The brightly colored feathers of the guacamaya in flight inspire son jarocho musicians in Veracruz, Mexico. But what animals do jarana-strumming Chicanos sing of when they live in LA's mass urban sprawl? The question sparked Quetzanimales, the first concept album for Grammy-award winning East Los band Quetzal.
"Son jarocho has been a huge part of the music that we've created over many years," says singer Martha Gonzalez. The centuries-old tradition has always been lyrically informed by the natural world around it. "We started thinking about our landscape, nature, and the animals that we cohabitate with."
Before going into the studio for Quetzanimales, Gonzalez and her husband Quetzal Flores left their longtime LA home for a couple years. They traveled to Mexico to co-produce Entre Mujeres, a translocal collaboration between Chicana and jarocha musicians. Gonzalez spent time in Seattle completing her doctorate at the University of Washington. She's now a Chicano/a Studies profesora at Scripps College.
"Being away was refreshing," Flores says. "It was a moment for us to really be able to reflect on the previous 15 years of work that has been done in music and community."
When they returned to Alhambra, the duo at the core of the group challenged themselves to break new ground amidst an East LA scene full of young up-and-coming musicians. Quetzal found reinvention in musically mapping out a new social ecology. "It's our first concept album where we were all on the same page that we wanted to focus on urban animals," Gonzalez says. "Everybody had an idea about what kind of animal they wanted to talk about."
The band worked tirelessly in bringing the collective vision to fruition. Songs of ants, geese, pigeons spiders and coyotes sound over Quetzal's signature genre melding ways. The album was recorded live over the course of three days.
Seeing the world through the eyes of animals didn't left the band bereft of its usual artistic politics. "Looking at the animals as part of the social order and structure is part of social justice," Flores opines. "Our song 'Coyote Hustle' is about the coyote who comes down, who has to hustle his meals because urban sprawl has pushed him all the way back into the corner of this hill of El Sereno or Boyle Heights."
Animal control typically gets called in and people look at the coyote loose on the street with fear. Beyond the surface politics of the song, there's a metaphorical aspect to it as well. "It reminds me of poor people getting pushed out of communities, how that happens and how they respond," Flores adds. "That's the essence of the coyote. People are driven to cross the desert with no food or water, walking for days because they're trying to survive."
The band released Quetzanimales this summer coinciding with the 20th anniversary of its founding in 1994. It follows the group's Grammy-award winning Imaginaries released on Smithsonian Folkways. "Suddenly this Grammy thing happens, we're like, 'What? This album is good but I like this other album better but okay sure!'" says Gonzalez. "We've worked very hard. It's been a long time coming. We feel very blessed we've been able to do it on our terms."
Always active in their community, Quetzal successfully turned to crowd sourcing through Kickstarter to fund its latest work. They're bringing it to Santa Ana for the first time in support of the Orange County Educational Arts Academy this Saturday.
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Through their busy schedules and raising a family, Quetzal continues into another year of its east side musical legacy. "There's nothing sexy about struggle," Flores says. "We decided we have our own set of rules and by those rules, we're super successful. That's what makes us happy and provides the possibility for longevity. Twenty years is a long time and we're still doing it!"
El Centro Cultural de Mexico and OCEAA present Quetzal at 825 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, 6 p.m., $10 general admission. $5 students. All children under 12 free!