Exploring Pilsen's indie music scene

October 13, 2011

By Catalina Maria Johnson

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Ivan Resendiz, left, playing guitar

Musicians and other artists in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood joined forces: They’ve found new spaces in which to collaborate and produced sound-rich results. For WBEZ, Catalina Maria Johnson shared the story featuring cuts from the Pilsen Soundtrack 2.0. 

The CD comes out over the weekend as part of the Pilsen Open Studios events.

Pilsen has been known as a port of entry for immigrants for centuries. Since the 1970s, the neighborhood developed a reputation as the city’s classic Mexican neighborhood, and today boasts a 93 percent Mexican-American population. Pilsen’s immigrants brought their art with them too – today, the neighborhood is famous for its murals, cultural centers, galleries and the National Museum of Mexican Art. In more recent decades, Pilsen has also become known for its vibrant indie music scene.

According to musician and producer Jamie Garza, indie music means, “music that is not engineered or sponsored by major corporations.”

The scene includes sounds that range  from the punk reggae ska beats of a group like Malafacha to the Chicago Latino blues of Argentinean Maria Blues to the classical guitar of Ivan Resendiz.

But Garza said, over the years, it has been a struggle to find venues for indie music.

“One of the most difficult things is spaces that are open to non-commercial politically active art and music,” Garza said.

So musicians sought a home in less traditional spaces, said Robert Valadez, a visual artist and gallery owner:

“In the case of Pilsen, it’s been jelling for the last twenty years, in the '80s I was a youth organizer at Casa Aztlan, and we put on a punk rock show in 1987, it was pivotal back in the day. Later on through the nineties, it was more and more of that thing going on. Kids thinking about different ways of expressing themselves musically and creatively, and it’s been continuing with that momentum,” Valadez said.

Using community cultural centers as venues for music led to indie artists banding together with visual artists, according to artist, musician and gallery curator Victor Montañez.

“When we began organizing shows, we would mainly look to Mexico for guys like José Molina, or Ampara Ochoa, or Zazhil, and we would bring them to places like San Pio, or the basement of Casa Aztlan, or Instituto de Progreso Latino when it was on Blue Island. We would transform those spaces, that was like the beginning of the guerrilla art shows and music shows,” Montañez explained.

It was a community affair.

“If musicians wanted to have a show, they called the artists, if artists wanted to have a show, they called the musicians,” Montañez added.

The spirit of that collaboration is behind a new CD. The second album from the Pilsen Soundtrack series was recorded by Jaime Garza and two other producer-musicians and includes a booklet featuring Pilsen’s visual artists.

The CD also reminds listeners that musicians are going beyond Pilsen’s borders to find spaces for the arts, vocalist Maya Fernandez said.

“I think that these Pilsen soundtracks, the first and second and hopefully many more to come, their goal is to tell this Pilsen story, and what is Pilsen, of course many people when they think of Pilsen it’s like Pilsen, that’s that’s only Mexicans...there’s some of us who travel to different neighborhoods, and others who are in different neighborhoods that travel to Pilsen all the time, through the music it all comes together, through the unity of everybody who likes music and plays music,” Fernandez said.

Pilsen Soundtrack 2.0 includes songs by Buya, a large ensemble from the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Johnson asked Buya member Roberto Perez how a Puerto Rican traditional bomba group ends up on a Pilsen Soundtrack.

“I don’t know! Pilsen seems to have an open door for us, and you can feel it when you’re playing, we’re welcomed here, and we’re welcomed almost as if it was our community, and we get nothing but love here, and we’ll come back to play anytime here. We love it,” Perez chuckled.

It’s all part of the Pilsen revolution, neighborhood artist Diana Solis explained.

“What is so important is that in the past, the Latinos would always do things in their own place, we would never exchange, and today there is so much more of that, being open and learning about each other through our art and music,” Solis said.

Artist and gallery curator Montañez agreed.

“Pilsen is really much more than just 18th Street, it’s a whole vibe and whole attitude, and it’s revolutionary thinking, there’s always this optimism that we can change the world, we can rock the system, and we are just at the verge of a great movement,” Montañez said. “Pilsen is not a geographic location, it’s a state of mind, it’s a state of heart, it’s a state of art, it’s a state of the art,” he finished.