“Our focus is not on presenting a high degree of musicianship. Our focus is on making people’s asses move,” explains Matt Dunkel ’01, keyboardist for Cabeza de Vaca, a “Latin” jam band. The non-Hispanic sextet is playing its last New Haven-area gig at Toad’s tonight before ending its popular local career and moving on to New York City. Made up of two Yale seniors, two New Haven residents and two New York-based Yale Art School graduates, Cabeza hardly considers itself a Yale band, but their fan base among the Yale community is evidence of the popularity they have established with students over the past two years.
While not a “Yale band” thanks to its minority of actual Yale students, Cabeza is certainly a product of the Yale-New Haven music scene. The members are all separately involved in either Arcaro or 33.3, bands with styles vastly different from that of Cabeza de Vaca. The line-up — Dunkel, Matt Quin, Joe Grimm ’01, Will Noland, Steve Walls ART ’00 and Brian Alfred ART ’00 — came together through a network of Yale and New Haven-area musicians. They are all talented musicians with many years of instruction on their instruments and enough group synchronicity to slap together Latin standards with their own original work in live jam sessions. They jovially admit to having little credibility as “authentic” Latin musicians because of their lack of ethnicity or professional training in the genre, but in many ways that is the root of their appeal. Audience enjoyment is their sole measure of success, and in this measure they have been triumphant.
First formed as an attempt to complement a Havana theme party with appropriate musical stylings, Cabeza de Vaca soon grew to be more than a side project for its otherwise-committed members.
“The first couple of times we did it, we couldn’t believe how people were responding. They were really into it,” Dunkel said.
Cabeza attracted crowds to GPSCY dances and house parties by a word of mouth. Stories of their marathon shows, usually consisting of three hour-long sets punctuated by 15-minute breaks, built up their reputation as one of the most fun and energetic acts around campus. Conga drum player Matt Quin frequently beat the skins until his hands bled, never stopping even to wipe the red stains from his drums. In place of lyrics to their songs, all members hollered and cajoled audiences into further heights of boogying ecstasy. The combined factors of darkly lit venues, alcohol-saturated crowds, sweltering body heat, table dancing and the apoplectic energy of screaming musicians are what Dunkel attributes to the circus-like Cabeza experience.
Younger undergraduates may be less familiar with Cabeza since the Toad’s show will be one of their few official all-ages shows. They are regular performers at the grad school bar GPSCY and Rudy’s, a New Haven watering hole. Few Yalies who have experienced the atmosphere generated by Latin dance rhythms and sweaty, drunk, gyrating bodies will speak poorly of it. As Dunkel said, “We’ve sent more repressed couples home to happy humping than anyone around.”
Dunkel and his band-mates are optimistic about their future plans. Post-graduation, Dunkel and Grimm are moving to New York City to join the two members already living there, and Noland and Quin are planning to do the same. Cabeza has been working up a New York fan base by periodically playing shows throughout the city and hopes the buzz will continue in the much larger pond of the city’s music scene. Saying goodbye to New Haven is bittersweet, both for fans and band members, since Yale loses a truly original interpretation of “Cuban” flavor in Cabeza de Vaca.