Roman Zepeda remembers a time when strangers scoffed at the fact that he was from East San Jose.
“Growing up there, it was looked down upon to be from the Eastside," he says. "It was like, ‘Oh, that’s the ghetto.’ It's always had this negative view."
But over the past decade, the DJ and producer better known as Turbo Sonidero has made a name for himself curating events that celebrate his neighborhood and its Chicano culture. His biggest party yet, the second annual Sonido Clash Music Fest — coming up at San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza on Sept. 3 — features the sort of buzzed-about indie and alternative Latino artists that can put a neighborhood on the map.
As we meet over coffee in Oakland, Zepeda laments that when people talk about Bay Area music, they rarely mention his hometown. Through touring the United States and Mexico, Zepeda has become East San Jose’s self-appointed ambassador. (During our interview, he prepares to hit the string of record stores in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood to pass out flyers for the festival.)
“I’m excited to see people come through from all walks of life, from all over the Bay,” he says.
Zepeda curated the festival with his collective, Sonido Clash, a group of mostly Mexican-American musicians, promoters, and artists who, since 2009, have thrown concerts and parties spotlighting Latino artists who don't make traditional music or cater to mainstream sensibilities. Last year’s festival, originally called "Music and Mezcal," featured Grammy-nominated rap duo Los Rakas, who hail from Oakland by way of Panama.
That inaugural festival planted a flag for Zepeda's vision: Groups of twenty-somethings soaked up the sun — and mezcal cocktails — on the palm tree-lined lawn in front of the outdoor stage. Kids played in the grass. Older couples showed off their footwork to live cumbia on the indoor dance floor. The music, attendees, and goods by local vendors exuded Mexican and Latin American pride.
This year's festival features nearly a dozen bands and DJs including San Diego “cholo goth” duo Prayers; electro-cumbia band Afrodita from Mexico City; Helado Negro, a soulful, Ecuadorian-American crooner based in Brooklyn; and Chico Sonido, an underground reggaeton producer from Monterrey, Mexico.
“We’re bringing artists who are pushing the boundaries of Latino alternative, or just Latino music in general,” Zepeda explains.
Sonido Clash's 2016 event drew over 500 attendees, but San Jose’s alternative Latino music scene wasn’t always this popular. Zepeda, who produces surreal, distorted cumbia spiked with rap samples, recalls struggling to find venues for Sonido Clash parties eight years ago. “It was just Top 40, [clubs] were trying to cater to techies. And then we were seeing cool stuff going on in San Francisco and Oakland," he says. "How come we can’t have it here?”
Once the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown San Jose gave Sonido Clash a monthly party in 2010, Zepeda and his collective began to develop an enthusiastic following in and outside their hometown. These days, Zepeda is a frequent guest performer at the popular Oakland party Club Chai, a hotbed of electronic artists of diverse immigrant backgrounds. For his own events, he books artists from across the United States, Mexico, and Latin America who often bring Sonido Clash to their cities in return.
“We definitely have created a scene in San Jose that wasn’t there,” Zepeda says. “All these other parties have sprung up from Sonido Clash, and it’s dope. We’ve opened those doors because 10 years ago it would have been impossible to do.”
In addition to the music at Sonido Clash, there will also be a car show, live painting, local vendors, and a poetry stage headlined by Yosimar Reyes, an East San Jose-raised author and activist who has collaborated with guitar legend Carlos Santana. Zepeda says that he wants the festival to showcase the diverse network of Latino artists he’s developed through Sonido Clash over the past decade.
“We created kind of like a family. Everything’s organic, everything’s — we’re just trying to create a community. You know?”