Heading to a punk club, sharing a drink, and talking about music, politics, and DIY culture are beginning to feel like things that happen only in a parallel universe–it’s hard to imagine that you could do them in this one just a couple weeks ago. The COVID-19 crisis drives home the importance of musicians like La Armada–this Chicago crossover hardcore band not only work hard for justice and equality for everyone but also make music that inspires people to cherish community and keep moving forward when the chips are down.
La Armada’s new four-EP series, Songs of the Exiled, which kicks off March 27 with the two-song Songs of the Exiled I: Chicago, will focus in turn on different cities that shaped them, from their adolescence through the present. The five-piece band formed in the Dominican Republic in 2001 and arrived piecemeal in Chicago around 2008 (following a brief stint in Florida), so they have plenty of experience with displacement and perseverance–and it’s driven home for them the importance of compassion and connection.
I met with bassist Alberto “Mani” Marte and guitarist Paul Rivera on February 27, the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day, and after our interview they went downtown to take part in a demonstration in solidarity with Dominican citizens and expats around the world, protesting apparent corruption in the country’s February 16 elections. Hours after people began casting votes, officials shut down the polls; electronic voting machines malfunctioned in ways that seemed to favor the ruling party (Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana, or PLD), which has been in power for most of the past 24 years.
According to La Armada, the PLD has created an ugly, oppressive environment that has pushed many of their generation, especially artists, to leave the island in search of brighter opportunities. “The political climate when we left the island was very sinister; it was very hostile,” Marte says. “A lot of people left for economic reasons. A lot of people left because they couldn’t find an outlet for something they were working on.”
That migration helped inspire Songs of the Exiled, and so did the long history of Dominican authorities exiling political opponents from the country–most notoriously dictatorial ruler Rafael Trujillo, whose regime killed many of its perceived enemies and drove many more to flee the island. The series title nods to the 1962 book Cuentos Escritos en el Exilio (“Stories Written in Exile”) by Juan Bosch, a Dominican political leader exiled by Trujillo for more than two decades. Trujillo ruled the country from 1930 till his assassination in 1961, and in 1963 Bosch became its first democratically elected president. His term was cut short seven months later by a military coup, and he was sent back into exile. Since then, especially during the 22 years when former Trujillo puppet Joaquin Balaguer served as president, many more intellectuals, artists, and others deemed “politically undesirable” have been forced to leave the country.
“When we thought about what we wanted to do with this series, [the title] slipped off the tongue,” Rivera says. “It was a no-brainer because of the book, because of the relationship between that word [“exile”] and that time period in the Dominican, and because of the similarity of that time period to the time period when we left–which was starting to fall into the same thing.”
The Songs of Exile series also marks a new beginning for La Armada. Last year they underwent the first lineup change in their nearly 20-year history, when lead singer Javier Fernandez stepped away from the band–his departure pushed the remaining members (Marte, Rivera, drummer Luis Martinez, and guitarist Jonathan Salazar) into a reckoning.
“We had to readdress the approach to the band, and on a more existential level: who we are, what we want to do, and is it worth it,” Rivera says. “We’re in our mid-30s–we’re not 20 anymore. We grew up together as friends before anything, so when something so drastic happens, you do question things. But the four original members of the band are still very much on the same page. We wholeheartedly believe in what we do and the music we create.”
After deciding to keep going, they recruited vocalist Casper Torres, a Puerto Rico native who, like the members of La Armada, came to the U.S. as part of a band (in this case hardcore four-piece KDC, who settled in Buffalo, New York). He’d already spent plenty of time touring with La Armada as an unofficial sixth member of the group.
La Armada debuted their new lineup on a European tour last summer, but they were still reevaluating their mission. They brought those questions into the songwriting and recording processes. “What shaped us?” Marte asks. “Ten years in the Dominican, two years in Florida, ten years in Chicago, and Casper coming from Puerto Rico. All those years, all those people we met, all those relationships we made got us where we are today. So what better topic to talk about?” To that end, they planned each part of Songs of the Exiled as an homage to a particular city.
Chicago has no shortage of hardworking musicians, but La Armada’s dedication stands out. In their early days, they were deeply involved with Santo Domingo’s hardcore and metal scene, where they say a shortage of instruments didn’t prevent fans from holding musicians to high standards–Marte and Rivera recall audience members calling out bands for even tiny mistakes. “We would have a show with ten bands and one bass, one guitar, and one drum kit, and we’d have to share the gear,” Marte says. “I think that scarcity, not really having anything, and trying to perform correctly every day, it stuck with us and it shaped us.”
La Armada brought that mentality to the States. Marte arrived in Florida in 2004, and the rest of the band eventually followed, with members often sharing apartments while going through the immigration process and establishing new lives. They kept in touch with old friends in the Dominican diaspora while making new ones in stateside DIY scenes, and after moving to Chicago, they built strong connections within the local Caribbean and Latinx communities as well. The journey wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick. “It took us about ten years to get to ‘OK, now we’re here. We’re stable, we’ve got jobs, we’ve got our gear, we know some labels, we know some fellow musicians. Let’s do it!'” Marte says.
Chicago’s hardcore scene can feel compartmentalized, but as La Armada have revved up their activity, they’ve drawn fans from different age brackets, genres, nationalities, and neighborhoods. “Maybe we’re playing with a bigger band, and we end up playing the Metro,” Rivera says. “That same night we could pack our stuff and go play Pilsen or Little Village, and nobody that was at the Metro would even know.” But when La Armada can bring those crowds together, Marte and Rivera agree, “It’s magical.” More and more often, they’ve booked shows (often at Cobra Lounge) intended to bring various segments of the local metal and hardcore fan base–white and Latinx, young and old, north side and south side–all into the same room. “When we play shows, we try to bring the best of the underground from different scenes,” Marte says. “We want to blow your mind.”
La Armada’s following has grown outside Chicago as well, as they’ve released three full-lengths (most recently 2018’s Anti-Colonial Vol. 1) and a handful of EPs and splits, and toured with the likes of Sick of It All, Propagandhi, and Death by Stereo. Their lyrics address police brutality, the use of technology to control the flow of information, and similar subjects; at shows, they often use their between-song patter to invite the audience to consider the impact of racial injustice, the rise of modern-day fascism, and the continuous stain of colonialism.
“There’s a historical context to it, like the colonization of Puerto Rico, but there’s a modern aspect to it that we try to address too, onstage,” Rivera says. “OK, so the United States is an empire, but a lot of the choices we make are based on marketing. Do you realize the influence that a Canadian company like Barrick Gold has in a country like the Dominican Republic? Do you know the damage that’s being done today in supposedly free markets, where everybody is supposedly hunky-dory? There’s a lot to unpack.”
Not every fan is on board with these lessons, and La Armada have had to deal with the “keep politics out of music” crowd (especially at metal shows), but most folks listen with open minds. “More than ever, people want us to be outspoken,” Marte says. “People want us to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice, and they want to feel like we have their back.”
La Armada walk the walk too: they’ve worked to raise awareness and funds for a variety of organizations, including the ACLU and Puerto Rican community kitchen La Cocina Huracanada (which opened after Hurricane Maria in San Juan rock club El Local and supplied meals for displaced people). They’ve also supported local groups such as No Cop Academy and anticolonial solidarity coalition Chicago Boricua Resistance.
They also continue to challenge themselves as musicians, increasingly injecting Afro-Caribbean rhythms into their ripping hardcore, punk, and metal. Marte (whose father is a salsa musician) says that the members of La Armada, like most teenagers into punk and metal, initially rejected their parents’ culture–but time and distance have shifted their perspective, and they no longer take Dominican music for granted. “Once you’re an immigrant in this country, and you feel the isolation, and you feel that sometimes you don’t fit, you start looking back at the way you grew up and your culture, and what your parents taught you,” Marte says. “Music is such a big part of Caribbean culture. You don’t even realize it, but when you’re here, you’re like, ‘Oh, all these merengue songs, all of these salsa songs.’ And that’s played a big part in how we’ve written our songs over the past couple of years.”
The bandmates hint that the forthcoming Songs of the Exiled EPs, scheduled to arrive every three months throughout 2020, will contain more Afro-Caribbean influence. But the music on Songs of the Exiled I: Chicago is mostly an ode to the local hardcore that drew them to the city, including 90s stalwarts MK-Ultra and Los Crudos. Marte and Rivera say that “Gun Nation,” which addresses violence and gun control, and “Plagued,” an abstract meditation about becoming an adult and defining your values, were shaped by the band’s years in Chicago. “This is our lens through which we view the rest of America, and there’s good and bad, like anywhere,” Rivera explains.
During this public-health crisis, the state of the world is changing by the minute, and the only thing that seems certain is that things will get worse before they get better. But judging by La Armada’s track record, they’ll do everything humanly possible to weather the storm and come back swinging–and with any luck, their activism will also be able to lift up others along the way. What keeps them motivated in the face of adversity? “Despite what a lot of people would think, there are a lot of people–good people–working with their boots on the ground, working every day to improve the system and make things more efficient,” Marte says. “The problem is they don’t get the resources and exposure they need to effectively do their work. And that’s why we’re here today.” v