People need to know that there are a lot of human reasons behind immigration. You choose the way you approach music and what you are going to do with it. We choose supporting a lot of things we think are right.”
— David Pérez, conga player/humanitarian
We’re looking for the bar, Mo tells the guy standing on Central.
Ah, the bar, he says. Go up this alley, turn right into the other alley and look for the neon sign that says “the bar.”
We’re downtown on a cold Saturday night and the idea of walking through a dark alley that is home to too many homeless peeps doesn’t seem like such a good idea, but we’re on a mission. We go.
Two turns and a couple of dumpsters later, there it is. The guy at the door says we must show our IDs. But Mo, who turned 21 a few years ago, hasn’t brought hers.
There’s an awkward moment while the bouncer, a big guy, wonders what to do. I’m thinking we made it this far, after driving around for a half hour trying to find a hole in the wall, only to be turned away here. I know EXACTLY how Dorothy felt upon finding Oz. If I only had a brain.
But then the guy shrugs and waves us in. We walk down the battered steps into the basement of a dark, ancient building. It’s been brought back to life by the local musical genius without the hassle of modernizing, the building equivalent of an old car that works just fine, so why repaint it.
To the left is the Rose Club, an homage to accidental Gov. Rose Mofford. Silhouettes of random items travel around the bar. Hipsters guard little hiding-spot tables in the corners. An unapologetically bad portrait of Mofford and her beehive is proudly displayed. The place is insane.
Past the hallway into the other room, an old guy on the stage is playing congas along with a Latin soundtrack while the crowd waits. I’m not sure what to expect. And then the band comes out.
I had read about the guitarist/songwriter/bandleader in a New Times interview this week. His name’s Kiki Castellanos. He was born in Nogales, Arizona, moved to Sonora, Mexico, as a kid and now lives in Tucson. He told a story to New Times about how his family didn’t have much money when he was young, but his dad bought him an acoustic guitar on layaway when he was 13 and eventually was able to pay it off. He’s been a guitarist since. He now has a Fender Stratocaster (which he points out was made in Mexico), but says he still uses that old acoustic guitar for songwriting. It has powers. I figure a guy like that is worth risking death in an alley to hear.
His band is Vox Urbana. I’m not sure how to describe their music, but New York Music Daily calls it “psychedelic cumbia,” which works for me. All I know is it was like being on the top of a roller-coaster that starts to dive, and you never want it to stop.
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, a critic from the Austin Chronicle used to say, so I won’t try to describe it. But picture a guitarist, bass, drums, two saxes, a trumpet, trombone, an old conga player from Mexico City, keyboard and accordion player — some Hispanic, some white — and an array of percussion instruments crammed onto a tiny stage, musicians whirling and chanting while the crowd bobs and weaves in the dark.
The place is packed. The crowd is hopping. The room is hot. The beer is cold. I totally forget that an hour ago I was feverishly working on a newspaper in Alabama. Mo is dancing around like a girl who snuck into a bar without an ID. It’s what life should be.
I’m not a bright guy. I don’t know how to fix DACA and comprehensive immigration reform and sanctuary cities and chain migration and who gets in from where. But I know for sure that the world is a better place when we mix our cultures, borrowing from the rich tapestry of other countries to make ours better. I resent the exclusionist theory that we should keep people out for hateful reasons. Hate less, dance more; that’s my new motto. I don’t care what Norwegian music sounds like.
For an hour in a weird basement bar in downtown Phoenix, while the government ended its first day of a shutdown because some people think hating other people is worth it, the world was a better place. I was happy, because a poor dad in Mexico once bought his teenage kid a guitar and pushed him down the path to a better life.
Make America Great Again? America is already pretty damn great, thank you very much. Sometimes you just have to go through a couple of alleys and enter illegally to get there …