The mark of a great band is not measured by the size of the crowd they draw at the height of their career, but by the size of the hole left in the music scene when they break up. When La Banda Skalavera called it quits around 2013, that hole was pretty damn big--and not just because their sprawling lineup (10 to 13 members, most of which made up their "wall of horns" brass section). As one of the pioneering Latin ska bands in Southern California, they proved that a kid from the barrio could skank to Jamaican riddims, headbang to heavy metal, get in the pit for a punk show, and still salsa his ass off. For 15 years, La Banda Skalavera was Latin ska at its biggest and boldest.
"I remember, at one point, we had, like, nine horns and percussion, keyboards, a 13-piece band," says lead singer/guitarist George "Yorgo" Mercado. "We tried to project as much energy as possible to keep the crowd listening and not get them bored. That's why we'd change it up from one song to the next; it keeps the crowd listening."
Mercado says La Banda Skalavera rarely had a bad show. But after a while, it was clear ska wasn't paying the bills. Despite an endless supply of weekend gigs and incessant touring, the members were left with little cash to bring home after all the expenses needed to keep the band running. Over the years, musicians rotated in and out of the band until Mercado was the only original member. "I would say we have enough ex-members to do three or four different LBS groups," the singer jokes. But the lack of a core lineup put a damper on the band, and Mercado officially put them on hiatus a few times, starting in 2012. "We were all just burned out at that point," he admits.
Fortunately, the sleeping giant of Latin ska has awakened. This weekend, La Banda Skalavera play a comeback show, supported by a laundry list of Latin ska, punk and rock bands, including 8Kalacas, Chencha, La Pobreska and many more. More than a decade and a half since their debut, there's no doubt that putting the band back together after the addition of kids, marriage and 9-to-5 jobs requires the members to be even more resolute in their mission to reclaim their role in the SoCal ska scene. "The way I see it, it's like bringing back the band, but it's a new phase. I'm 37 years old now, and I started the band when I was 20, so there's a big difference," Mercado says.
At the time they formed in 1998, the popularity of third-wave ska was already waning, which made a huge band such as La Banda Skalavera a rarity. Mercado, bassist Alex Bendana, drummer Gerardo Cisneros and original singer Robert Rios were facing a musical landscape in LA that was way more into Spanish rock. Combining their experiences in punk, cumbia and traditional Latin folk bands, the band's hybrid sound wasn't an easy fit with other local outfits, whose styles were closer to Goth and metal. On the other hand, ska purists sometimes derided them for mixing too many other styles into their brand of horn-driven music.
The band eventually found their fan base, who supported them at venues ranging from the Roxy in Hollywood to Chain Reaction in Anaheim. Mosh pits swirled as the rhythm section rumbled in time with sharp brass and skittering guitar, and even gabachos shout along to their Spanish lyrics on tracks such as "Injusto" and "No Esta Mal," the title track on their first album.
Before the band's revival, living a life without music was taking its toll on Mercado, who had performed nonstop for 15 years. After La Banda Skalavera broke up, he found that nothing could replicate for him the feeling of making a crowd lose their minds and dance all night. "Music has always been psychologically and emotionally therapeutic for me," he says. "I'm pretty much an introvert in my everyday life, and the only time I get to express how I feel is through my lyrics and being onstage."
Last year, he says, he fell into a depression after not picking up his guitar for months. "So I started playing and calling up some of the guys to jam, and slowly but surely, everybody was like, 'We gotta do this again, man; it just feels right.'"
While much of the band's catalog remains unreleased, Mercado says that will change soon. Plans to release their first new single in years will be followed up by an album early next year. "We have about two more albums of stuff that's been recorded but never released because we never got the chance to really finish it," Mercado says. "Right now, with this comeback show, we've got a new manager and a whole new production to help us out, so it takes a bit of that responsibility away so we can focus on the music."
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The ska scene is much different from when La Banda Skalavera started. With a new, growing scene of traditional ska, skacore and Latin ska, Mercado says, the scene feels much more vibrant and a better place to step in once again as the biggest, baddest bunch of rude boys to grace a SoCal stage. Best of all, they can fill the hole they left in the heart of OC ska. "I feel like my music has matured a lot, and I have a lot more inside me that I want people to see and hear," Mercado says. "The scene has grown tremendously. . . . I think it's gonna be a great thing, a positive thing."
La Banda Skalavera perform with 8Kalacas, Chencha, La Pobreska, Matamoska, Cafe con Tequila, La Surcursal de la Cumbia, Mafia Rusa, River Ratts, Los Pedos and more at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Fri., 7 p.m. $13. All ages.