Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regeneration - Freedom from Fear

I love the liner notes that writer Sam Quinones wrote for our CD Regeneration. Here they are:

I met a guy the other day, a Oaxacan Indian, who came to L.A. 25 years ago and got a job washing dishes in a high-end restaurant.

He learned as the owner expanded.

In the end, this Zapotec Indian, a cowherd who’d never fixed himself dinner, became a master French and German chef, seasoning his cuisine with the spices from his Oaxacan youth.

Then he opened not a Oaxacan restaurant, but Casa Chocolate, because he felt a mall-like high-end chocolate shop, featuring apples he dips in chocolate and pico de gallo powder, is what his enclosed working-class L.A. barrio of Oaxacans and Central Americans could use – i.e., something other than what its residents were used to.

I remembered his story while listening to Los Cenzontles’ new recording, Regeneration.

Los Cenzontles grew from an after-school program in San Pablo & Richmond, California – born of a late 1980s California Arts Council grant to a music grad named Eugene Rodriguez, who took it more seriously than he was supposed to.

In the late-1980s Bay Area music scene, Rodriguez said, “Everyone seemed kind of confined to their one box. I was looking for something different. Teaching kids was kind of the long way around to getting there. These kids were up for the journey.”

The first were Chicano kids, followed by a slew of Mexican immigrant kids who hit Richmond in the 1990s with accordions and clarinets, and “all trying to start their own garage banda,” Rodriguez said.

A band named Los Cenzontles (the Mockingbirds), from a place near Berkeley, might naturally be assumed to play Mexican “folkloric” music of the tad-too-noble variety. But Los Cenzontles, bless their hearts, have been pile-driving that idea into the lucha libre mat for a few CDs now.

The band has grown into a rich, living thing, expanding on Mexican roots that have grafted to Bay Area 1960s hippie rock, alongside Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and, most productively, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.

Which is a good thing.

Because traditional Mexican music has been too long locked in a cultural display case. In Mexico, a musician takes career in hand any time she reworks a classic mariachi or ranchera. In the U.S., traditional Mexican music seems often owned by folk musicians who ache for purity in sound and intent.

But Los Cenzontles scale the walls of musical dogma and cross the PC deserts, remaining rooted somewhere in Mexico yet unafraid to jump in a truck with the blues or the Grateful Dead.

Los Cenzontles have toured Mexico, playing the isolated ranchos “where the music’s pretty psychedelic, with people drinking that aguardiente until three in the morning, and roosters crowing. It gives you a whole other sense of Mexican music; it gives you the essence of it. We’re trying to tap into the psychedelic edge of Mexican music.”

In A Tu Lado, I hear that psychedelia and Las Jilguerillas, too, adding layers to what is, really, a pop song. A surf-guitar line saunters through the norteño - y Un Día Feliz. Burt Bacharach’s Only Love Can Break a Heart could have been sung by Freddie Fender, or Petula Clark.

And Adios California feels to me like the mating of norteño and speed metal, followed by that Jilguerillas groove once again. The band recorded it with a 12-string through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, added some backwards feedback, some tarolas and drum, and Hidalgo on accordion. Now that’s some garage banda Mexican folk music, folks!

It helps that Cenzontles have been aided by Hidalgo, who’s always seemed interested in sound more than in where the sound has traditionally fit. His vocal, with Jackson Browne, on The Silence is achingly sweet.

Speaking of which, one last thing about that Zapotec cowherd and his sweet chocolate shop -- he had to overcome fear to start it up; above all, fear that no one in the barrio was ready for his new-fangled confections.

Which is another reason I thought of him while listening to the tracks on Regeneration. Wouldn’t some purists fear for the music, for the culture, from all those borders Cenzontles insist on breaching?

“My hope for this record,” Rodriguez told me, “is to say that it’s time to liberate ourselves from so much of what keeps us fearful.”

Sam Quinones

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Silence

It is estimated that more than 47,000 have been killed in Mexico to control the drug supply to the United States. For a situation of such magnitude, so close to us, and with so much culpability to spread around, it astounds me how little we hear or talk about it.

I have wanted to write about this ghastly subject for a long time but could not find a way in.
Last Fall my wife, son and I met and lunched with the great Mexican American writer Richard Rodriguez. When I presented my dilemma he referred me to the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
In a collection I found a poem that she wrote about a shipwreck that begins 'Glee! the great storm is over!' In that poem I found my template and tone. I wrote the verses and later the melody that suited the solemn subject. Later in the studio we attempted to create a stark sonic landscape that framed the song.

David Hidalgo sings the lead in his inimitable, compassionate voice. Linda Ronstadt, our friend and mentor, introduced us to Jackson Browne with the idea of having him sing in duet with David, a brilliant idea. He graciously agreed.

I hope that The Silence provokes at least some degree of reflection on the agony and fear that Mexico has suffered. And for what?

The Silence

Dance when the storm is over
Sing when torment's passed
Sigh when fists of tortured death
Release this arid land
Mourn the tens of thousands
Pray for the grieving shell
Bless the cursed noble womb
That bore a muted hell
How will we spin this tale
Tongues free from fear at last
Answers to our children
When they ask us what has passed
When silence breaks from telling
And finally we can cry
What will we reveal then
When they ask us why
They ask us why

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Snapshot in Time and A Celebration of Our Future

Los Cenzontles has recorded 20 albums since 1994. Each is a snapshot of a moment in time. Some revive rare traditions like the traditional mariachi and pirekuas of Michoacán. Others celebrate thriving traditions like rancheras.  Yet others mix styles such as our Son Jarocho collaboration with Cuban masters El Goyo Hernandez and Lazaro Ros of Cuba.

Our newest album, Regeneration, is rooted in the Mexican-American experience. I wanted to create songs that fuse Mexican folk forms and rhythms with American and Latin pop and rock sensibilities to match the times we live in. The past twenty years have seen some of the biggest demographic shifts in America in modern times. Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center is growing right along with these changes. . Culture is always in flux and if you want to keep relevant you have to morph with it. That is the fun of it. Change is part of our DNA.

We find that our younger fans have eclectic tastes, but they are also steeped in Mexican music like Vicente Fernandez and Banda Recodo. Most say they do not want to listen to the music of their parents, but they know it anyway. It is inside them somehow. The trick is to give the music back to them with an open window. One of our teen   students remarked that Los Cenzontles's music is not traditional -- it's  fun!  So this new CD is an homage to the new generation, seeking fun and escape and meaning.

But many in our country today do not celebrate our Latino-infused future. They fear it. So I look back to the last major generational shift when the baby boomers came of age in the late 60's and early 70's. There was plenty of difficulty in those days, but the economy was buzzing and the generational shift was largely White. This new one is much less so, with Latino youth being the fastest-growing group in the country. And there lies the conflict. Limited resources and an aging white population wary of the upcoming young brown one.

Regeneration is a celebration of hopes and unified visions.  It may yet happen, at least in song.

Click here to Kickstart Regeneration

Monday, January 9, 2012

Latino Teens Sit This Dance Out

As the interlocked rivals of the culture wars furiously spin out of control, many Latino teens sit this dance out, gazing at each other and at the world.

I recently asked a group of students, ages 12 to 17, which types of social media posts interested them. Two of their answers surprised me. One was their strong aversion to political messaging. The other was their lively interest in cultural identity.

Politics is too much like school,” said one girl to an enthusiastic chorus of agreement. A boy resented teachers who use class time to politic, even in classes unrelated to government.

These teens, however, did enjoy cultural topics and were interested in discovering how different people relate to each other and perceive experiences.

In my college years of the early 1980's, discussions of cultural identity were invariably wrapped in politics. They were inseparable. We Mexican Americans were taught that our music was a reaction to our oppression.  Not much fun there.

I see now that it is impossible to accurately contort cultural history into that frame. Culture is much more interesting than that. Also, it is unhealthy to see one’s heritage as a sideline reaction to a larger ideological struggle. 

Political messaging can be a valid and powerful function of music.  But it is politics that fits within culture, not the other way around.

This new generation seems to have broken the linkage. They want to know how cultural identity, similarities and differences affect individuals. They do not see culture as a function of politics. They see it as a network of relationships.

In 25 years of teaching music and culture, I have sought to understand the deeper functions of both. At our Academy we teach our students the process of the cultural arts so that they may find ways to understand their worlds and discover their own solutions.

A deep generational divide separates our society. The old cannot shake themselves from ideological battles that are increasingly bitter and intractable.  The young people with whom I work seem to be turning a deaf ear and blind eye to all that. Like sitting through a family argument at a holiday dinner, these kids seem to view the culture wars as an obstacle course that they must cross in order to pass school classes and get on to their own lives.

Some may see it as apathy but I see it as a brilliant option to despair among this group whose immigrant families are caught in the middle of one of the most vicious battles of the culture wars. These kids, after all, see themselves as normal American teens. And it is within the glow of teen optimism where they have a shot at developing perspectives that may lead to real solutions.

Their commentary on culture and politics is a good start. I am thrilled that they value human relationships above all because relationships lie at the core of both culture and politics. Many of our leaders and their followers have sadly forgotten that.

In the dance of the culture wars I believe these kids are the ones behaving like adults.