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Bootleg Orchestra talks carrying on the fight, social justice, and latest album, “MAKIBAKA”

(Left to right) Vanessa Acosta (vocals/trumpet), Menchie Caliboso (producer/bassist), and Andrew Dickson (producer/guitarist). Photo: Romeo H.

As a band of cultural workers, Bootleg Orchestra produces electronic soul music that not only reflects the conditions of society but calls on listeners to be creators of change through community-based action.

The musical trio — composed of vocalist and trumpet player Vanessa Acosta, bass player Menchie Caliboso, and guitarist Andrew Dickson — stays true to the meaning behind the “Orchestra” name. Having shared the stage with Ruby Ibarra, Tiffany Gouche, Sylvan Esso and Gallant, and Talib Kweli, they value the collaborative process with artists whose songwriting and music are also informed by their lived experiences in the community.

“Music and art have always served to unite, educate, and motivate social change throughout history,” Dickson said. “As cultural workers, our job is to reflect the times and inspire change by creating art that connects with ordinary people and motivates them to build a better world.”

Bootleg Orchestra released its debut album MAKIBAKA in August 2021 — the title derives from “Makibaka, huwag matakot,” a revolutionary chant in the Philippines that means “dare to struggle, don’t be afraid.” The album reflects the duality of their personal healing journeys as they mobilize and serve the people in the growing anti-imperialist and anti-fascist movement.

“We’re complex human beings when we enter spaces or interact with anyone. We’re also bringing our own baggage and contradictions,” Caliboso said. “For us, makibaka means having the patience, compassion, and courage to create a new world, which often requires us to lean into the difficult work of facing our own contradictions as we unlearn the ways we might inadvertently perpetuate the toxic culture of capitalism.”

Acosta says the journey can often feel overwhelming, but folks are not alone because the work takes a community.

“Everybody has a role. We can take incremental steps to educate and get to a point where you’re comfortable going to meetings, rallies, and events or writing a letter to your congressperson. There are so many different and unique ways we can show up,” Acosta said.

In July, Bootleg Orchestra performed “Carry on the Fight” outside the Philippine Consulate in Los Angeles for a People’s State of the Nation Address, an annual demonstration that centers the voices and demands of the Filipino masses:

“Revolution for me and you, carry on the fight/Can’t have freedom without the truth, we must not be blind/My people fight strong for liberation, our love is not a crime/Our power is stronger than any gun, when fighting for what’s right.”

Photo: Romeo H.

Filipinos have been carrying on the fight across the generations, from resisting Spanish colonization, Japanese occupation, and the continued presence of U.S. imperialists to organizing against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and, more recently, the new Marcos-Duterte administration. The centuries-long fight for liberation and genuine democracy in the Philippines is a shared struggle among many other communities of color.

“From Palestine to the Philippines, stop the U.S. war machine” has become a central chant at PSONA rallies throughout the United States. Under the guise of humanitarian aid, American tax dollars continue to fund military operations, training, and state-sanctioned violence abroad.

“The effects of U.S. imperialism are not unique to the Philippines. Many people throughout the world share this same history,” Dickson said. “We believe it’s important to recognize the shared struggle and seek to unite under a common banner of power by the people, for the people.

The theme of resistance and the spirit of community building emerge throughout Bootleg Orchestra’s album. Their song “War” critiques the U.S. military-industrial complex and how the ruling elite exploits and marginalizes low-income and working-class people for personal gain:

“Calling on the poor, poor/Fight their dirty wars/Hands were made to serve a purpose/Tell us what’s your’s?”

Bootleg Orchestra serves many purposes beyond music. Outside the recording studio, Acosta works as a program coordinator for litter abatement programs, offering clean-ups and free tools for businesses to ensure litter-free properties. She is also a clinical assistant and herbalist for a local acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in Long Beach. Grounding herself in her ancestors’ teachings has taught her to connect with her truth, especially as an artist.

“Being an artist is really allowing ourselves to examine and criticize our thoughts and daily experiences,” Acosta said. “I first and foremost see myself as a spiritual person on a mission rooted in love and faith.”

As a child, Acosta was encouraged to celebrate her family roots. Her parents were organizers in the 1970s with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MECHA), a student-led organization that seeks to empower Chicana/o/x communities through higher education and political activism.

“I’m fortunate that my family politicized me. When I was young, my dad was very conscious and aware of what it meant to grow up brown and be Mexican in Long Beach,” Acosta said.

Caliboso had a different journey toward activism.

Caption– (Left to right) Andrew Dickson, Menchie Caliboso, and Vanessa Acosta. Photo: Romeo H.

“As Filipino Americans, we’re taught to acclimate. I didn’t connect with Filipino culture growing up in a way that resonated with me because I didn’t know its history, especially how the country’s economic conditions and culture relate to why my family immigrated here,” Caliboso said.

She found answers and community with BAYAN, which organizes and mobilizes Filipinos in the United States for the cause of national democracy in the Philippines. Caliboso learned about Philippine history, society, and her family’s migration story.

“Once I learned that perspective, I became politicized in a way where I felt like there could be justice for Filipinos and justice for every community impacted by U.S. imperialism,” she said.

Caliboso works in healthcare as a consultant in data analytics and data science for hospitals.

“I found comfort in research, data, and the scientific method because it’s a clear path of exploring the unknown,” Caliboso said. “I initially pursued this route because it was a time when I was becoming more politicized and cognizant of economic and health inequities. I wanted to have this skill set as an additional tool to find solutions. Through organizing, I’ve also learned that solutions aren’t necessarily going to come from institutions, but from people themselves.”

Originally from Canada, Dickson’s work in social justice initiatives, legal education, and advocacy organizations began while attending law school. As a student, he volunteered with legal aid clinics assisting clients with various issues ranging from housing rights, employment, administrative law, and child custody disputes. He began practicing law, relocated to the United States in 2016, and joined the Philippines-U.S. Solidarity Organization (PUSO) after meeting Acosta and Caliboso in late 2018. The rest is history.

As Bootleg Orchestra alludes to in “If We Ever Get There,” the time for radical change is now. They call on listeners to “let the music play, be an organizer/Educate, agitate, a catalyzer.”

“We want to continue to advocate for a more just and equitable society both here in the U.S. and abroad,” Dickson said. “We all have a role to play in this project, and we want to continue trying to inspire our listeners with our lyrics and music to make change happen.”

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