ENCINITAS — Mari Riddle believes musicians have a moral obligation as well as an aesthetic one.
"Music can be a really important catalyst in influencing people's attitudes, in making people aware of the constant struggle against oppression and intolerance," she said.
"So if you take a song with a beautiful melody and attach a message to it, that song becomes a statement that's even richer and more powerful."
If this was 1967, Riddle's sentiments would be shared by American rock artists like Bob Dylan and the Jefferson Airplane, who openly attacked blind patriotism with round after round of anti-war and pro-civil-rights anthems.
But this is 1987. The social and political unrest that the United States experienced in the 1960s has shifted southward to Central and Latin America. So Riddle and her band, Sabia, are soldiers in the war against right-wing death squads and the contras in Nicaragua.
They are linked musically with the growing underground nueva cancion (new song) movement that for the past decade has been turning the remote villages of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile into a musical battlefield--despite those governments' attempts to stop it through suppression, torture and, in some cases, murder.
"Originally, the nueva cancion movement began in Chile at the height of the (President Salvador) Allende period, with musicians mixing traditional melodies and rhythms with poetic lyrics about social and political situations," Riddle said.
"But now, the movement is sweeping all over Central and Latin America. And what frustrates the governments down there the most is that they are unable to stop it because it's simply the people talking."
Musically, Sabia and the other nueva cancion bands are rooted in the past. Their melodies are haunting and graceful, their rhythms textured and complex.
Accordingly, Sabia's instrumental lineup includes more than two dozen old-time instruments. Lyrically, though, Sabia's songs talk about the present. Recent originals include "No Me Cillo" ("I Won't Be Silent"), a blast against disinformation in the Central and Latin American media, and "Mujer Sandinista" ("Sandinista Woman"), an ode to the women of Nicaragua. Most of the group's songs are sung in Spanish.
"About half our songs are originals, while the rest were written by other nueva cancion bands," Riddle said. "But they all deal with peace and justice in Central and Latin America, and their message applies worldwide, wherever there's oppression."
Ironically, even though Sabia is at the forefront of the nueva cancion movement, they are rebels from afar. The band is based in Los Angeles--and of its six members, Riddle is the only Latina.
Initially, Riddle said, Sabia--named for a bird whose appearance signals the start of spring--played all-acoustic music and performed mostly in coffeehouses and at private parties.
But in 1982, she said, the band, whose members met on the East Coast, relocated to Los Angeles and, in the hopes of expanding its audience, electrified its sound by adding a drum machine, an electric bass and keyboards.
The ploy worked. In the past five years, Sabia has released two internationally distributed albums. The latest, "Portavoz" ("Voice Carrier"), came out in January on Flying Fish Records.
The band has toured the United States seven times and Canada four. In 1983, Sabia ventured into Central America for a monthlong tour of Nicaragua and Honduras.
After a six-week tour of the East Coast, Sabia will be in San Diego today for an afternoon concert at the Del Mar Fairgrounds--a benefit for Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament--and two nighttime shows at the Old Time Cafe in Leucadia.
"People need to know what the situation down there is really like, how hard the people struggle for democracy and basic human rights," Riddle said.
"And as musicians, we have a wonderful opportunity to deliver this message to everyone. Music has really changed our lives, and we're hoping it will change other lives as well."