At a recent show where Quetzal presented its new album, “Imaginaries,” the song “Infitada” about solidarity with Palestine made one audience member mad. She shouted at lead singer Martha Gonzalez in anger after the performance. But Gonzalez didn’t yell back. “I said, ‘Qué bueno, we have a conversation!’” Gonzalez recalled, telling the story to her audience at Quetzal’s release party March 2 at Fais Do Do in West Adams. The crowd of roughly 200 people cheered.
Quetzal, a Chicano rock band, has collected dedicated fans since its debut in the early 1990s. Many showed up to support the group and celebrate the new album, a Smithsonian Folkways project. The best way? Through music, of course. A performance by the band of honor, intended to spark conversation through socially-aware lyrics and an array of cultural sounds. And make people dance, too.
Gonzalez led — well, perhaps stole — the show with a strong, earthy voice. She expressed emotion not only through her face, but also entire body. Her band mates — playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion, violin, cello and, at times, the jarana — offered solid support. A cigar-box guitar also made an appearance. The parts achieved a fine balance in volume and rhythm. On some numbers, two female singers joined the mix. Jarana player Cesar Castro, a guest on the album, hopped on stage a few times as well. So did violin player Rocio Marron. But mostly, Gonzalez was in the spotlight as she sung, danced to son jarocho-inspired tunes and rattled a shekere. She also paused to talk in a mix of Spanish and English, telling stories and explaining the jarocho instruments.
Gonzalez also encouraged the audience to dance. A handful close to the stage eagerly did so, mixing salsa with freestyle. Others felt the beat by gently rocking their bodies, or tapping a foot. Many relaxed in the booths lining one wall. Or hung out in an upper mezzanine, observing the scene while sipping wine and beer. The audience included a wide age range. Tots in sparkly bows dashed through the audience. College kids in UCLA sweaters took notes in spiral-bound notebooks. An urban studies professor twirled a girl in circles. Musicians from other jarocho bands watched with rapt attention.
Even for those new to Quetzal, the band’s rollicking energy was infectious. On “Imaginaries,” the repetitive refrain on notes ascending in pitch began to sound like a battle cry. “Duérmete” illustrated a softer side, with Gonzalez keeping her words light and crisp rather than loud and brassy. A melodic violin added a melancholy strain. While “Imaginaries” was sung in English, and “Duérmete” in Spanish, other songs mixed languages. “Dreamers Schemers,” about a young woman’s search for identity, was one example. This time too, Gonzalez kept her sound light by directing intensity into long notes. “Intifada” lent a light Beatlesesque sound to a heavy topic with a cheery keyboard during the chorus. The jarana appeared in unexpected places, including “Estoy Aquí,” a cumbia about Mexicans determined to stake a place and significance in society.
Quetzal says it aims to tell the “social, cultural, political, and musical stories of people in struggle,” and that came across in the performance. Yet, for all its political activism, Quetzal kept preachiness offstage. The emphasis, instead, was on the music. On entertaining an audience with traditional song and dance with a kick of modern style. And on letting the music reveal its own stories, in its own way, on its own time. Which happened to be a fast, danceable beat.
Originally written for “Performance and Politics of the U.S.-Mexico Border” music class at Occidental College with professor Shanna Lorenz, spring 2012.