"The objective was definitely clear: to utilize music as a tool for stimulating social change," says Quetzal Flores, the 30-year-old guitarist for whom the group is named, during a telephone interview from his Highland Park-area home last weekend. "I think that goal has been clear all along, but our understanding of how to do that, the method through which we would reach that goal, wasn't as clear at first. That's been the learning process."
Quetzal will visit Tucson for a gig Friday, May 7, in the courtyard at the Tucson Museum of Art downtown. It is the kickoff event for the seventh annual summer Courtyard Concert Series.
For Flores, music is not simply a job, more than a vocation and definitely beyond mere entertainment. Wrestling for the appropriate word, he settles on calling music his "lifestyle."
Mirroring the activist stance of outspoken rap artist KRS-One, Flores and his bandmates--including his wife, Martha Gonzalez, and her brother, Gabriel Gonzales, who share the lead vocal duties in Quetzal--practice what he calls "edutainment," a fusion of message and music.
For a decade, Quetzal has focused on learning a variety of new and old music, assimilating this material and adapting it--shaping it into a new form. These days, that form melds traditional Mexican folk music with infectious Afro-Cuban rhythms, alternative rock and pop and Chicano-oriented social consciousness.
The band's eclectic but authentic sound is most fully and seamlessly demonstrated on its third album, the beautiful Worksongs, released last year on Vanguard Records. Alternating between fable and social reality, and between the personal and the political, Worksongs is as concerned with the Zapatista movement in Mexico as it is with inner-city struggles for jobs in L.A.
Saxophonist Steve Berlin, a longtime member of legendary East L.A. band Los Lobos, produced Worksongs. He has also guided the production of records by artists such as Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, Faith No More, Sheryl Crow and Paul Simon.
Berlin has said that Worksongs is not just a record, and that Quetzal is not merely a band.
"They are the voice of the (Mexican-American) culture. (Los Lobos) have carried the torch long enough, and I think Quetzal is the next to step up and speak for the community."
As a teenager in the 1980s, Flores bonded with the music of the English pop-rock band The Smiths, which might seem odd for a Chicano kid from East L.A. But it turns out that even through the band broke up about 15 years ago, The Smiths remain popular among many Mexican-American youths throughout the Los Angeles basin; it's a phenomenon that has been documented in such august publications as Spin magazine.
Flores thinks he knows why. He found The Smiths inspiring for many reasons, not the least of which being that singer Morrissey's songs about life in working-class Manchester uncannily paralleled the Chicano experience in East L.A.
"There was the heavy guitar sound of Johnny Marr, which was completely unique, combined with the lyrics of Morrissey," Flores says, with fond reminiscence in his voice. "The Smiths' music was the first artistic statement that brought to my attention the importance of locality in music and taking your reality and turning it into a metaphor through a song or a verse."
Music with a social conscience seemed all around Flores as he grew up: "I listened to the Beatles, and John Lennon is definitely someone who has used music as positive tool, and then there was Stevie Wonder. My mother is a Stevie Wonder fanatic, so I heard him all the time. And my brother went to school on the East Coast, so he would bring stuff home and play these groups for me, like R.E.M., that just opened my eyes up to what music could accomplish."
It's interesting to note that, although Quetzal's music is thoroughly infused with a rich legacy of Mexican folklorico music, Flores wasn't exposed to the traditional stuff until he was 19.
A budding songwriter, Flores abandoned a college degree in English to focus his life on making music. He started and played in a series of rock bands before meeting an inspiring musical mentor in longtime Angeleno Lorenzo Martinez, known to musicians far and wide as Lencho.
"He would put these traditional folk instruments in my hands, say 'This what it is used for; this is the traditional context of the instrument, and this is how you play it.' And then he would just let us run with it."
That's how Flores was introduced to the guitar-like Mexican stringed instruments jarana and bajo sexto, which anchor many of the band's arrangements.
"After that it was pretty automatic, that if I were playing the jarana, I would write songs for it. The instrument and the context permeated the music of Quetzal and helped define our approach."
Coming up with a band name was more challenging. The musician born José Quetzal Flores was called by middle name since he was a child, as is the tradition in many Mexican families.
Quetzal is a beautiful bird in Mexico and Central America with a mythic symbolism.
"It's the national bird of Guatemala. The Quetzal bird roamed free. It was known for its will to be free; you can't keep it captive," says the man named for it.
Flores didn't intend to name his band after himself.
"It was an accident," he says. "We had a gig, and I didn't have a band name. A friend of mine went on stage to introduce us, and said something like 'Here tonight is the premiere of ... ' and he looked at me and I shrugged, and he said, ' ... the premiere of Quetzal.'"
Soon, with the addition of Martha and Gabriel Gonzalez and several musicians from the California Institute of the Arts, Quetzal was bringing blues, jazz, bolero, cumbia and other forms of music together.
Quetzal's gig in Tucson this week is being billed as celebration of Cinco de Mayo, a significant Mexican holiday commemorating the victory of underdog villagers against the invading French army at Puebla in 1962. Sadly for some on this side of the border, it has become an excuse for raucous partying.
"I have a really hard time with Cinco de Mayo, because it has been commercialized and bastardized by these beer companies," Flores says. "It's a moment in history when the most powerful and dominant imperialists in the world at the time were pushed back by a bunch of poor people with nothing. They didn't have guns, they just had rocks and sticks, and they kicked (the French) out of the town."