I've been traveling recently to cities in Spain and Latin America to report on some of the best music the Spanish-speaking world has to offer. But on Thursday night, all I had to do was scoot up the freeway to Sylmar to catch a concert by Quetzal, the East L.A. band that has emerged as a world-class act.
A critic from another country would have been thrilled to come across this sophisticated show at the folksy Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, which sells books and Mexican mochas from a humble strip mall in what is otherwise considered a cultural wasteland: the northern end of the San Fernando Valley. It would be news back home that L.A.'s young Mexican American community was producing music so inspired, accomplished, passionate and rousing.
But sometimes, we don't appreciate the talent in our own backyard. Fewer than 50 people, including a couple of children, were on hand to see the newly reincarnated band perform songs from its latest album, "Die Cowboy Die."
This is the fourth CD since the band, named for a tropical bird prized by the Maya for its resplendent plumage, was formed in the early '90s by guitarist-composer Quetzal Flores, the son of community organizers. The reserved bandleader doesn't live up to his name, ceding the spotlight to his wife and co-writer, lead vocalist Martha Gonzalez, whose singing shows a mature control.
Each album has its distinct character. But the new work marks a radical reconstruction that once again broadens the band's sonic palette and the parameters of Chicano music.
"Cowboy" is a lot less folkloric, a lot more urban. It even incorporates elements of R&B with the addition of bearded, bespectacled Quincy McCrary on keyboard and vocals (in English) that evoke Stevie Wonder.
Why not? Soul has always been part of the East L.A music scene, though this is probably the first time anybody tried getting down with jaranas and requintos, those small Mexican acoustic guitars that have been a signature component of the band.
In Quetzal's case, soul is just another ingredient in the mix that makes its music so original. The other key flavors are all still there -- traditional son jarocho from Veracruz, tasty salsa rhythms from the Caribbean and rock influences from Santana to Morrissey.
Gone are the violins that had been essential to the group's identity, adding sweet and melodic textures rooted in both Cuban and Mexican music. Gone too is Gonzalez's brother and longtime co-vocalist, Gabriel.
Flores and Martha Gonzalez are the only ones remaining from the previous lineup, though former members Edson Gianesi and Dante Pascuzzo contributed to the new album. Rounding out the current sextet are Cesar Castro on vocals, requinto and jarana; Juan Perez on bass; and Andy Mendoza on drums and backing vocals.
"The point was to go places we haven't been before, to shed our skin," Flores said over lunch recently at a Mexican restaurant in El Sereno.
"Instead of trying to replace people or a sound," added Gonzalez, "we just let the sound change."
That restless creativity has been a hallmark of a group that has single-handedly carried the torch passed on by Los Lobos, East L.A.'s greatest band.
"In terms of Chicano music, I think Quetzal is playing a real important role by pushing the boundaries," says Bay Area musician Greg Landau, who produced the band's second CD, "Sing the Real," from 2002. "They're not afraid to experiment and they purposely stay away from things that are easy. They take risks and sometimes they miss, but at least they're trying."
The changes are also thematic.
Quetzal has always been a socially conscious band, inspired by the Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico led by Subcomandante Marcos. But in a song from the new album, "Candil Candelario," they question the wisdom of those who commit their lives to a cause but neglect their own families.
The song is based on a musician who fought in the Mexican Revolution and later helped spark the son jarocho revival of the late 1970s. Flores and his wife were surprised to learn that their hero, who would improvise revolutionary verses after battle, had been less than an ideal family man. In public, he was a romantic revolutionary; at home, an abusive alcoholic.
The song title comes from a Spanish saying: Candil de la calle, obscuridad de su casa (A beacon of the street, darkness of his own home).
"It's really about looking at myself now that I'm a parent," says Gonzalez, "and asking, 'What are you going to do?' "
She also reflects on the awesome new burdens of motherhood in the brief but effective "Breast Pump Waltz." The title reveals the machine that's making a strange industrial sound as she sings a lullaby to herself with the warning she used to hear from friends: "Baby boy is coming. Your whole life will change." Though her melody is soothing, the unnerving pumping noise conveys the sense of claustrophobic attachment.
Quetzal turned to its original producer, John Avila, for "Cowboy," recapturing the raw energy of the band's debut album.
Despite the biting political message of new songs such as "You Must Die" and "Migra," Quetzal closed Thursday's show on an upbeat note with "Canto Liso." It's a rousing dance number that answers critics who say the band's songs are either too political or not political enough.
The infectious joy of the music was all the statement band members needed to make.