The music of troubadors, political prisoners, and socialist revolutionaries of yesteryear attracted a spill-out crowd at an east Long Beach coffee house on Friday night.
For four years the Taller Sur group has organized regular trova nights at Viento y Agua Coffeehouse. They called on their friends to celebrate the birthday with an open mic, a palomazo. Far from a gathering of homogenous Latinos (an oxymoron?) the gathering reflected a cross section of the varied Latin American diaspora to the U.S.: middle aged Latin American expatriates who lived under 1970s military and authoritarian regimes and for whom trova was the soundtrack of resistance, the sons and daughters of those expatriates who refuse to abandon their parents' culture, monolingual U.S. Latinos who resent their parents for not teaching them Spanish and taking them to the home country.
Trova (otherwise known as nueva cancion) is the singer-songwriter genre exemplified by Cuban Silvio Rodriguez, Chilean Victor Jara, and Mexican Guadalupe Trigo (there are lots others, go ahead disagree or comment on your favorite). Trova songs are political, sensual, angry, and soothing. On this night 32 year-old Efren Luna presented a very traditional trova set. He ended with "Ojala" by Silvio Rodriguez, a song about a first love and unmeasured longing, with a cryptic last line that gives the song a political twist.
Luna told the packed coffeehouse that this kind of music doesn't and likely won't get mainstream radio airplay and urged the crowd to keep coming out to the shows. Since he moved to L.A. from Veracruz seven years ago Luna told me he's seen plenty of trova venues close, like Angeles Bohemios in Echo Park, and Café Maestro in South L.A. Nevertheless, the audience for trova is growing.
Trova is best known in large Latin American cities, such as Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City. One of the reasons the trova audience is growing here, according to Tomas Cadena, is because more immigrants from large Spanish-speaking cities have arrived in L.A. in recent years. Cadena gives me his take on the state of trova as he contemplates the standing room-only crowd from the sidewalk on Fourth Street. He began playing trova in the L.A. area about 20 years ago. It was tough back then, he said, now he's teamed up with another trovador his age, Esteban Leon, to put on regular concerts at the Eagle Rock Center for the Performing Arts. A concert they put on almost two years ago may put them into the category of seminal L.A. songs. They called on trovadores to compose songs in tribute to the people who marched at the 2007 MacArthur Park rally that ended in a hail of LAPD rubber bullets. Cadena said they've recorded the songs and will put them out in CD form soon.
Here's the other theory on why trova's building an audience: there's a little bit of everything for everyone. Taller Sur can sound Colombian on one song, flamenco on another, then bluesy after that. They seem to recognize that trova is a foundation on which they can add bits and pieces of the other music that's part of their everyday lives.
Proof that this theory has legs walked up the Fourth Street sidewalk in Buddy Holly specs, a skirt, and a denim jacket embroidered with a sequin Virgen de Guadalupe. That's Marisol Hernandez. She and several members of the L.A. band La Santa Cecilia showed up to celebrate the Taller Sur anniversary. The band's guitarist Gloria Estrada - a mariachi fanatic and graduate of USC's jazz guitar program - told me they are friends with the Taller Sur crew and other trova musicians because it's unlike any other scene in L.A. The musicians, she said, support each other, respect, and like each other. She agreed that the absence of a rock star mentality is refreshing.
Believe me I wanted to stay to see Marisol and the rest of the gang throw down a palomazo in the spirit of Silvio Rodriguez and Guadalupe Trigo. I talked to Jorge Vazquez who was wearing a beanie that held down limp-snake dreadlocks. His rock band, La Brutal Lulu, played a couple of songs at the beginning of the Taller Sur night. He's been in L.A. for six years and misses his native Mexico City. He couldn't really say what keeps him here. He's making a tenuous living off of music. His band's composing original work but is playing covers around Orange County.
I had to go. Maybe somebody can fill me in on how the rest of the night went and whether Marisol danced a make-believe norteño with Victor Jara.
Photos: Rocio Loya, rocioloyaphotography.com