Bringing Mexican Music Back Home 

San Pablo-based Los Cenzontles blends the American experience into its traditional roots music.

The Bay Area's brilliant-hued musical aviary boasts dozens of rare and exceptional hybrid ensembles, but none have risen from humble origins to scintillating creative heights like Los Cenzontles. Steeped in various forms of Mexican roots music, the San Pablo-based band has expanded its stylistic territory from Vera Cruz and Michoacán to East LA and the East Bay, evolving into an invaluable exponent of Mexican-American culture.

On Songs of Wood and Steel, Los Cenzontles (which translates from Nahuatl as "the mockingbirds") joins forces with Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo on a program of banda blowouts, jazz jams, torrid rancheras, and Mexican roots-rock raves. The band celebrates the release of its new album at Yoshi's with Hidalgo next Wednesday, November 12.

"It sounds like a Cenzontles record but with a step forward," says Eugene Rodriguez, a conservatory-trained guitarist who founded and directs the band. "We've been singing the songs of other birds for so many years, it's a step toward singing in our own voice. We've gone to these different regions and explored our heritage as Mexicans, but I've been feeling interested in exploring our heritage as Mexican Americans."

Over the past decade or so the group has released more than a dozen albums, mostly focusing on carefully tended arrangements of traditional mariachis, sones, rancheras, and corridos, often in the company of long-neglected elder Mexican masters. But on Wood and Steel, Cenzontles is joined by special guests like Linda Ronstadt, Latin-jazz experts Ruben and Henry Estrada, and Jefferson Starship keyboardist Pete Sears (who'll also be on hand at Yoshi's). Holding everything together is Hidalgo's sly and soulful guitar work.

The core of the album came together over a four-day stretch at the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center, which is located in a gritty strip mall off San Pablo Avenue. Hidalgo settled in to work with the band, which features bassist Hugo Arroyo, the gorgeous duo harmonies of Lucinda Rodriguez and Fabiola Trujillo (who all started as young students at the arts center), drummer Sage Baggott, and Eugene Rodriguez on classical and steel-string guitars.

"I had my list and concept going in, but David was here for four days in our little strip mall, feeling very comfortable," Rodriguez said. "It was a real trusting environment. One of us would start riffing and we'd start spontaneously creating something. On the first cut, he found a touristy shot glass and turned it into a slide. He found this old Electra guitar up in the attic. When he left this place it was transformed."

Los Cenzontles has been in the business of transforming people since its inception. The organization traces its roots back to a 1989 California Arts Council artist-in-residency grant for Eugene Rodriguez and Berenice Zuniga-Yap. Rodriguez incorporated the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center as a nonprofit organization in 1994, and the center quickly gained widespread respect with the Grammy-nominated recording Papa's Dream, a Rodriguez-produced collaboration with Los Lobos that laid the foundation for Songs of Wood and Steel.

"I heard Los Lobos back in the 1980s and they blew me away from the beginning," Rodriguez said. "I was turned off to the romanticized, academic approach to traditional Mexican music, and what they were doing really turned me on. They created the blueprint, starting at the roots and going into this Americana thing. ... We don't want to copy the stylistic trappings, we want to find out what makes the music tick and find our own language."

Wood and Steel is just the band's latest step in a long creative journey that really started taking shape with the 2003 CD Pocas Palabras. After several years focusing intensely on mariachi, the musicians gave free rein to their wide ranging musical passions on the project. Highlighting the diversity of musical styles in Mexico, the group explored pirecuas of indigenous Michoacán, sung in Purépecha, Caribbean-inflected sones jarochos of Veracruz, uptempo rancheras and mariachi; played in the traditional style with two violins, guitarrón, vihuela, and zapateado.

Through contact with the veteran son jarocho group Mano Blanco and numerous trips to Mexico, the musicians absorbed traditional musical forms directly. But on Pocas Palabras they started to take ownership of the tradition, a liberating perspective that led to fascinating musical melanges, like a zapateado blending the foot-stomping percussion with bongos.

"Working with Mano Blanco showed me that traditional music isn't a closed world, it's not a delicate little flower," Rodriguez said. "It's really very vital and very strong, and we need to get in there and work with it."

Around the same time the band was working on Pocas Palabras, Rodriguez decided it was time to take the Los Cenzontles mission multimedia, producing a series of documentary films about their cultural exchanges with traditional musicians and dancers. The first doc, 2003's El Pasajero, tagged along with Cenzontles players as they met, studied, and performed with veteran mariachis in the central Pacific Coast state of Jalisco who were thrilled by the resurgence of interest in their art form.

Last year, Cenzontles released Fandango, a film documenting the band's long-running relationship with rural musicians in the semi-tropical Caribbean region of Veracruz, where the West African influence in Mexican culture is strongly felt in the son jarocho musical style. Both films were directed and edited by Mexico City-based director Ricardo Broajos.

In much the same way that Wood and Steel brings Mexican music back home and incorporates the sounds of California, the final installment of the Cenzontles documentary trilogy Vivir tells the stories of immigrant students whose lives have been transformed by their immersion in Mexican culture.

"The biggest trap that Mexican Americans have fallen into is that we have to conform to a very small box," Rodriguez said. "It's something the world is telling us, the market is telling us, even our own politicians and families. I feel like there are so many of us in this country. We're starting to take leadership roles. We have an obligation to get to know ourselves, not always in reaction to others, but within ourselves. We are a people who are expansive. We absorb a lot into our own expression, but we don't know really know this huge wealth of folk material. Mexico has this tragic history of gentrifying and commercializing the music. It's been so mangled up. But music can be this direct form of communication that tells us where we've been, and can help us find where we're going."


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