Guest Writer Eugene Rodriguez, Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds)

Posted on 10/24/2009 by Monica Yasher

Today our guest writer is Eugene Rodriguez. I found this band, once again, as one of my myspace friends. As I read this writing, it truly embraces what the blues is about in a fairtale kind of way to me. As in all fairtales, you have a group of people living in pretty tough times, but striving to make it. And then in our story, you have the heroes like Taj Mahal and David Hidalgo, our blues royalty and heroes. They pass on from generation to generation what the traditional blues is as well as moving it forward to be fresh and innovative, which leads to a very happy ending! Let's read about Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds).

Greetings readers. My name is Eugene Rodriguez. I am the producer of a new CD called American Horizon, a collaboration with my group Los Cenzontles(The Mockingbirds), blues legend Taj Mahal and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Los Cenzontles is a group of musicians that plays Mexican roots music. We are based out of Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center , a cultural center in a small converted liquor store in the East Bay Area of San Francisco. We perform traditional Mexican music and try to create fusions with other roots and world music. The members of Los Cenzontles literally grew up in the Center that was named after the group learning from masters from various styles of Mexican roots music and dance. These young people learn and incorporate the styles so deeply that they can easily fuse the roots together with other styles and cultures that surround them in our urban California setting.

We met Taj Mahal through David Hidalgo. Last year David recorded a CD with Los Cenzontles called Songs of Wood & Steel – a mix of Americana and Mexican music. As soon as Dave arrived at our studio one of the first things he said was ‘Taj has got to see this’. A year later we were lucky enough to get both Taj and Dave to record another CD – again mixing Mexican traditions – but this time with African American sounds.

I wanted to create an album that fused traditions from both the Mexican American and African American experience into a project about working in America – something that unites both communities historically. Of course both men were perfect for the job. David is the rare individual who straddles both American and Mexican music in his work with Los Lobos, The Super Seven and Latin Playboys, among others. Taj has a remarkable recording history of playing American roots music as well as other world styles. It was also especially perfect since these two masters have mutual respect for each other and have jammed together throughout the years on stage.

Most people in the U.S. know something about Cuban music or Brazillian music but rarely do you meet non Latinos with real knowledge of authentic Mexican music so I was especially impressed by Taj’s knowledge and respect for Mexican music. I quickly learned that Taj has an insatiable appetite for musical and cultural knowledge and an uncanny ability to incorporate all types of musical experiences into his own expression.

We recorded American Horizon in six consecutive days at our center, finding common rhythms and each musician contributing song forms and ideas as well as building on top of traditional songs. Our center, which is actually an old stripmall liquor store that we converted, was stacked high with David’s and Taj’s instruments such as banjo, madolin, steel guitar, ukelele, electric guitar, electric piano, violin, as well as Los Cenzontles ’ guitarron, jaranas, vihuela, guitarra de son and quijada, or jawbone. We were also extremely fortunate to have Kester Smith, a percussionist who regularly performs with Taj, and Cougar Estrada, a percussionist who regularly performs with David, at the sessions. These guys are simply amazing musicians.

The CD tells a story through fifteen songs of work, love and the search for the American Dream. It starts with something like a dream sequence with La Luna (The Moon), a ‘cumbia blues’ written and sung by Taj in Spanish of a tropical land and its people. It is followed by Voy Caminando (I Go Walking) which uses Mexican ‘son’ rhythm to tell of a young man leaving his home to find opportunity in the North. The bilingual track Sueños (Dreams), also sung by Taj, sings of the initial illusions that many recent immigrants have of the U.S. Throughout the narrative we hear an array of emotions including hope, love, despair and gratitude. Certain songs are musical vignettes with spoken voices (No Work) looking for work or talking about their day (La Rutina – The Routine). Style and instrumentation rocks back and forth from traditional to contemporary and often mixes it up. In Best of Me, David Hidalgo sings of despair in the face of worklessness against a beat of rock huapango, mixing traditional zapateado (percussive dancing) with heavy drum back beats. The album closes with a celebratory dance tune Solo Quiero Bailar (I Only Want to Dance).

Borders between countries are political and not cultural. Regional cultures arise from the historic ethnic make up of that region. People from Africa arrived to the U.S. as well as the Carribean islands and Mexico. African rhythms mixed with various European and Indigenous cultures in ways that distinguish these regions but also unify them. So our goal was to dig deep into the traditions – with respect and love, but also with the confidence to mix things up and create something new which is what we hoped to do with American Horzion.

We want to remind people of our common history and humanity. And we would like to remind people that the American identity has always evolved by absorbing cultural contributions from newcomers. And what better way to do it than through music?

But more than anything we hope that people will enjoy the sounds of American Horizon. It was ‘big fun to record’ as Taj says. And that is the truth.

Thank you for reading American Blues News!

Copyright © 2009 Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Los Cenzontles(The Mockingbirds).
All Rights Reserved.

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