of "leftist-acid-Latin-funk." Members mill around the stage as lead vocalist Piero Ornelas walks in with a milk crate full of cassettes he says he found in an alley. Xaime Casillas, who co-fronts the group, is complaining about the $700 he must cough up to free the prized 1964 Cadillac Coupe de Ville he calls "Vanessa" from the clutches of the Foster City impound lot. But it's just a "thang," he says as he tunes his bass: "You go through the ups and downs of life, but when you hit that stage and the people are out there, it's all good."
"We came to destroy the Paradise!" Ornelas yells as the show kicks off with a crack of his timbals and David Shul's guitar flares. As the Tower of Power-like two-sax/two-trumpet horn section pipes in, the band sounds like a cross between Joe Cuba and the Average White Band. "Don't make me cry," Ornelas pleads in his gritty tenor over a "Lowdown" vibe, then Los Angelitos break into snappy mambo riffs. When vocalist Janet Adams starts tossing off sweet harmonies, shaking her orange spangles to the beat, funkheads take to the dance floor.
These "little angels" didn't descend from the heavens, but crawled out of the minds of Ornelas and Casillas like the Ohio Players' "Funky Worm" -- except this one wiggled in both tequila and rum bottles. Fermented with talent from Oakland and Berkeley, Los Angelitos' music is an awesome hybrid of funk and Latin originals that has earned the group both a big word-of-mouth buzz and a 1995 WAMMIE for Best Latin Band. Still, Casillas and company feel they haven't quite been given their due. When the Latin category was presented at the WAMMIES ceremony, Milena Muzquiz and her partner, Martiniano, of Los Super Elegantes jumped to the stage.
"[Muzquiz] was about to start thanking her mom and grandma when she realized the award had our name on it," Casillas recalls. "We were stunned that this beautiful, powerful woman just rushed the stage like, 'OK!' It was in cool fun, but the best award is a packed house on a Saturday night."
The band's origins are equally surprising. "Xaime called my bluff," Ornelas says. "He asked, 'Do you want to start a band?' and I said, 'Yeah.' He was living in Tucson, Arizona, so I didn't know what was going to come of it. Two days later he was at my doorstep with all his instruments packed in the trunk of his white Caddy, proving my theory 'Never make a promise to a Mexican unless you're going to keep it.' "
Blasting Kid Creole & the Coconuts, the duo cruised around, checking out the club scene and talking big about the band that was yet to happen. Things started to fall into place when drummer David Tweedie came in, including the growing collective's name.
"There was a paper saint on the dashboard, Our Lady of Perpetual Parking Spaces or something like that," Ornelas quips. "That sparked the idea. Xaime said 'The Angels' at first, and though we aspire to be somewhat angelic, we're not. So I said 'Little Angels.' "
A native Angeleno, appropriately enough, Casillas has recorded with artists like Quincy Jones and Brazilian superstar Djavan. He's also experienced in Afro-Cuban traditional drumming, and has played around Los Angeles with notables like Bill Summers. As a teen, Ornelas hung around the drumming circles at Lower Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus, studied Latin music with Bay Area pioneer Carlos Federico, and later founded the Freaky Executives. He's now a triple-threat talent as a composer, percussionist, and singer. Of Cuban descent, he grew up in a politically progressive family, and was enrolled in the Black Panther Military Academy and breakfast program as a child.
Those experiences, in part, explain some of the street urgency and political undertones of Los Angelitos' lyrics. On the jam "Under Pressure," Ornelas sings, "Mailman didn't bring my check today/ It's making me uneasy/ I once had a job but I hurt my leg/ Now they sayin' they don't need me anymore/ Got into a fight with my lady and now I don't got a place to stay/ I'm holding up with my luck but it never seems enough/ When everything I do blows up in my face/ But I'm holding up and I'm under pressure."
"There's a lot of unspoken anger going on right now," Ornelas says, in reference to the song. "We see over two to three thousand people a month at a minimum, and we notice a lot of resentment. The difference in making that positive or a negative is that when you speak about it, and you address the things that everybody is affected by, you transform it into something else. It's not like we're saying anything so revolutionary -- it's just that we're mirroring back to the crowds. I'd pay $10 anytime to see the reaction music has on people who are repressed and angry, to see them loosen up and feel through their dark side."
As it nears closing time, Los Angelitos are in full-blown jump blues mode with shades of Fred Wesley and the JBs. The club is steaming, glasses are dropping, and the crowd is engaged in a communal dance as Ornelas breaks into a frenzy and kicks down soul inspiration on the mike. Call them Caribbeanized cousins of George Clinton or James Brown if you will, but these angelitos have a way of transforming wherever they go into paradise.
Los Angelitos play a special Cinco de Mayo show Sun, May 5, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.