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Three members of the East Los Angeles super-sextet Quetzal are relaxing outside a South Pasadena ice cream shop when a man hurriedly shuffles past their table. Lead guitarist and band namesake Quetzal Flores eyes the walker warily for a bit, then suddenly stands and embraces him. Turns out the harried stranger is a longtime friend who's rallying support for the reopening of Luna Tierra Sol, a downtown Los Angeles community space recently gentrified out of its building. They chat for a bit, and Flores suggests the two reunite later in the evening at his nearby Highland Park home for further fund-raising scheming.
"He's thinking of doing a benefit show," Flores explains apologetically as he resumes eating a veggie sandwich, "and asked if we could perform." Quetzal couldn't this time around, though, since another nonprofit had already enlisted the group's musical Midas touch to bail out their center.
Fulfilling random requests of rescue is the preferred pastime for Quetzal, six Angelenos who impress as much with furtive, pulsing music as they do with a steadfast commitment to that honored Chicano cliché of community. This altruistic artistic sense brings the combo to Santa Ana this Saturday, where they'll headline a concert benefiting the Centro Cultural de México, the busy cultural space that's desperately trying to fend off the rising rates that threaten to price it out of its cozy downtown Santa Ana digs.
Flores and friends will earn little for the performance—almost all proceeds will fill the nonprofit Centro's dusty coffers—but they wouldn't have it any other way. After a year glumly crisscrossing the country while opening for such wildly divergent acts as Aerosmith, Kid Rock and Taj Mahal, the 10-year-old group returned to their beloved Southland, recommitted to assisting the fiscally needy via their soaring songs.
Consider Quetzal's tale one of succeeding despite the indifferent mainstream it once courted but now ignores, and an avid testament to why politics and instruments function best when combined. They formed in the early '90s under the grandiose title "Quetzal: A New Experience in Chicano Music," a moniker that Flores blushes at nowadays, but was also an indicator of the epic tomes that would follow.
The politics constituting the focus of their lyrics and aesthetics was a given. Flores' parents were union organizers, and Latino LA had just weathered eight years of Reagan, survived the 1992 riot (which, Flores notes, "demonstrated that if they wanted to, people could tear this place apart") and was preparing for the coming xenophobia of the Prop. 187 wars. And the musical influences were similarly rooted in resistance—a smidgen of the just-concluding '80s Eastlos punk scene, priority to communal responsibility pioneered by musical godfathers Los Lobos, and more Afro-Caribbean layers than leaves in a Cuban cigar.
But what separated Quetzal from other Chicano bands of the early '90s and even today was Flores' insistence that they construct their songs with the starkly inspirational sounds of son, the fiendishly improvisational music of Mexico's Caribbean coast. It's some of the most uplifting racket ever expressed by humans. Tinny jarana guitars twirl like Twizzlers around echoing thumps slapped from boxes or tapped out on wooden platforms stomped upon by Flores' wife, Martha González, who, along with her brother Gabriel, provides bullhorn voices that anoint the group with an almost-ceremonial aura. Add in weeping violins and bragging electric guitars, and Quetzal become rollicking and soothing, archaic and visionary, just damn impressive music that simply ain't heard anymore.
Flores notes that Quetzal uses son not just for its hypnotic twang, but also because the genre embodies the beauty that emerges from the most dire of environments. "We performed at an academic conference in Kentucky about the influence black culture had on the Americas earlier this year," Flores says. "One of the professors made the point that, as maniacal and genocidal as slavery was, black culture survived and thrived. That's son.The slaves had drums, the Spaniards took them away. The slaves said, 'All right, fuck you. I'll stomp on wood then,' and created this wondrous music. It shows how rich humans are. Human resilience will always prevail. And that's what we try to convey—the problems and beauty of Los Angeles."
Such anthropological analysis explains Quetzal's favored performing venues: rallies advocating progressive political causes, benefit shows for needy activist organizations, even jams on street corners with a passed-around hat providing the only revenue; all places guaranteed to promote immediate interaction between audience and performer. But such a bond also invites intense scrutiny from self-professed authorities on what Quetzal plays.
"I was once speaking with an older man who said he loved us, but thought we weren't that Mexican anymore," says González rather sadly. Then she perks up. "That's our concept—being evasive of stagnation. People try to fit you in a box. All the talk of not being Mexican enough is flattering because it shows that we've grown. When something is born, like a plant, you don't look at it and say it's not the same as it grows."
Alas, corporate radio's frying of the American brain limits Quetzal's potential fan base even as the band expands its sonic splendor. They get no radio play. Latin alterna-geeks don't consider them rock en español, while no notable English-language DJ (save for Nic Harcourt) spins their records. Quetzal recently tried to rectify the latter point by touring with Aerosmith and Kid Rock across middle America. Disastrous mistake: boorish fans ignored, even booed the group, while salivating over the antics of Rock and Steven Tyler. The group left the tour halfway through, disillusioned with the big time.
"You can't base a career out of making money," says González. "It's important, of course, and we're still in the middle of figuring out how to balance our vision with that reality. But our culture reduces artists to a dollar bill, and that's not fair. The reality is, we were making ourselves unhappy trying to please others on the tour."
Instead of touring nationally for the moment, then, González and Flores are stressing the importance of helping local musicians and groups first. "How many millions live in LA?" adds González. "Have we played for all of them? No! So we have a lot of work to do."
And this is what Quetzal considers success: being the Greek chorus of Southern California, helping the helpless, creating and living music that mollifies the harshness of the world for others.
"We don't get much publicity from labels and radio—not because our music is too difficult; it's our adamant refusal to lick the floor and dance like monkeys for millions," Flores smiles. "If we wanted to, we can totally do that. But we're not going to knock on any doors, because we don't believe in that. We're going to build our own doors, and let everybody in."
Quetzal perform with Mono Blanco at Casa Santa Fe, 1000 E. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9305. Sat., 7 p.m. $20. All ages.