Sunday, July 11, 2010

Quetzal

I moved to LA in 1993, to an whole new urban reality from a lush, green, laid back San Antonio. It is a very culturally Mexican city where cute little old white ladies wear chili pepper earrings and yellow Mexican dresses with ruffles and the Mexicans pack into George Straight concerts and eat polish sausage wrapped in tortillas (don't knock it til you try it). Cowboy hats and boots are bilingual yanno. Leaving the Riverwalk and the Guadalupe Culture Center, the mariachis, and the Battle of the Flowers for a new city was exciting and yet disappointing. LA didn't have that peaceful co-existence of cultures I was used to in SA. It was very much us vs them here in this ocean-lined metropolis. I expected LA to be bustling with Mexican pride and power. I was hoping to find Chicano leaders at the top of their game spearheading large festivals uniting the best mariachis, the best ballet folkloricos, and singers. Afterall, everyone who was anyone in the entertainment industry landed in LA. I did see amazing performers and found scholars and activist students who were 'down' but a lot of it was just a bunch of talk and male posturing. Eventually I did run into people who inspired me and made me want to learn more about our people and culture. My quest after high school was to learn my people's history. It was a debate I had with my HS world history teacher who presumed our parents were teaching us about Mexican history at home. Ha! What a riot I say sarcastically. I took history classes and Chicano/a literature in college as well as Mayan civilization, and the like but what fueled my soul was the music.
My college roommate was Rocio Marron. She was studying violin and played in her cousin's band, Quetzal. Not knowing much about LA I was eager to go out and explore the East LA vibe and see if it was a good fit for me. I'd follow her to as many gigs as I could and met some really inspiring people and watched them make music or art. Quetzal was tall and skinny but a force with a big personality that was tamed only by the strum of his guitar. Once on stage, his eyes closed and his thin frame swayed like a tree in the breeze. Rocio was his bookend on stage, just as tall and thin holding her violin pulsating electric vibes through it with a gentle ease. The music was bold and romantic. The lyrics had a statement to make and the music lifted you off the ground and sent you soaring in the clouds and over mountains to our Mexica past and Chicano present.
Queztal is the son of Chicano activists who passed down the legacy of struggle, survival, and standing up for your rights, but instead of marching the picket line, Quezal picked up the guitar pick and sang to the protesting masses.
"My big brother went to a boarding high school in Rhode Island. He would return home to East LA armed with a strange accent and tons of new music. He introduced me to the Smiths, REM, The Cure, U2, and many others. He also came back playing guitar. My family bought him a beautiful black Fender Stratocaster with a black pick guard and a pre CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb. I specifically remember him kicking out Sugar Magnolia by the Grateful Dead. This was 1987 and I was 14 years old. On one of his visits, he decided to leave the guitar and amp in Los Angeles. Naturally, I wanted to be just like my big brother, so as soon as he left, I picked up that guitar and tried to figure out what it was all about. Shortly thereafter my dad bought me an acoustic guitar from a yard sale. It didn't work past the 5th fret, but I learned many songs on that instrument. My sister was dating a guy in a metal band at the time, and the other guitar player in the band was a guitar genius. His name was Ruben Reza. My mom and aunt Rosa Maria bought me my first electric guitar in 1988. Ruben took me to Ace Music in Santa Monica to buy it. He began teaching me some songs, and I never looked back."
Quetzal grew up in a very progressive family with mostly Marxist ethics. The mix of music and politics was a natural process. "Before I formed Quetzal, I was in a band called 'Aztlan' with Gabriel Tenorio of Domingosiete, Andy Palacios, Marco Garcia, and Willie Reyes (later replaced by Ozzie Favela). We played mostly original songs that were really creative, deep, and sometimes very political. When Quetzal formed, most of the songwriting was a collaboration between Lilia, who was the first singer of the band, and myself. She mostly wrote the lyrics to Agua de la Manguera. That song is about Lincoln Heights, which was where we both grew up. I was always encouraging her to write more political stuff, but this was always met with resistance. I remember writing Chicano Skies (original title) and trying to go over it with her. She just wasn't feeling that vibe, which is totally understandable considering that wasn't her reality. I also wrote Pasa Montañas during that time, and to her credit, she did sing that one a couple of times. Shortly after she left the band." As Quetzal and the band moved toward more political topics, they never lost the melancholy sound that absorbed you into their world. At the same time, bands like Rage Against the Machine and Aztlan Underground were putting out messages of oppressed people and social injustice with a harder edge, a rough, angry, roar that also drew fans in search of an outlet for their rage at the current state of affairs. Quetzal fans were just as enraged with social inequality and were also fans of Rage and Aztlan Underground, but what Quetzal provided was a vision of a more beautiful existence, a cultural, colorful, soulful existence--- mind conscious, yet at peace.


"Around the same time I met Marcos Loya and began studying guitar with him. He really got me started on Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican music. Through him I met Lorenzo "Lencho" Martinez. Lencho put the jarana in my hands and told me that I needed to be able to express myself through roots music. He also later introduced me to the bajosexto and musica Norteña. I suddenly felt armed like I hadn't before. For several years after that, rock music and the electric guitar really didn't exist. While this revolution is happening in my soul, I begin to read about the Zapatistas and their struggle for autonomy, dignity, and humanity. Simultaneously, I met Martha Gonzalez." With the arrival of Martha, the band was able to go full force in a stronger, solid direction. As band members came and went, the core of Martha and Quetzal remained strong and kept the band going. "There was an immediate connection and synergy between us through Mexican music, but also politics. She was a very creative writer in both Spanish and English. It was really an interesting time considering rock en español was exploding around us, and we were obliviously focused on going back to the roots."
"Martha had no problem writing political songs. In fact, we both agreed that we had a responsibility and accountability as musicians to write songs that speak the language of struggle. The first song we co-wrote was Todos Somos Ramona. From that point on it's been a very organic process of writing songs. It doesn't hurt to be married to her. When it came time to write lyrics for Die Cowboy Die I was revisiting a lot of my Smiths records and some early Morrissey stuff. I came across Margaret on a Guillotine from the Viva Hate album and the song was stuck in my head for weeks. I finally got it out on a plane coming back from the East Coast. I looked over to Martha and said, 'How about this for a chorus to that one jarocho type jam we've been working on, the killing of millions of people, now you must die?' She took it from there and wrote the rest as soon as we got home."
Over the years, Quetzal has traveled the world from Japan to Russia and across the US. "The trip to Russia was fascinating on many fronts. The epicenter of proletariat revolution turned social imperialists turned hyper capitalist....sort of. The way I saw it, we were going to a place where the US's biggest competition in global domination was planned, and many time executed. A place geographically far, but systematically much closer than everyone thought/thinks. We performed at the Golden Mask festival with a bunch of avant-garde groups. We got interviewed on the radio and I talked a bunch of shit about the Bush regime and the neo global economic project. We got to kick it in Red Square, checked out the Kremlin, St. Basil's cathedral. The architecture at the subway stations is incredible. The soviet era buildings are grey, cold, and remind me an awful lot of the projects in any barrio or ghetto in the US. Our hotel was smack dab in the middle of a bunch of these complexes. The advantage of staying in the neighborhood was the marketplace. Good ass food, you get to see how everyday people get their hustle on, and you get clowned as if you were in the hood. The capitalist thing hasn't completely settled in for everyone. So many times we'd walk into a market or restaurant and the workers would just stare at us. Not a twitch, just staring. We'd walk a little closer, still nothing. Finally we'd sit down, still nothing. We'd motion for them to come over, and they would reluctantly come over to see what the fuck we wanted. It was hilarious. There is no customer service there. I dug it. Kind of like Shirley from 'What's Happening'. After they realized we were cool, they starting giving us shots of flavored vodka (garlic, chile, olive, etc..). Quincy [McCrary] got sick. Sandino went on this trip with us, and that was probably the most challenging, and rewarding aspect of the trip. It was a 12 hour flight both ways. We didn't take a babysitter on this one, so he had to hang out on the wings of the stage. It turned out ok. He ate really well there. Mostly borscht. It's interesting for him to be at school, and have his teacher do reading time with the class, and all of a sudden a picture of St. Basil's cathedral is on the page and Sandino says, 'I've been there. It's beautiful'. Then everyone including the teachers are like, 'yeah, right'."  
Some of the most powerful and touching songs (well, practically all of them) are those from Quetzal and Martha's personal experiences and beliefs. Wrought with human emotion is Limones Agrios about Quetzal's grandfather. I only met his once or twice at family parties and he passed away a couple of days before my wedding when Rocio was to be my maid of honor. I missed the Valdez family members I've grown to love and adore at my wedding but Rocio didn't waver in my request to spend the day with her family instead of holding back tears at my wedding. It's that loyalty and beauty that perhaps their grandfather and grandmother passed along to them and for that I feel blessed to know them and have them a part of my life regardless of the obstacles between us like daily life and living far from each other. "Martha and I wrote Limones Agrios the week after my grandfather passed. It was actually written in a matter of hours. I sat on the couch in our Highland Park apartment and strummed away at my jarana trying to get some relief from the pain. Music and basketball usually does the trick for me. Martha was doing other stuff around the house and at some point she connected to what I was playing. She sat on her cajon played a little, took out her lyric book and wrote some. Bam! Instant healing. I love playing that song live. I always feel like he's listening. There was one instance where it was really difficult to play because my whole family was there. We had a video presentation of my grandfather going on behind us. One of my uncles wept for the rest of the show. In the end, it's all positive and healthy."

It's safe to say that Quetzal's songs provide the same positivity to their listeners and fans world-wide. So many songs I could mention that touch me but yet they take on a more profound meaning knowing what those songs mean to Quetzal when he and Martha wrote them. "I still enjoy listening to and playing Politics Y Amor. It was written during a very difficult time in my life. One of those moments where you have a broken heart, you're unemployed, there's no clear direction or path, and you feel like the world's against you. Yet, somehow, the burden of being hyper sensitive leads you to hope. This is why I always say that music has always been there for me. Again, this was written around the same time as Chicana Skies and has a similar poetic sentiment. Another song is Learning Solitude. Dante [Pascuzzo] and Martha wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. The collaboration between the three of us was magical, and produced many beautiful ideas. It was a very difficult time for many people and relationships close to me. It's always hard to watch people you love be destructive. This was my way of telling them that I love them, and that this hard time will soon pass with some hard ass work. Jarocho Elegua is such an epic piece of self determination and self reflection. I love the way Martha narrates this open conversation with Elegua. A Chicana asking an Orisha for permission to embark using an Afro-Mexican musical platform as a ship or vehicle. I never get tired of playing this one live. Another collab between Dante, Martha, and myself. At my funeral I want Martha and Gabriel [Gonzalez] to sing Rayando el Sol. I think Pasa Montañas would be appropriate as well." That'd be Rayando el Sol NOT the Mana version but the traditional song. I won't make that mistake again. "No, that's an old ass Mexican tune that Martha and Grabby learned from their grandma. Maybe Mana re made it. Fuck Mana." Even Quetzal can make me dislike Mana (but only for a little while. :-)
"I feel like I'm eternally evolving and learning. Fatherhood certainly affords me a constant reminder that music without real life experiences isn't worth a damn thing. It also keeps me focused on music as a community experience. I want to make sure that he gets a healthy dose of the context in which music can be used to organize and empower." -Quetzal Flores

Need I say more.





Photo (top) by Abel Gutierrez.




2 comments:

  1. I <3 <3 <3 Quetzal' s music!!!

    I will never forget the first time I saw them perform at a MEChA Conference @ UCLA back in 98(?)! I just fell in live with the music!

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  2. Quetzal is AWESOME!!! They tell it like it is. Martha's facial expressions help tell the story!

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