Mexico's Los de Abajo stay close to leftist roots

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      Los de Abajo are like Mexico City's equivalent of the Clash: an internationally acclaimed band that blends political commitment with an in-your-face musical attitude. Their name, which translates as “Those From Below”, is redolent of the struggles of oppressed people around the world, and more especially in their homeland. And the music the 10-piece band plays is a high-octane mix of styles, genres, and global influences—both ancient and modern.

      “Our members include a DJ who also provides electronic percussion, and a three-piece brass section,” says alto saxophonist and singer Mauricio Diaz, reached at his home in the heart of Mexico City. “For some songs we have two saxes, two trombones, and a trumpet. It gives us great versatility.”

      The group began in 1992 as a Latin ska quartet and grew to include 10 musicians. As new members arrived, they brought fresh influences, and the sound developed into a wide and at times joyfully anarchic blend of Latin pop, rock, jazz, salsa, reggae, hip-hop, ska, cumbia, ranchera, son jarocho, and banda sinaloense music—with hot chili peppers on top.

      Unable to sign a record deal in Mexico, as their music wasn't considered commercial enough, Los de Abajo released their first album independently in 1999. The rambunctious sound charmed the ears of David Byrne, who released the band's self-titled follow-up on his Luaka Bop label. Cybertropic Chilango Power (2002) won BBC Radio 3's World Music Award for the Americas.

      “That really propelled our international career,” says Diaz, speaking in Spanish. “We played the WOMAD festivals in the U.K., the Canary Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. And starting with Latin Ska Force [2003], we've become our own producers. In 2006 we recorded LDA v the Lunatics for the Real World label of Peter Gabriel, who is a fan of ours.”

      On that disc, the music was more diverse than ever. The opening cut, “Resistencia”, featured Comandante Esther of the revolutionary Zapatista movement from southern Mexico, and the album included a Spanish-language version of Fun Boy Three's “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)”.

      Despite their global success, Los de Abajo stay close to their leftist roots, and bring the music to the people as directly as possible—as they probably will when they play the Vancouver Folk Music Festival main stage on Saturday (July 18). “We like to get off the stage and play among the audience,” says Diaz. “The music needs to be lived and felt at close quarters. We love to go out on streets or into squares to play, for the music to exist in a genuinely public space, not a private one. For us, that's the most important thing.”