(left) The original Cannibal and the Headhunters

(right) L to R Matthew Ramos (Ronnie), Kenneth Lopez (Jimmy Ramirez), Jesse Maldonado (Andy and Marco Infante (Mario) in Eastside Heartbeats, being presented by Brown Fist Productions at CASA 0101 Theater Photo by: Aaron Macias

The second run of the musical “Eastside Heartbeats,” currently playing at the CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights, has a powerful, talented cast supported by an equally talented strong group of musicians and production team.  

Among them are San Fernando Valley actors Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez, a North Hollywood resident who plays the lead character, and Diana Castrillon, who lives in Northridge.

This important and fun production is inspired by the story of Cannibal and the Headhunters, and the unique Rock “N” Roll sound that was born in East L.A in the 1960’s. The band opened for the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965.

While most people won’t recall Cannibal and the Headhunter’s hit song by it’s title, “The Land of A Thousand Dances,” it only takes singing the song’s chorus, “Nahhh… nah, nah, nah…Nahhh…” that it’s quickly  remembered.   

Robert “Rabbit” Jaramillo, now 68, is the last remaining band member of the group.  He told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that his only disappointment was that the production wasn’t able to use the groups original music because of copyright restrictions.

This musical production skillfully created new music that is reminiscent of the period.

“Rabbit” now lives in Colorado, and said he sometimes misses East Los Angeles and reflects on those days. He said the band’s actual meeting and time spent with the Beatles was a big moment, but at the same time was quite natural.  

“They [The Beatles] called us the ‘Nah, Nah’ boys,’” Jaramillo said. “They  treated us as equals, all doing the same thing. We were all together, we were all musicians.”

Jaramillo said he appreciated the musical, and supports and understands its “artistic license.” Although the role portrayed of the father in the play is portrayed as being  concerned about his son’s decision to pursue music, both of his parents were always very supportive.

“My father and my mother were very proud,” Jaramillo said.  In fact, his father would “put up our posters and had our picture in a little frame. He would hang it up, announcing our performances at his own gigs wherever he was playing.”

“My father worked at the Reliable Iron Foundry and manufactured pipes by our house by day. He also had his own band and played the guitar, violin and the bass. My mother played the guitar. Music was always in our house,” he said.

“We were influenced by the music in our homes and the music that surrounded us, including music from the Black community. It was a good time for us.”

The members of Cannibal and the Headhunters all went to Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, grew up together at the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects, and started playing together when they were very young — beginning at 14-15 years old. They all had nicknames for each other.  

“One day Frankie got in a fight at school — I think it was at Belvedere — and he bit the kid he was fighting. From then on, we called him ‘Cannibal’ and the name of our band was changed from Bobby and the Classics to Cannibal and the Headhunters,” Jaramillo said.

He thinks fondly about the days that would be one of the pinnacles for the East L.A. Rock sound.   

“We were just doing the music, and I didn’t expect the song to be as big as it became. People still recognize the tune.”

Director Steve Feinberg said he was aware of the music scene in East L.A., although he lived a thousand miles away. “There was a sound coming from this neighborhood. In that sound, one could hear hope, optimism and a spirit that would not be subdued; that was alive, vibrant and wonderful.”

Maria Yepes, executive producer of the musical, said this play is reminiscent of her own history growing up.

“I was a huge Beatle fan, and when I heard on KRLA Radio about the Beatles concert coming to L.A, I started saving money from my little jobs babysitting and tutoring and I was able to buy tickets for me and my cousin,” she said.

“I was so surprised to hear Cannibal and the Headhunters being announced and come out on stage. I was familiar with them; they were performing all over East L.A. in  dances, and I was just so thrilled. that there were these young teenagers  from my neighborhood playing on the same stage along with the Beatles.”

Yepes points to the long cultural and social history that impacted the “sound”  that came out of the East L.A., and other Chicano communities at that time. It includes Ritchie Valens, who came from Pacoima, and who is referenced in the musical.

“The mission of putting on positive productions like this that tells our stories also gives opportunity for young artists to play these roles so that they can get on their way to be successful,” Yepes said.  

Castrillon, originally from Chicago, and who plays the matriarch in the musical, said she wasn’t aware of the Eastside’s musical history. But she could relate to the play.

“In my family, my father had a good voice and wanted to be a singer but was never able to realize his dream,” Castrillon said.

She said the takeaway for her was to encourage everyone to “realize their dreams.”

The production’s lead actor Kenneth Lopez is only 21, but sings 17 of the 21 songs. On weekends, with two shows, it doubles the amount of singing to 34 songs. Such a demand can cause vocal fatigue, which Lopez said has been challenging.  

“Yes, I’m 21 and I’m the youngest one in the cast, but I play the role of the [leader] oldest member of the band,” he said.   

With a play that requires the ability to sing, dance and act, all of the roles are challenging. Lopez said that Feinberg, producer David Reyes and other members of the production team have really helped him through the performance demands by sharing what those days were like, adding to his research of this period of time in L.A.  

“Learning more about the period allowed me to dig deeper, to take the role to its next level,” and to handle the pressure,” Lopez said. “I do consider it such a privilege to play this role.”

Lopez, who grew up in Texas, began to play the piano when he was only four. He spent a lot of time with his father, also a musician and a school band leader, while his mother — in the military — served in the Middle East.  “We had a lot of microwave.” he said.

“This story is really about family and a kid and his father. Great stories are about family, and it’s a good show for everyone to see, especially for young people and for young artists.”

Although based at a time in the 60’s, there are many similar threads, Lopez said, that he and other young artists today can relate to in this musical.

“I want to live life and live life as an artist.”

“Eastside Heartbeats” is currently running through May 29 at CASA 0101 Theater’s Main Stage, located at 2102 East First Street in Boyle Heights.  For more information, call (323) 262-7684 or visit www.casa0101.org.