Los Angeles, California. Nestled in the expansive geographic corridors of Aztlan, the busy metropolis is becoming a city famous for inventive Chicano music. Quetzal as a band is certainly inventive, easily placed among the forerunners who are currently hard at work creating a style called “alt.Mexican”. Layering all sorts of influences through a careful selection of rich Latin rhythms and styles, Quetzal has come up with an album so cohesive that it’s hard not to be completely sucked in each time the disc comes up for play. Work Songs is a lively and imaginative piece on how to move through life in the Los Angeles barrio while maintaining a sense of grace.
“This Is My Home” sets the place for the album. A scratchy old-vinyl sound leads into strange scratch-style percussion. Shuffling hand-drums and the occasional metallic strike on a rim edge give the sense of an auto moving along on a flat tire when suddenly the high notes of a cuatro guitar suddenly float down to the sidewalk like silver confetti. Soon there are the voices of the city: there is sound of whispering and a controlled wail, with traces of distorted conversation rising and falling in the background, hovering just at the audible level so it’s hard to tune out, but confusing as never enough is heard to even be partially understood. These are eerie surroundings, when the landscape is described by a swooning female voice as “Hard concrete, rusty fences / Armed with the constant noise of traffic” especially with the underlying machine rhythms from an ominous, echoing new-jack city sounding bass drum. With the traffic noise, and the cars all around, the focus is on “Home!” There’s a special determination to get back home safe and sound at the end of the workday, “Walk, walk, slow stride / Don’t stop. Sunset / Walk, walk, cornstalk / Walk, walk, front step”.
Yet even in such jarring mechanized surroundings where human beings can seem out of place, a beautiful jarocho can still find its way to be sung, as the following “Planta de Los Pies”. Very son-sounding, complete with a tarima (a wooden rhythm box traditional in the jarocho), this is a gliding movement on top while the rhythms underneath beg for feet to respond. The clear soprano of Martha Gonzalez soars and slides like an easy wave and can make this all sound very traditional. But there are modern accents added to remind everyone this is a contemporary piece, and one that’s played a little differently. The violin is electrified and heavy on echo and the electric guitar is run through distortion chamber. Though the jarocho style is from Vera Cruz, here it is showing up in Los Angeles, rather far from its point of origin, but that just helps prove that “Borders exist but they do not stop the relationship that grows between us”. There’s a gentle reminder of just who it is who’s making this music now: “I beg your pardon sirs but this is who we are / Jarocho music, we identify with the colors of the son / We, however, have our own cadence / We feel and execute as Chicanos”.
Despite such notice, throughout Work Songs is the constant theme of unity. This belief manifests itself in a variety of ways lyrically, though the central work “Alimentate” best expresses this optimism in a sure and certain voice: “Instead of separating each other, we must learn to live in peace / A message the world will learn in the end”. The very mix of musics throughout the album, especially North and South rhythms, styles, and instruments can be its own proof: If a unity can be attained in music where individual and competing parts come to terms with their individualities or minor differences and concentrate instead on working together successfully, that attitude can extend into other areas in life as well.
This philosophy is made more believable because lyrically Work Songs deals with the true-to-life. These are real-life issues being sung about. There’s a sturdy, basic respect of the hard-working common man and a salute to his accomplishments, all achieved while he lived out his unassuming life and labored in a lemon packing house for 32 years (“Limones Agrios”). The philosophy is made more beautiful by the poetry that makes the lyrics or when the older romantic traditions are lovingly cared for and tended to by younger hands (“Luna Sol”).
Work Songs is certainly for the forward-leaning listener and those who have a taste for leading-edge Latin music as it percolates at the moment out of the L.A. barrio. But there are enough traditional flavors to make the place seem familiar even as the music like the world around it rushes headlong into change. Most importantly, Work Songs is for anyone who longs for the extended magic of an album because this record can sweep the listener away.