One day a few years ago, Mauri Tapia, the artist who performs as Los Retros, was riding around Oxnard with his dad. The car stereo was turned up, blasting the stuff his parents typically played around the house, when Tapia had a realization. “He was playing Los Angeles Negros, Los Terricolas” — late-1960s ballad bands from, respectively, Chile and Venezuela — “and they had that drum sound that I liked.”
The tone, the younger Tapia realized, sounded similar to what contemporary electronic producers Daft Punk and Justice employed on some of Tapia’s favorite dance-floor bangers.
To his surprise, Tapia — now all of 19 — had another epiphany: “These songs aren’t that bad!”
For the last few years, a loosely connected musical movement has been germinating in bilingual bedrooms and living rooms across Southern California. Informed by, but not beholden to, border-blurring vintage balladry and soulful love songs, the sound is driven by young Latinx singers drawing on oldies for stylistic inspiration.
In north Pasadena, Jasper Bones, 21, delivers his self-described “wavy soul” sounds — and covers of Richie Valens songs — to an increasingly devoted fan base. The artist recently sold out a bigwig-heavy gig at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip.
Bones’ “wavy soul” tag could be given to any number of the artists mixing classic song structures with gentle, affectionate lyrics sung in English and Spanish, delivered as if not to disturb the rest of the family.
In Koreatown, Ambar Cruz, 18, who records under the stage name Ambar Lucid, has been harnessing attention gained from her Soundcloud hit “Letter to My Younger Self” to craft analog R&B for a new generation. San Marcos, Calif.-based sisters Emily and Sheyla Rosas, 22 and 17, perform as Dueto Dos Rosas and have been releasing a steady clip of stunning harmonized renditions of classic and obscure Mexican rancheras. Their next project: composing and singing bilingual songs with a similar feel.
Most famously of late, Hawthorne psychedelic pop romancer Cuco, 20, turned the 2017 viral success born of his cover of Santo & Johnny Farina’s 1959 instrumental “Sleepwalk” into a seven-figure deal with Universal Music. Last week, Cuco’s debut album, “Para Mi,” entered the Billboard album chart at No. 94.
A stellar sampling of this evolution, including Dueto Dos Rosas and Los Retros, will play at the annual Viva! Pomona music festival, an Inland Empire block party that celebrates the avalanche of underground Latinx sounds coming out of the region.
Perhaps most notably, the dashing young norteño singer Ed Maverick, whose sweet Spanish-language come-ons have propelled him onto the Mexican charts, will make his first-ever stateside performance. Pity the poor A&R exec who isn’t tuned to the Viva! frequency.
Though hardly Coachella, the Aug. 24-25 gathering has become an incubator for teen and 20-something talent less interested in pursuing beat-driven Latin pop or its American counterpart than digging into their parents’ and even grandparents’ record crates.
“The culture is instilled with that music, whether you know it or not,” says DJ and KCRW programmer Raul Campos, who, growing up, learned Spanish before he learned English. “You hear it and it’s just in your subconscious, these artists from back in the day that are traditional and classic. It’s very easy for that to ooze into the music.”
Sitting at a picnic table in the backyard of the house he grew up in, Bones stumbles as he tries to characterize the sound he hears emerging out of Southern California. “It’s new but at the same time nostalgic — which contributes to why it’s popping off.”
Next to him in the spacious yard is his parents’ garage, which is being converted into Bones’ future live-work space; he now records both in his ocean-blue bedroom and at a friend’s studio in the San Fernando Valley.
The artist, of Mexican and Guatemalan heritage, has been wrestling in his music with what he calls “the constant struggle of being too American for the traditional family, but then too Mexican or Guatemalan for modern-day American society.” He fit right in when he performed as part of the 2018 Viva! Pomona.
Currently working on his first new material since his “Cruise Control” EP in November, Bones cites classic Motown singles as a central influence. “The stuff that our parents, and their parents, put us on is definitely transparent in what we write.”
That vibe connecting cultures is hardly new, but it permeates “Oscuridad.” The artist’s 2017 breakout track moves with a casual fluidity. The handsome crooner sings, in Spanish and English verses, of a desire for love that “takes a bite outta my heart and consumes me.” He does so to the accompaniment of a samba-esque strummed electric guitar and little else. The song recently surpassed 1 million spins on Spotify.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Mauri Tapia, 19, performs as Los Retros. He makes his music in the family living room.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
To arrive at his sound, Los Retros’ Tapia started reverse-engineering his favorite hip-hop and dance tracks to uncover the sampled source material, he says, sitting at a table at El Taco de Mexico in downtown Oxnard. A multi-instrumentalist who lives with his parents and siblings about a mile away, he learned to play drums and guitar in his bedroom — which doubles as the house’s living room.
After teaching himself basic recording techniques, Tapia ran his gear through an old four-track recorder and into free software and got to work. His epiphany: “I can do it myself. I don’t need to go looking for people to do it. I have it here at home.”
His first release, “Retrospect,” just came out on the beat-driven Highland Park imprint Stones Throw. Six easygoing seductions about various shades of love, lust and loneliness, the record mixes casual guitar lines, muffled percussion and thrift store keyboards. The result is songs that reference doo-wop (“Never Have Enough”) and sound like what oldies legend Art Laboe might have spun during a Saturday night slow dance (“Nostalgic Vibrations”).
Ambar Lucid, in her bedroom in Los Angeles, makes soulful songs that draw from contemporary music and vintage sounds.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)
Easing between languages, New Jersey transplant Ambar Lucid composes lyrics informed by her experience as a first-generation Mexican American whose father was deported when she was 5. After scoring her first acoustic guitar from a relative’s garage at age 11, she started sharing covers of Sia, Radiohead, Pierce the Veil and Selena Gomez songs.
“Music was always my way to cope,” Lucid says, sitting in a writing space in her Koreatown apartment, “and I wanted to be able to do something that would allow me to portray my feelings a little bit more.” She wrote her first song at 15 and, she says, “felt such a rush of creative satisfaction. I’d never felt so good doing something. I was like, ‘I’m going to keep doing this.’ ”
Lucid recorded them in private: “I would literally sit in the bathtub with my guitar and record them to voice memo.” After uploading a few of them to Soundcloud, she noted that complete strangers were listening. Many of them reached out to her after Lucid uploaded “A Letter to My Younger Self,” a self-assured ode to patience and fate. That’s true of many independent artists who have found success on the platform, which enables them to find an audience without passing through gatekeepers. If, like Cuco, they accrue enough fans, the gate opens itself.
Among those listening to Lucid were some West Coast kindred spirits, and after visiting Los Angeles with her mother, she made her case for quitting high school, getting her GED and relocating, she says, to find “the creative freedom that I could have in being here.”
After moving across the country last year, Lucid fell in with a community that wanted, as Mija Management’s Jaz Vargas puts it, “to foster brown creatives. And not even exclusive to brown people, but there needed to be a space that encouraged that.”
On Sunday, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Kali Uchis, Cuco, Jasper Bones, Ambar Lucid and others will play a particularly prominent space: New York’s Central Park, as part of the SummerStage concert series. A benefit to support nonprofit immigrant-rights organizations, the high-profile event, called Selena for Sanctuary, is one of a series of initiatives to benefit those affected by the government’s hard-line immigration policies. Last year, a similar event occurred at Lincoln Center.
The concert is one indication to Bones that he’s been right to trust his gut. Not three years ago, he says, pointing to his old station wagon, “I would literally go to the parking lot in that Volvo — I didn’t have my new car — and I would just sit in the back and play guitar at school because I didn’t want my parents to find out I wasn’t going.”
His parents have since sanctioned his career path. Bones no longer has to practice his crooning from a bucket seat. Instead, he’s focused full-time on bringing into the world the mix of sounds running through his head. “It’s OK that I don’t fit into one category,” he’s concluded, “and as of late, a lot of other kids who feel like they’re in that same lane are proud of being there. We’re just doing our own thing.”
When: Aug. 24 and 25, 4:30-11:30 p.m.
Price: $25 per day