Claudia Gomez says, “We are kick-ass female musicians.” I look around to the two others with us. Lorraine Castellanos and Evona Wascinski both nod their heads in agreement. We’re sitting in a booth at Croce’s Park West at around 5:30, about a half an hour before Gomez, Castellanos, and Wascinski, better known as the trio of Besos de Coco, are to begin their performance for the night.
Besos de Coco meld the austerity and grace of classical music, the improvisation and spontaneity of jazz, the appeal of pop, and the liveliness of hot rhythm and tap dancing (Yes, you got that right, tap dancing). So there might be really only one way to adequately describe this band’s music: kick-ass.
“We’re unique. We are not trying to copy anybody else,” says Wascinski, the bassist for the trio. We’re always innovating on our instrumentation and choice of material.” All the members of the band contribute suggestions for tunes or compositions to add to their repertoire. Arranging the tunes is a collaborative effort as well. “This way of approaching things gives us a lot of variety,” she says.
Castellanos is the groups’ guitarist and singer. She says that no one walks into rehearsal with a set idea as to how the three musicians are going to approach a tune, each one of the three trying out new ideas or suggesting things for the others to try. “And musically, it’s gotten to the point that we can read each other’s minds,” she adds.
The genesis of the band goes back four or five years when the three women were performing in a band called Cajeta, which is Spanish for caramel. That group, which included Lorraine’s husband, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, and pianist Irving Florez, performed a mixture of Latin and jazz. Fans could find them performing locally at Dizzy’s and 98 Bottles. “We had been playing together for a while,” says Castellanos. “Then one day we decided to try featuring the girls in the band. We worked out an arrangement of a classical piece and it worked!”
Gomez receives the credit for coming up with the name Besos de Coco, which is Spanish for coconut kisses, a favorite treat in the Caribbean. Gomez is also the artistic director and choreographer for her nostalgic burlesque review, the Cherries Jubilee. (Besos de Coco? Cherries Jubilee? My guess is that Gomez likes to name her performance projects after tasty treats.)
Castellanos says that the band is happy with what they are performing now, but that each member of the band is hungry to try new things and make new music. Originally, Gomez tapped the percussion for the trio on all of their numbers, but she has branched out and now plays drums and other percussion, such as the cajon. “I’ve taken some drum lessons from Fernando Gomez. I’ve also taken bass lessons from Evona,” she says. “It’s really getting me out of the box, opening things up for me musically. And I like these things because it helps me to consider myself as a musician.”
Confessing that her previous singing experience had been confined to the shower, Wascinski has started singing in the group. “It’s completely new to me, but I really like it,” she says.
Gomez chimes in that she has developed a great deal as a musician in recent years. “The Federal Jazz Project kicked my ass!” she says, referring to her role in the recent production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Centered on the music of San Diego, The Federal Jazz Project incorporated the history of speakeasies, World War II, the labor movement, and other prominent trends from American history. “With that production I got good really fast. That show had some of the best musicians in town. I learned a lot working with them. And, recently, I started working with the metronome, and it has helped me a lot. Actually, teaching students with a metronome helped me a lot, too. Even just working with the rudiments while I have the metronome has been a really great learning experience. It took me a while, but I’ve learned to laugh at my mistakes, too! And that’s the only way you really learn.”
While each member has learned and grown on their own, they have also worked at becoming a better band, a better unit. All three took part recently in a coaching seminar with local bassist John Clayton. “The first thing we did was bake an apple pie!” Castellanos says. She explains that Clayton intended the baking session as a way to break the ice and build camaraderie. After the pie was duly baked, it was back to the music. “We performed a couple of pieces for him. He gave us some really good advice on how to listen to each other, to not be selfish, how to be a good group. He gave us some good advice on how to look for feedback. It used to be that we would say, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’ We don’t say that any more.”
While the three women are confident of their talents, they have received reminders that their original approach and arrangements are not everyone’s cup of tea. There was the one gig in which Gomez was asked to leave. The establishment was okay with Castellanos’ guitar and Wascinski’s bass, but the rhythm that Gomez’s tap dancing added to the band was just not what the establishment wanted. “I think that the establishment wanted background music,” says Castellanos. “We are definitely not background music. Not everybody is into tap dancing, and they’re ignorant of what Claudia does. They don’t realize that with her tap dancing she can do anything that a drummer can do. Claudia knows the language, and she keeps going.”
The first set at Croce’s on this particular Sunday evening started off with a sultry version of “Besame Mucho,” then Gomez tapped for an arrangement of a classical piece. The set also included two tongue-in-cheek standards, “Why Don’t You Do Right” and the Adler/Ross number from Damn Yankees “Whatever Lola Wants.”
All three members of Besos de Coco come from different backgrounds. Wascinski has been an established bassist in San Diego for years now. She was born in Poland but moved here with her family in the mid-eighties. Her first instrument was the piano, but when she was a teenager she began playing bass with some of the local pop and rock performers. As with many electric bassists, she was seduced by the warmth and depth of the double bass and pretty much made a permanent switch over to the big instrument. She has a B.A. from UCSD, where she studied with both Mark Dresser and Bert Turetsky. She has performed with the La Jolla Symphony, Allison Adams Tucker, the San Diego Hot Club Combo, Mikan Zlatkovich, Adrian Demain, and other notable musicians and groups. By the way, the rumors of Wascinski moving to Europe, some of them printed up in competing publications, are untrue.
Gomez’ mother danced in the Ballet Forklorica, the lively and colorful dance troupe that celebrates the regional dances and music of Mexico. Because of her mother’s influence, Gomez has been dancing since the age of three. When she was five years old she was taking ballet at the City of San Diego Civic Dance Arts. Soon afterward she saw and was captivated by the PBS documentary No Maps on My Taps. “I told my mom right then I wanted to do this, that I wanted to tap dance! When I was back at school I found a flier, a Park and Recreation flier for tap dancing, and that’s when I started in on tap,” she says.
A local San Diegan, Castellanos attended Mount Carmel high school before she went on to attend a high school specializing in teaching arts and music. She had been a rocker, banging out Led Zeppelin and Metallica on her electric guitar, but under the sway of Fred Benedetti, the music department chair at Grossmont College and one of the finest masters of the classical guitar in southern California, Castellanos switched from heavy metal to pumping nylon. She studied some jazz and jazz theory at San Diego State University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, both from SDSU.
The band has appeared at Croce’s Park West, Ortega’s Mexican Bistro in Hillcrest, and several other Southern California performance venues. Starting with a Kickstarter campaign early next year, Besos de Coco plan on releasing a compact disk, after which the trio would like to plan a tour that might include shows in New York and the East Coast as well as cities in Europe.
“We’re all friends, and I’m proud to say that I’m in a female band,” Gomez says. “And with a lot of respect and love we can come together for our music.”
Check the Troubadour calendar for Besos de Coco’s performance dates and times.