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Quetzal sticks to its mission

Despite struggles, the tenacious East L.A. band stays on track and looks forward to a new release.

June 26, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

For some bands, there are worse fates than being booed off stage. Being ignored can prolong the agony of rejection, as members of Quetzal discovered during a national tour last summer.

The veteran East L.A. ensemble had been booked to play some Midwest shows with unruly arena-rock acts Aerosmith and Kid Rock. It was an oil-and-water billing for a band that plays sweet and thoughtful Afro-Chicano fusion music inspired by Zapatista rebel politics.

While the band played its subtle, socially conscious songs on a side stage, people walked by with stinging indifference as loud rock blared from a nearby radio booth and fans bought beer at 7 bucks a shot. The few who stopped to listen mostly stared blankly, then walked away. When Kid Rock came on, dejected band members recalled, the crowd cheered as a large Confederate flag unfurled and women in bikinis pantomimed sexual moves on his guitar.

At first, band founder Quetzal Flores, 30, relished the challenge of playing for an unfamiliar audience.

"But the Aerosmith dates were hell," recalled the lean and intense guitarist as he relaxed in the colorful Highland Park duplex he shares with his wife, the band's lead singer, Martha Gonzalez. Quetzal left the tour after half a dozen shows and returned to L.A. broke and disheartened. Without sleep, they headed straight to perform at a festival of son jarocho, the lively music of southern Mexico that stamps their unique sound.

"Coming back to that was just like feeling, 'Wow, we're alive again,' " said Gonzalez, relaxing in an armchair and sipping espresso she had just brewed. "It felt good to be home, like we had fallen in love with music again."

It's been a year of progress and setbacks for Quetzal, celebrating its 10th anniversary. The group recently signed with Vanguard Records and last year released a moving album, "Sing the Real," which was hailed as the advent of a new East L.A. sound blending salsa, son jarocho and rock.

Despite the Aerosmith debacle, the band completed successful tours with Taj Mahal, Cubanismo and Los Lobos, the godfathers of Chicano rock.

Quetzal's new Vanguard release, due in stores July 8, was produced by Lobos' saxophonist, Steve Berlin. Titled "Worksongs," it has a more contemporary and edgy feel, with less folkloric flavor, less dominant violin and less Spanish. Berlin said he volunteered to work with the group, which he considers the heir to the lofty Lobos legacy.

"We've been waiting for a long time for a band from the neighborhood to step up and take the flag for a while," Berlin said. "And it's been a long wait. We [Los Lobos] want to be able to tell the world, 'Look, it's not just us.' "

Quetzal's musical mission has come at the expense of commercial success. But, Flores said, "our goals are a little bit different -- to maintain integrity and dignity in music and to build something that's long-lasting."

Gonzalez said her husband revived her own faith in music. Her father, a troubled singer who pursued a professional career in vain, drifted away from his relatives, who do not currently know his whereabouts.

"To me, music used to be sitting around, getting drunk, and then people fighting," said Gonzalez, who quit smoking and drinking to improve her voice for the new album. "Quetzal brought music back into my life and made me see how it could exist in a family, with kids around."

Flores says Quetzal (named after the legendary tropical bird that resisted captivity during the Spanish conquest) has evolved as a collective, with all members contributing songs and ideas. But just before embarking on the new album early this year, the group suffered the defections of two key members -- guitarist Ray Sandoval and violinist Rocio Marron, Flores' cousin (who still plays on the new record).

"I was really sad," recalled Gonzalez, 31. "Like, I've cried every time somebody has left. Because to me it's like, 'What do you mean? We're struggling too, but I'm still here. I thought we were going to go through this together.' "

The current lineup includes Flores, who plays jarana, a small Mexican guitar, Gonzalez, who dances on a tarima, or wooden box, her brother Gabriel, co-vocalist, and a top-notch multi-ethnic rhythm section of Dante Pascuzzo on bass, Kiko Cornejo Jr. on drums and Edson Gianesi on Brazilian and Latin percussion and vibraphone.

Flores and Gonzalez said creating new music with the group in their cramped garage was fun. But financial hardships had already started causing tensions at home. The couple barely had enough money to pay the rent; Gonzalez threatened to quit too.

Recalled the singer, "I told Quetzal, 'We don't have money for food. What are we going to do? This is so stupid. I'm going to go get a job, Quetzal. I can't do this anymore.' "

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