A papier–mache effigy of Donald Trump flies across the crowded stage floor. Beach balls crisscross, and later a girl nearly faints before being escorted to safety by security. An ecstatic man in a luche libre mask makes his way out of the mosh pit, and a young boy wildly waves a Mexican flag from atop his dad’s shoulders.
These were only some of the highlights of an exuberant, sold-out night at the Anaheim House of Blues July 27 headlined by Mexican ska superstars Pantéon Rococó. The OC show marks the near end of a whirlwind U.S. tour of 16 cities in support of their new Infiernos album.
Out of Mexico City, Pantéon Rococó are most often described as a ska band, and it’s true that they are faithful to the unmistakable bass lines and offbeat rhythms of the genre. However, with a back line consisting of no less than three percussionists–one on a traditional drum kit and two others manning Latin percussion kits–the band has masterfully constructed a fusion that is three-parts party and one part rebellious social commentary, with a little sexy in the mix, of course. (It’s hard not to have romance when your sax player, Missael Oseguera, takes his shirt off.)
Remarkably, eight original members form the core of the group that has been together now for 24 years. Although lesser known to English-only speaking audiences in the U.S., Pantéon Rococó tours regularly in Europe and fills arenas in Mexico, where earlier this year they played to more than 40,000 people over two nights.
Most of the fired-up fans at the Saturday night show were Spanish-fluent and ready to sing along and perhaps join a mosh pit. Many wore black and red Pantéon t-shirts.
I cornered Angel Gonzalez, a local bass player from Costa Mesa, before their set. “I was 10 years old when I was in Mexico City and I listened to “Dosis Perfecta,” the single off the first album, and that blew my mind,” Gonzalez said. “When you live in Mexico City, you listen to tango, salsa, banda, cumbia but these guys had a mixture of all of that: ska, rock, salsa, African rhythms. That got my attention and since then I’ve been a fan.”
In a conversation at sound check, lead singer Dr. Shenka (Luis Roman Ibarra) emphasized that although their music was forged from the working-class backgrounds and social upheaval of the 1990s Mexico of their childhood/adolescence, becoming successful enough to tour in Europe connected them to a larger audience drawn to what else is going on in the world. Much like he told us back in 2013, Dr. Shenka sees a “magic” in the music.
“We started to believe that the music really can do this kind of magic: break the language, break the borders, break everything,” Shenka says, “and I also can understand that the people don’t understand at all what I’m saying on the stage, you know, when I sing, but they get the message how we have been working together, for 24 years now, talking about politics and sociopolitics, you know.”
And although Pantéon hasn’t lost their leftist political edge, they’ve seemed to expand it, collectivize it. Signed to German label Ubersee Records, an FC St. Pauli flag hangs off of one of their drum kits. And Shenka genuinely seems moved by the way their music can reach across divides and find community in people moved by oppression.
When they started to play festivals in Europe with Bad Religion, Faith No More and Depeche Mode, it was really then, he says, that they saw it was their music and not only their message that resonates. And they’ve discovered the importance of fun, which is key in keeping a band so large on tour for a good portion of the year. Dr. Shenka says they are already looking forward to recording the next album and that having a good time playing together is the main goal.
With friends all over the world, they still remember the first time playing in Orange County at the since-closed Latin club in Anaheim, JC Fandango. Toward the end of the House of Blues set, he gave a shout-out to all the non-millennials who remembered them from those days.
And one of the more mesmerizing opening bands of the night, hard-driving Anaheim locals Gabriel Penka (which were responsible for the Trump effigy), remembers opening at Pantéon’s first OC show in 2000. The very next day, Pantéon played in the garage of Gabriel Penka’s saxophone player. “It was a little kickback thing,” guitarist Ociel Cortez Muñoz tells me.
Gabriel Penka helped jumpstart the House of Blues party as they were one of the highlights of the night, but Pantéon’s finesse is a hallmark of their global success. Through a near two-hour set, they brought out songs from all over their canon, including a couple from Infiernos, one of the highlights being the Dub Inc. collaboration “El Último Ska,” which is popular on Mexican commercial radio. Even without the French/Arabic influences that make it a standout on the new album, it was a highlight. And the whole set was nothing less than super fun.
“Que pinche calor es aqui,” Dr. Shenka exclaimed as he later literally wrung out his “Hell Yeah” tank onstage. Despite the heat, they played on, ending with “Carencia,” one of their most popular, early songs. Somehow, Dr. Shenka conjured up energy like a manic rockabilly conductor.
During the encore, a little boy with headphones ran onstage to guitar player Leonel Rosales, presumably his dad. Rosales wrapped the guitar around the child and lets him “play.” And before leaving the stage, Pantéon took selfies with the audience and a couple of commemorative “sold out” skate decks, one of which will be displayed in the HOB lobby.
But you can’t Instagram sweat, so the next time these chicos come to North America, make sure you’re there. Meanwhile, the fun continues in Mexico with a couple of festival dates in August.
Pantéon Rococó continues their all-inclusive Mexican ska party by headlining the Feria Regional in San Luis de la Paz, Aug. 22, and headlining, along with Stone Temple Pilots, the Festival SIN Fronteras in Ciudad Juarez on Aug. 31.