Luz Elena, the lead singer of Y La Bamba, is an illusion in flesh and bone, a mirage that turns out to actually be there. A six-foot tall only daughter of Mexican immigrants to the USA, she looks like she peeled off of a National Geographic cover, spun through a tattoo parlour and hitched a 1000 mile ride on a mule. She seems ‘of the earth’ but writes songs that leave all our usual perceptions earthbound. Her lyrics, flowing as if from the pages Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are in fact shaped by classic struggles, with family, God and the experience of an extended and debilitating illness. We met at the appropriately named Amnesia Brewery in Portland, Oregon; she suggested we sit in the sun, and there for two meandering hours we delved into her quixotic world.
“Have you ever read Marquez?” I asked. She hadn’t, in fact she didn’t seem to know who he was. The only type of writer that she’d read who might be close was Carlos Casteneda, she suggested: “I’ve read him, but I want to get to the end, where he reaches the point when he doesn’t need anything, when he’s at unity with plants and the earth and sky - that’s where I need to get to.”
A Strict & Sheltered Upbringing
Her parents left the Michoacan region of Mexico to build a better life, the children grew up in San Francisco and later spent summers on a farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley outside of Merced.
Brought up in strict Catholic fashion, she had little access to typical societal influences, instead she constantly heard Mexican music, some of it going back to the 1930’s, her Father, like most Mexican men, would sing along. “I can’t relate to my friends’ music because I never heard it.” Perhaps this explains the uniqueness of Y La Bamba’s music, apart from a few familiar song structures and one ‘polka’ beat, the songs are unpredictable, tense dialogues; halting pauses with explanations lifted by sporadic flights of lilting melody.
Y La Bamba’s best known song to date is ‘Fasting In San Francisco’, where the refrain ‘All trees, are going down, are going down’ implies, at first listen, an environmental cause. It’s actually about her experience of living with illness - losing over 60 lb…, suffering from insomnia, and fearing madness. ‘It’s getting cold, weighted down in a corner of your heart; its getting old, hearing that same old story… tossing and turning, card after card, I need to pray.’
“It’s about seeing life in different ways, I was misdiagnosed, didn’t know what was happening, couldn’t sleep… as I grew up Catholic, I thought I was guilty and possessed.” That religious upbringing led to Luz being sent to New Zealand for further study in theology, after a year there she went on a mission to India and that’s where the sickness was picked up. “I was 21!”, she protested, “totally naive. I felt like I had been abducted.”
Despite everything, she is still devout, I asked her if she prayed: “All the time, every day”. More evidence of that came when I asked her what (from a choice of a dictionary, pencil & paper, a hat or a dog) she would chose, if she were marooned on a desert island.
“I like desert a lot, I think I would survive. Pencil & Paper - definitely, I have to be able to get things out… I’d like to have a dog to watch, but not a Dictionary” (because of her attention span). To add? - “A really good friend, maybe a brother, or a bible, yes that’s a good friend; it traumatized me, but it’s kept me grounded. I don’t like a box, but I need a box.”
Becoming grounded so she could heal became her mantra, but hasn’t contained the innate mysticism of her religion. Instead it’s transformed into a in-life magical realism: “The spirit doesn’t want to be contained in the body,” she explained.
Like A Lion
One singer Luz Elena has discovered for herself is Leonard Cohen, we all have, but rarely with such enthusiasm: “I love Leonard Cohen! He just never stopped or changed, he says it exactly as it is… It’s his level of awareness; accepting of himself. That’s exactly the way I like my men!… and yet he’s not invasive, he’s just talking - but - he’s like a Lion, he doesn’t fear.”
Coincidentally, in my notes on the band’s latest performance I’d written ‘she leans away from the mic as her voice at once soars and snarls’. It’s almost a sneer as she reigns in the power of the voice. I asked her if she knew about it. “I saw it on a video, so yes. But it only happens when it’s right, when I’m lost in the song.”
Most of those songs are complex but sparse, demanding that the listener follow the intensity of the vocals, or the delicacy of the accompaniments. At it’s most vulnerable it feels like she is stepping out across a tight-rope held down by the musicians… will she fall? Can they hold tight? Indeed they can; the vocal harmonies and counterpoints of Ben Meyercord and Mike Kitson knit it all seamlessly together. But within the lyrics, Luz Elena’s struggle continues:
Conflict with Father and God
She sings: ‘I’m your wrong headed daughter, I came from your womb… it’s like one of those movies.’ I asked, which movies? “The surreal ones with the tragic plots”. In another song, ‘Menace by Tenderness’, she sings
‘Father I adore you but I’ve been sleeping next to your heavenly friend…
He’s your brother; he came to kill us all.
He’s a monster; he came to save us all…
I tried to trick my mind to think that I’m in love with that fool’
“That’s about God, using Christ and Lucifer [as contradictions]”
I asked abut her parents, her Mother. “I love both of them, though I have big, big issues with my Father, but I love my Mamma and brothers, we’re very close. But you know what gets to me? My Dad’s OK, he’s gone, but my Mother, she’s still working at her age at a sawmill, pulling plywood in a dryer. They came here to give their children a better life and she’s still slaving, she’s stuck, that gets to me.”
You probably won’t find Bamba in a Spanish dictionary, but everyone knows the Richie Valens song ‘La Bamba’, which roughly, means ‘The Dance’. Luz Elena’s Bamba is a six-toed white cat that she bought in Ashland during her healing. “She’s was my little dance, so I named her Bamba.” Consequently her solo work became Y La Bamba and that, in turn, became the band, which she describes as “like being in a relationship, like love.”
And it seemed completely appropriate that she would have a six-toed white cat as a kind of mystical companion, a dance.
I saw Y La Bamba for the third time last week, a year since their remarkable first performance in the old Mississippi Studios in Spring 2008. They are gradually getting noticed. Would this affect her? “For now, I just do what I do. I don’t get neurotic about expectation. It’s like the songs - as soon as I create them, I record them (on her Mac) - they tell me to use microphones but sometimes it’s better to document things as they are, don’t you think?” As I’m fortunate to be the recipient of those dreamy, twisting demos, I could hardly disagree. A selection of them are available online under the release ‘Alida St.’ (Dec. 2008 through Gypsypop records. That recording is all Luz Elena, but the whole band have been busy working in studio on the first full recording, with just some horns and harmonies left to complete. The tentative new CD title is ‘Lupon’ (Luz’s Father’s nickname, which he hated, having been named after ST Guadeloupe). “It’s symbolic,” she said. Yes, of course, what else? I thought.
Copyright: Zaph Mann 2009. Reproduction with attribution is fine. Original publisher: opbmusic.org 2009
Y La Bamba are: Luz Elena guitar, vocals, loops
Ben Meyercord - vocals, bass
Mike Kitson - vocals, percussion
David Kyle - lead guitar
Eric Shrapel - accordion
Band photo: Jason Quigley Management: Josh Spacek