In thinking about the L.A. band Quetzal's new album, Imaginaries, I took a sheet of paper and began to write the names of some East L.A., Chicano, Mexican American bands. In the bottom group, the 1970s and 1980s group, Los Lobos, Alice Bag, The Brat, Ruben and the Jets, Los Illegals, and The Blazers. Above that, the group belonging to the 1990s: Ollin, Domingo Siete, Aztlan Underground, and Quetzal. Above that, the group pertaining to the 2000s: La Santa Cecilia, Las Cafeteras. Just some brainstorming, I know there are lots more in each group. (Go ahead and leave a comment of the bands I missed). The point is that there's been plenty of interaction, collaboration, and inspiration among all those groups. Some groups broke up and became others. Some musicians went solo. Chicano teenagers were inspired to form their own bands after seeing these bands gig.
And really, thinking about this genealogy of Chicano music reminded me of the opportunity I had seven or eight years ago at the Southwest Museum to listen to century-old recordings made by Charles Lummis of Los Angeles Mexican American musicians, Californios (Smithsonian Folkways released some of those Lummis recordings and is also releasing Quetzal's new album). With more time and the help of an ethnomusicologist I'd probably be able to track the degrees of separation between Quetzal and those Californio musicians.
Quetzal is very aware of this legacy. It's why they remain grounded in L.A., their parents' Mexican music, and the pop music from their school years. It's why they didn't spend time trying to break into the major recording labels or trying to make music for mass consumption. That's the sense I got after a telephone conversation with Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez in preparation for a show and panel discussion I'm moderating tonight at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum.
"Imaginaries" refers to scholar Emma Perez's book, "The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History." To the band it's about creating and occupying a physical and conceptual space outside the established structures of capitalism and government. It's a safe space created by neighbors, or musicians, or artists, or kids, or adults, or viejitos, or a combination of any of these. They're inspired to create community around music, a communion where the listener is as much musician as the people on the stage holding the instruments.
They were inspired to do so after joining a group of several dozen L.A. Chicanos who negotiated a visit to the jungles of Chiapas to visit and interact with the EZLN Zapatista movement. That was a few years after the 1994 armed uprising of the Indians of Chiapas against the Mexican government. It was a solidarity trip to help and learn from the largest indigenous uprising since the 1960s American Indian movement. The L.A. Chicanos made it clear to the Zapatistas that they wanted to explain to the Zapatistas about the generations-old Chicano effort to affirm culture and community amid an overwhelming pressure to give it up as a pass into American society. That trip still inspires Quetzal and many of the other Chicanos who to be active as artists and activists in L.A.
Which leads to the band's awareness not to let the social politics take anything away from the musicianship. At various times in its 19-year history Quetzal has sounded like a son jarocho band from Veracruz, or a sweaty cumbia bar band that picked up some melodies from a North African tour. They sing in English. They sing in Spanish. Their violins, electric guitars, little jarana guitars, wood box percussions blend into something more than Mexican, Mexican American, or American music. Google the band. Go see them. Or come tonight to see them turn a performance room at a large news media company into one of these an imaginaries outside the buy-something-to-exist structure.
Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.