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.”