Latin-Ska Group Roka Hueka Drops Politically Charged Party Soundtrack

Three years after forming, the Denver-based Latin ska band Roka Hueka will release its self-produced debut album, Red, at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox on Saturday, May 28, with fellow local Latin-Caribbean fusion acts Quilombo and ArteCura opening.

Mixing influences and transcending borders is a recurring theme for Roka Hueka, in both the band’s cross-cultural swirl of musical inspirations and its multi-national lineup, represented by bandmembers from Mexico, El Salvador and the United States.

“We fuse all different types of rhythms," says bassist Ric Urrutia, "We throw everything in there, with a big Latin influence, but we keep ska as the backbone."

The group came together in 2013 after frontman Andy Gonzalez posted a Craigslist ad looking to form a band. After six months and a number of auditions, the band’s initial roster took shape. Urrutia and trumpet player Matthew Wilkolak were the first to join up. Today the group is rounded out by Hansen Millison on trombone, drummer Blake Pendergrass, and Mario Rodriguez on guitar.  

The connection between Latin and Caribbean music dates back centuries, laying the foundation for the Afro-Cuban sound and eventually the blues. Roka Hueka admires this lineage but draws inspiration from more immediate sources by tapping into the deep well of ska music — from the Skatalites, the Jamaican godfathers who launched the genre in the early 1960s, to the 2-Tone ska of late-1970s England epitomized by the Specials, among others, and into the modern era with Latino-tinged SoCal ska punks Voodoo Glow Skulls and Panteon Rococo from Mexico City.

The band’s other musical influences are just as thoughtfully chosen, with nods to reggaeton, soul, funk, jazz and the infectious rhythms of cumbia. The natural chemistry among the members' individual styles and Roka Hueka’s collective songwriting process and musical output all combine to make up a special brew.

“We can all bring our own flavor to the table, and that’s what makes it so unique,” Millison says.

Red contains all original material, which, according to the band, “touches on themes of love to the struggle of immigrants and workers," and comments on issues relevant in Denver and the broader world.

“This album is just about being as original as possible and just making songs about our lives and what is going on in the world. What we live and what we see is what the lyrics are all about. We are just speaking reality,” Gonzalez says.

The lyrics are articulate, urgent, critical and drenched in rude-boy attitude. Many of the bands' songs lay down a brassy, foot-stomping backbeat while locking eyes with nasty social issues, including the daunting costs of living, dogged corporate power and the torturous gloom of a dead-end job, as heard on "Unos Centavos (A Few Cents)":

Into this mess we’re born
Rich and poor – what a destiny
This system is broken
Without money we’re stuck

What other option do I have but go to work
Without any inspiration to advance myself
Tired of killing myself for a few cents
While there’s these millionaire bosses

Mind you, this is all coming from a seemingly upbeat ska band, but for these musicians, and for many other fans in this vibrant scene across the country, it totally makes sense.

“The nice thing about it is: You listen to the lyrics, and some of them are pretty grim, but it has ska as the backbone, so people can get down and dance to it, but you can also listen to a more critical message,” Urrutia says.

"Fantasma," the final cut on Red, takes on "the struggles and discrimination faced by undocumented people in society.” A YouTube video from a Roka Hueka show last year shows Gonzalez tossing a Donald Trump pinata (which the band brought) into the crowd at the start of this song. He says the song, and the stunt, was a push-back against the anti-Latino rhetoric Trump has been infamously quoted as saying. The added stage flare was a sensation at the concert that night and later on YouTube.

Gritty social commentary riding over a pulsating, upbeat rhythm is the blueprint for ska and its proudly rebellious offspring, reggae. Throw in a splash of cumbia gyration, soul music’s clenched fist of passion and pain, and douse it with punk-rock moxie, and you get a sense of Roka Hueka’s essence, but Urrutia says it’s that skanking beat that always comes through.

“We’ll put anything on the table, but it’s always held together with that ska rhythm.”

Roka Hueka, Quilombo and ArteCura will perform at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox on Saturday, May 28, 9:00 p.m. $10 advance tickets available through Roka Hueka’s Facebook page. More information available at  

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