Cover Story [Issue
Song And Revolution
CD Vanguard )
The Quetzal bird
has been called "the most spectacular bird in the world." According
to Mayan legend, the Quetzal has always symbolized freedom. Freedom because,
once captured, it would die.
The Zapatista movement in the Chiapas State of Mexico is headed by Subcomandante Marcos, who leads rebels waging an unofficial war against the Mexican government. In defending Mexico's most exploited state, Marcos has written: "The natural wealth that leaves these lands doesn't travel over just these three roads (leading to Chiapas). Chiapas is bled through thousands of veins: through oil ducts and gas ducts, over electric wires, by railroad cars, through bank accounts, by trucks and vans, by ships and planes . . . And what tribute does this land continue to pay various empires? Oil, electric energy, cattle, money, bananas, honey corn, cocoa, tobacco, sugar soy… and Chiapan blood flows out through a thousand and one fangs sunk into the neck of southeastern Mexico."
What, you might ask, is the relevance of all of this? The answer lies in the philosophy and spirit of an East Los Angeles sextet of musicians celebrating their 10th anniversary together. Quetzal refuse to be confined to any particular style. They refuse to be defined. They refuse to be thrust into the role of profiteer. For them it's all about familia. It's all about the collective chi. It's all about writing songs and righting wrongs. It's about rebelling against the man while championing the common man.
Worksongs, their latest release on Vanguard Records, is evidence of this paradigm. Fusing pop, soul, Cuban and Mexican folk, along with poignant lyrics in both Spanish and English, Quetzal has created a unique hybrid. Beautiful rhythms and haunting melodies combine with socially conscious lyrics to create an urban landscape complete with concrete "This Is My Home" and hope "Learning Solitude". The album is a reflection of the struggles of the working class trying to survive in the not-so-friendly environment of modern America. While others may confront the same issues with blasts of heavy metal cacophony a la Rage Against The Machine, Quetzal manage to guide us a la Rage Against The Machine, Quetzal manage to guide us through the intricacies of societal evolution with grace and dignity. Riding on a lilting violin solo, lead singer Martha Gonzalez sings on the title track, "Working people in the midst of painting life in the commons. Breaking communal bread. Sharing life sustaining." Such is the positive message throughout the album. Founder and guitarist Queztal Flores comments, "Somebody asked me once, 'Aren't you guys ever angry? Your songs are always positive. Don't you ever get pissed and want to write angry songs?' I'm angry every day of my life but I choose to channel that anger in positive ways and that's how it comes out. If you're talking about something, especially when you want people to listen to what you're saying, you can't perpetuate the negativity. That's not to say that certain bands shouldn't do that. It has its purpose, function, and importance but that's not us. That's not what we're really about."
The anger Flores mentions is fueled by his empathy for the Zapatista movement and the changes they are trying to effect. "[The Zapatista rebels] are fighting against hunger, ignorance, genocide," explains Flores, "anything that any farm worker would fight against any country in the world. Fighting against all injustices to human beings. They are fighting for basic human rights: education, healthcare. They totally expose the contradictions of how Mexico uses indigenous people as the objects of novelty but treats them like shit."
A few years ago, the band traveled down to Mexico to see how these people with very little resources organized an entire movement. Flores explains, "We decided that we were going to go witness it. We have this powerful movement emerging in East Los Angeles. How were we going to utilize this movement as a tool to re-define our community? We had all these different bands, artists, teachers, doctors and all these people going down with us to do this research and exchange with them. We made it really clear that we didn't go there to help the 'poor Indians.' We didn't go with that mentality. We went there to share, to learn." When asked if it has made a difference, Flores says, "Absolutely. Look at this movement we have. East Los Angeles has an incredible art movement and popular media doesn't recognize it. Corporate media doesn't recognize it but the artist is everything and it's growing."
Impressed at how the community functioned as a unit, Flores has incorporated the collectivism he witnessed into the band. "It's not my band anymore. It's everybody's band. Everybody not only has the right but has the responsibility to participate and put their voice in, otherwise you are not doing your part."
With over thirty songs to choose from for the new album, he explained how they chose only eleven: "We discussed things. It wasn't always pleasant but we have positive constructive discussions and in the end everybody's happy. If one person is dissatisfied then the process doesn't work and we start all over again. It's a long fucking process. It's a constant ego check. We write our songs about experiences…real life experiences. Usually the music is created first and then Martha or Gabriel or myself will write the lyrics. I'll listen to the mood of the song and think about what part of my life I can write about."
There is a certain symmetry and balance to Quetzal and their music evidenced in the themes of unity and strength throughout Worksongs. One song in particular, "Limones Agrios," sung in Spanish, shares the story of Quetzal's grandfather Jose Maria Valdez, a farm worker who packed lemons for the Seaboard Lemon Company for 32 years, supporting his wife and eleven children on his meager salary. While this man was no stranger to hardship, the scene of his death as detailed in the liner notes was one of celebration in which his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered around his body and sang joyful songs. On "This Is My Home," Quetzal embrace their urban habitat. "We live in the city. We're city people. We're not going to be anything else," says Flores. "There was this parking lot across from us for some credit union and we used to play baseball there after hours. It was our playground. I grew up on the streets. That's where I feel most comfortable." Asked about the inevitable spoils of commercial success, Flores replies, "I'll never leave the streets. Whenever we're on the road I'm always trying to find that place that reminds me of home. We were in Detroit, the most wrecked city I've ever seen. General Motors did a huge disservice to that community. I went on a little scooter from Downtown to Mexican Town through all the ghettos of all the different people and all their walks of life. To me, that was like going home."
Signs of a new Hispanic chic in this country are visible everywhere from J. Lo, Penelope Cruz and Shakira to George Lopez and Sammy Sosa. Newsweek has described Hispanics as "hip, hot and making history." Advertisers are using Latino celebrities to sell products from milk to Whoppers®, and Nuevo Latino cuisine restaurants line the streets of every major city. Many feel that this is indicative of the growing Hispanic population in this country and demonstrates the progress they have made as a whole. Flores disagrees. "That doesn't mean anything. This whole labeling Hispanic, Latino doesn't mean anything . . . Communities have been abandoned and torn apart . . . There is so much difference between a Cuban and Mexican that you can't put a general label on it . . . There are a hell of a lot of Mexicans here but even after 9/11 hit, a lot of Mexicans were waving their flags and to me it was like 'Fuck flags.' Flags, to me, represent destruction, evil and genocide. I can't salute a flag. What does it mean? It doesn't mean a damn thing. I respect you as a human being. I'm willing to dialogue with you in a peaceful respectful manner. I've seen [the community] grow but these people are utilizing it for themselves. They're brokers for corporations. They don't want to help the community. They're trying to build their political careers. They could give a fuck about the community. They're making moves just to build their careers. I'll never support that."
Quetzal Flores is truly a man of passion. He is an altruist in the pure sense of the word; Ayn Rand would abhor him and Cesar Chavez would laud him. For Queztal the man, collectivism is a way of life. For Queztal the band, it's all about regeneration and resilience, transcendence of hardships and celebration of life - a spirit as dependent upon freedom as is the bird from which the band take their name.