Listening to Roka Hueka’s danceable Latin ska, it’s easy to forget that the band’s lyrics take on hard issues like immigration and racism. The music’s fun. It keeps you moving. It sounds like the stuff a corporation would love to slap on an advertisement to woo potential customers in the Latino community and beyond.
In fact, the group recently entertained such an offer, says founder and frontman Andres Gonzalez. An international booze company approached the band, offering money and exposure in exchange for a performance in a branded music video. The bandmates wrestled with the idea, but after talking it through, they rejected the offer. It would have tied them to a business that espoused anti-immigrant politics and funded conservative causes, and the musicians refused to compromise their values.
Still, they worry: Have their strong positions burned bridges? Have they sabotaged themselves from getting future opportunities? Even if they have, it’s better to lose some business than to lose their souls, Gonzalez says.
While most of the band’s members have played for years in acts around town, this is Gonzalez’s first project. The late-thirties lifelong shower singer started listening to ska a year after his parents divorced. He was thirteen, growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, when he first heard the Mexican City band Panteón Rococó. “Man, this music is energy,” he thought.
He’s been listening to Latin American ska ever since, dreaming for most of his life of fronting a band, but never imagining that one day he would.
“I was a normal Mexican kid,” he says, though he confesses he was a lady’s man in high school, dating three girls at the same time, and also popular, serving as class president.
After completing school in Mexico, he moved to Kansas with his mother to live with relatives. They eventually relocated to Denver. Together they applied at a jobs center for whatever work was available, with one condition: They would have to be assigned to the same site and shifts because they lived together and shared transportation.
The center signed them up to work at a factory, where they operated three machines for $7 an hour. The work was tedious and gave Gonzalez a lot of time to think.
He would belt out ska songs during long shifts to help the time pass, but otherwise, singing for a proper audience was a distant dream. “After work, I would play basketball at a park.… That was my life: work, basketball, then sleep. That was it. I didn’t go out a lot. That was my life.”
One day on his lunch break, he stopped by the neighborhood McDonald’s. The person cooking up the fries looked familiar.
“What the fuck? Is that Georgina? I know that girl,” he thought to himself.
But he didn’t approach her. Georgina was one of his three girlfriends’ best friends from back in Mexico, and he thought she hated him because he was a player. He didn’t speak to her, just left the restaurant and called a friend in Mexico to ask if Georgina had moved to Denver. She had, the friend said.
Gonzalez says he “stalked her” online and eventually reached out to her. At first she claimed not to recognize him, which he found unbelievable, because they had been in the same class, he had dated her best friend, and he had been class president. “I said, ‘You should remember me.’ She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I think I remember you.’”
He asked her out to the movies, and when she said she had a boyfriend, Gonzalez said it wasn’t a date. But sparks flew that night, and there was no turning back, he says. “We were meant to be together in this world. [We’re] 1,700 miles away, and we met here.”
He was 22 when they married, a year later; soon they had two kids. After fourteen years, they’re still together.
Had it not been for Georgina, Gonzalez would have never formed Roka Hueka. When he was 32, the two of them were cleaning homes together. He would sing constantly as they worked, and it got on her nerves. She told him he needed to find an outlet for his music so he’d shut up around her. She found an ad for a Boulder karaoke joint that was looking for a host. Gonzalez called the owner, who liked his voice and hired him on the spot.
Gonzalez told the owner, a musician, that he wanted to start a ska band. “What’s ska?” the owner asked. When Gonzalez played him a track, he was wowed and wanted in.
They published an ad on Craigslist seeking musicians to join a Latin ska act. Several musicians, including drummer Blake Pendergrass and bassist Ric Urrutia, joined up. Together they formed a band that would play ska versions of popular songs.
Urrutia, who had a penchant for socialist politics, persuaded his bandmates to quit playing only covers and to start writing their own material with political lyrics. Gonzalez loved the idea; the karaoke-joint owner, not so much.
The group played its first show on February 7, 2014, at La Boom. The performance was terrible. Tensions grew, and the karaoke-joint owner left the band. Gonzalez was ready to call it quits when Urrutia said, “No, man. We should keep doing it.”
Roka Hueka (spelled with a twist, it means “hollow rock” in Spanish) now plays uptempo ska originals about the issues the bandmembers face every day: love, labor, police violence, racism and politics.
For the past two years, Roka Hueka has practiced every week at RocketSpace, a low-cost practice space for musicians in Denver, and has turned itself into an outfit that’s as tight as it is energizing. It’s become the go-to group for bookers to call when Latin ska bands come through town — acts like Inspector or the Venezuelan political band Desorden Público. The band has even opened for acts Gonzalez idolized during his teenage years, like Panteón Rococó.
When Roka Hueka opened for the group, Gonzalez was understandably terrified to be supporting his childhood favorite. Before going on stage, he says, “I was shaking. I had to drink two shots of Jack Daniel’s.”
The show went off without a hitch. After the set was over, Gonzalez was walking by the green room, and Dr. Shenko, the frontman of Panteón Rococó, grabbed him, pulled him inside and praised his performance.
“That pushed me to do more things,” says Gonzalez.
The Denver outfit has made inroads with the city’s Anglo ska scene and opened for national bands like Slackers, the Wailers and Hepcat at larger venues including the Gothic Theatre.
Roka Hueka plans to drop a new album sometime in 2018, throw a video-release party for its joyful ska song “Skank It” at Ophelia’s on July 7, and play the Westword Music Showcase on Saturday, June 24. This fall, the musicians plan to throw a mini music festival at Lost Lake that will spotlight an array of genres and raise funds for immigrant-rights groups.
“We’ll get all the bands united and put out a huge message through the music,” says Gonzalez.
While most of Roka Hueka’s early lyrics were in Spanish, these days Gonzalez aims to make them bilingual so more audiences can engage with the content. The band is all about unity, bringing people from different communities and nations together, he says.
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Understandably, anti-immigrant policies from the newest presidential administration don’t bode well with Roka Hueka. “We’ve had enough,” Gonzalez adds. “We need to protest more about what’s not right.” For the group, that involves marrying celebration with revolution, joy with political outrage.
Says Gonzalez: “If there are mics and amps, we’re going to get the message out.”