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Photo by Nick ShouDepending on where you're from, El Sapo Cancionero—Spanish for "The Singing Frog"—is either the title of an obscure Argentinean folk song or the name of a restaurant in Mexico City's Ciudad Satélite district.
Then there's El Sapo Cancionero del Sur de California, a Santa Ana-based organization dedicated to the celebration and promotion of political Latin American music.
The group's founders, Enrique Gaspar and Joel Aceves, are Mexico City-born Santa Anans who wanted to invigorate the Latino music scene in OC. They remembered the Mexico City restaurant and liked the name, so appropriated it for their club.
"We're thieves stealing from thieves," jokes Gaspar, an organizer with Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union—best known by its campaign slogan, "Justice for Janitors." Aceves is an industrial designer and architect who studied music in Mexico and has played classical guitar onstage since the age of 13. The two met 10 years ago in English-language classes at Rancho Santiago College. There, they attended a lecture on Mexican poet Octavio Paz. After the lecture, dinner, and several bottles of wine at Gaspar's house, they listened to old albums and took turns playing guitar until dawn.
"We thought, 'This is really nice; we ought to share this with other people,'" Gaspar recalled. "So we got together with Alex Moreno, a community activist in Santa Ana who loves poetry and music, and drove up to San Francisco to see a Latin American music concert. Then we decided to put on our own shows. First, it was just at parties with food and music. Then it became a way of life."
Gaspar and Aceves call their concerts "peñas," a Spanish word that doesn't exactly lend itself to translation in English. Literally, the word means "big rock," but the concept comes from Chile and refers to an open-mic concert featuring political music, poetry, or art.
"It's all about sharing wine and songs and having a good time," Gaspar says. "And in the meantime, passing on a message about peace and love and understanding among cultures."
The form of music played at peñas is called "canto nuevo" (new song), a combination of guitar-driven jazz, folk, classical and rock music that began in Cuba in the late '60s with artists like Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanes, and quickly spread throughout Latin America.
El Sapo Cancionero's first, private-audience shows were at Moreno's house in Santa Ana. Then they moved to the nearby OC Children's Therapeutic Arts Center. A few shows later, they switched to Café Paris before finding their fourth home at Santa Ana's Green Parrot Café, where they continue to hold shows on Friday evenings every month or so.
"We started out playing for each other, but we wanted to take it public," Gaspar says. "We especially wanted to bring artists from Mexico and other countries in Latin America to Orange County."
The first major group to accept El Sapo Cancionero's invitation was Mexicanto, one of the premier Mexican canto nuevo groups. That show led to others by big-name Mexican troubadours Gabino Palomares, Alfonso Maya, Ismael García and Fernando Delgadillo.
"There are a lot of Latinos here who don't know this music—or that there's an alternative to the commercial music they hear," Gaspar continues. "If there's a kid in the barrio listening to music with a message about dealing drugs and being violent—like in the narcocorridos and other popular music—they'll grow up to do that. This music shows there's another way."
Aceves and Gaspar say they see some white people at their shows, but they're usually white people from Spain, Argentina or Chile. Yet El Sapo Cancionero remain hopeful that they can bring their message of peace and harmony to white people in OC.
"In order to have harmony with other groups, we've got to show the best of what we are," Aceves said. "The music has a really good message. It's universal. It doesn't matter who you are. If you have an open mind, you can still understand it."Joel Aceves performs at the Green Parrot Cafe, 2035 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 550-6040, most Fridays, 8 p.m.; Los Nadies perform Fri., July 25, 8 p.m. $5. Reservations recommended.