers logo to create the Los Angeles-based band’s emblem, embodying the idea that underrepresented people can be superheroes in their own right.
“It’s the juxtaposition of cultural identity and the pop cultural symbol,” Martinez said of the band’s name and logo. He’s happy to have others associate the name with the 1960’s Chicano movement, but admits that to him, the meaning is a bit more general. “Chicano is not just Mexican. Peruvians use it to describe somebody who is poor and essentially that’s what the term means, somebody who is poor, not necessarily Mexican. It also means ‘mixture.’”
Martinez’s bandmates reflect that mestizaje. Guitarist Carlos Arevalo was in a band that played soul music while drummer Gabriel Villa was a “rhythm machine.”
“He could play samba,” Martinez said of Villa, “There’s not many people that can play diverse rhythms like that.”
The result is a band that walks between worlds. An average seven minute song can carry funky bass lines, smooth bossa nova and reverb-drenched psychedelic guitars. Songs are written in a English or Spanish — sometimes even Portuguese — depending on where inspiration takes them in the moment.
This chemistry doesn’t just make for great records, it creates musical identities that reflect the modern amalgamation of peoples in our communities. This is important because music, especially rock music, hasn’t always been a bastion of inclusion. When Arevalo was a teenager, he recalled feeling the confines imposed by the lack of diversity in rock music.
But late one night, something shifted for the young Arevalo. One night, a 17-year-old Arevalo turned on the TV to check out At The Drive In, a small band he’d read about in one of his guitar magazines.
“I found out they were going to play on the David Letterman Show, so I stayed up one Friday night,” Arevalo said. “They just had so much energy and half the band were Latinos — it just struck me like, wow I can do this too.”
Seeing the familiar faces on a mainstream medium was transformative for Arevalo’s perception of rock music, making him feel like he could do the same.
“At the time I was in high school, so I accepted that it was pretty much only white musicians that were allowed to play rock music in society or be successful or get to that level,” he said. The lasting impact of representation on a grand scale had permanently shifted Arevalo’s perspective. “They had curly afros and that’s how my hair used to look when I was 17, so I was like, ‘They look like me!’”
The crew has followed a relatively similar path to ATDI, the Batmen remained a gem tucked within the LA music scene for years until recently. Nods from NPR’s AltLatino, an enthusiastic invitation to open for Jack White on his Lazaretto tour, and most recently, playing this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival are all testaments to the band being in tune with the now.
The trailblazing role of the band is not lost on Arevalo. “Latinos, we patronize events. You’ll see us at rock shows or any kind of music show in LA. But us being represented on stage, especially in a commercial or above underground scene, is pretty rare.”