Alta California’s music has been described as salsa, flamenco, Afro-Cuban, Spanish, hip-hop, Brazilian, soul, funk, jazz, and Afro-menco. The band self-identifies as Rumba Esquina. “We have deep roots” says Piero Infante, who, along with Orlando Torriente, acts as lead singers for Alta California. “Interests so deep, it became a new genre.”

I caught up with Piero and Orlando at First Friday last week, two days before they played Oakland’s Art and Soul Festival. They were excited to play with musicians like Rose Royce and Lakeside.

Having grown up in the 70s, both Piero and Orlando have been members of numerous bands, but it’s clear that they both feel Alta California is something special. “We’re like chefs making a great meal, making spiritual food for people,” says Piero.

“People connect to our music at a deep level,” adds Orlando; unsurprising, as the two have a palpable friendship. “We vibe really well, and write really well,” says Orlando. We have “an incredible trust in ear and ability to hear what’s good, a trust that goes beyond music. With Piero and with this band, it’s a beautiful process.”

It’s also a unique process. The band includes dancers on stage and as an integral part of the creation of songs. In fact, the band started with the idea that dancers would be part of the band. The dancers partly act as a way for the musicians to see whether their music is connecting with people.

“The dancers are a channel for the music to flow in real time. The dancers monitor and inform the writing in the creative process. They’re not critical, just have really good taste,” says a smiling Piero. Alta California dancers can try moves with the band that they may not feel comfortable trying in front of other people, or which don’t adhere to traditional rules, he says.

The same goes for the musicians. Dan Fries, one of the preeminent flamenco guitarists in the US, found the traditional scene restricting, says Piero. “He encouraged us to all come together as a group.” Together, they then encouraged each other to experiment. Since there are no horns and there are acoustic instruments, for example, it enables voices to come through that don’t come with horns and electrification, says Piero.

Orlando adds, “We are not restricted by some classical education that says this is how it’s supposed to be.” There may be better musicians out there, he says, but “We’re like the Oakland A’s, as a unit, we are unstoppable.”

The bands come together with all their backgrounds and come up with new genres in both music and dance. “We hang out and kick it. We are as much of a troop as a band. We’re not meant to be polished, we are like gumbo that gets messy.” Just like life, he says. “Life is messy and delicious.”

For Orlando and Piero, the band and the music are about more than having fun, though. For these two men, music has been a refuge.

Orlando’s parents moved from Cuba to the US right after the revolution. He split his childhood between the Mission and Los Angeles, and has lived in Oakland since 2000. “I still carry the Mission district in my heart.” Fruitvale reminds him of the Mission of his childhood, he says, and Oakland of San Francisco. “Oakland reminds me of SF when I was growing up. It’s a Petri dish—[including] pain, joy, exuberance– which is the most creative environment you can find.”

From an early age, music was a part of his life. As a child, he would sing harmonies in the back of the car. Orlando recalls that, while growing up in the projects in the Mission, now torn down, older men used to sing soul, like The Delfonics. In the middle of the concrete buildings was a spot with the most amazing acoustics. “We would just harmonize; a group of 13-14 year old boys, harmonizing to Earth, Wind, and Fire.”

It wasn’t until age 29, after a troubled youth, that Orlando was heard and invited to the rehearsal of a band. “Then I was invited to a gig, and the next thing I know, I’m a member of the band.”

Piero, meanwhile, grew up in Oakland, but would take the bus to Berkeley daily and hang out on Telegraph Avenue. His family later moved in above La Pena, then a creole restaurant. The area was heavily influenced by politics of the 70s, which sent many in his family to prison. “Music was my escape,” says Piero.

At 14, Piero left an abusive home and found himself separated from his family and walking the streets at night, singing. He would sometimes sleep at Merritt College, where the ground was warm. Like Orlando, Piero realized that the concrete buildings created great acoustics. “I would sing, and the note would just carry. Singing was a way not to be lonely.”

As a teen, he was selling fake “oregano joints” one day at Berkeley’s Harmon Gym (now Haas Pavilion) when a man told him to come inside and have some food. It turned out to be Rick Stevens, then lead singer of Tower of Power, who was playing that night. From then, he realized that music had the ability to open up doors.

“Music saved our lives,” says Orlando. “It was the only thing that kept me going a lot of times, the only thing that gave me meaning.” He begins to tear up. “There were times in life where that’s all there was.”

Piero chimes in, “There are only a couple of things in life that are really important. Music is one, family is the other.” A brief pause, “Food is a quick third,” he says, and laughs.

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Catch Alta California Live!
Leo’s Music Club
Sunday, September 7, 9 p.m. (doors open at 8 p.m.)
5447 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland
Mobando will open the show
Tickets available here!

About The Author

Katie is the Music Editor at OL. She's a music geek, culture junkie, massive A's fan, and Oakland native. When she was six, she stood for five minutes with a felt pennant stuck under Chris Mullin’s armpit. Check out her Oakland music listings at www.oakampd.com, follow on twitter/instagram as @craziesthawk, or contact at katies@oaklandlocal.com

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