By Russell Rodríguez
February 13, 2013

In 1997, I saw the band Quetzal for the first time at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. I was playing in a band that opened for this group. My impression of the members of Quetzal when I met them was, “Hmm, a bunch of mocosos that play rock but want to play traditional music.” My opinion immediately changed upon hearing them play and sing. There was a serious beauty to their music and a breadth of youth, which promised a possibility that this new band would blossom into something joyful, fulfilling, and significant. It would not be until a couple of years later that they put out their first self-entitled CD Quetzal (1998 produced by John Avila). Songs like “Todos Somos Ramona,” “Politics y Amor,” and their versions of traditional songs “El Cascabel” and “Cruz de Olvido” soon began edging their way into the soundscapes of Chicano events on university campuses and in communities throughout California.

Quetzal emerged 1992 as part of a cohort of artists from East Los Angeles that were engaged in an intertextual dialogue of expressions. This collective of poets, visual artists, teatristas, musicians, and cultural and social workers worked together to create positive visions and representations of the marginalized communities in which they lived. This was reflected in the band’s follow up recordings on the Vanguard label, Sing the Real, (2002 produced by Greg Landau) and Worksongs, (2003 produced by Steve Berlin) on which they recorded noteworthy pieces such as “The Social Relevance of Public Art,” “Decide,” and “This is My Home.” The original compositions of Quetzal index the conditions in which immigrants, women of color, working class, and the marginalized deal with the difficulties they face living in today’s globalized society. Martha Gonzalez, lead vocalist, musician, dancer, and lyricist for Quetzal, often explains, however, that while aggrieved communities deal with the discriminating obstacles of life, the people of these communities still demonstrate resiliency to feel joy, love, and all real emotions. This is illuminated in the band’s and her performance.

What also surfaced from these compositions and CD projects is the genesis of a long-lasting conversation and alliance with the jarocho musicians and dancers from communities of Southern Veracruz. The songs “Jarocho Elegua,” “Cenzontle,” and “Planta de los Pies” illuminate jarocho music as a foundation of Quetzal’s sound. Yet this is only one foundation for the band.  Like Chicana/o identity, Quetzal’s sound is based on a polycultural layering of different experiences, backgrounds, histories, realities, and imaginaries that are influenced by different cultural communities and different time eras. In listening to this group, the influences of groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, The Smiths, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Pat Methany are just as evident as that of Juan Gabriel, Ruben Blades, Los Van Van, and Susana Baca and many many more.

The group went on to produce their 4th recording Die Cowboy Die (2006 produced by John Avila) that intertwined an assortment of new compositions with wonderful interludes of covers, soundscapes, and other original songs in process. Their most recent CD recording Imaginaries, came out in 2012. Obviously it took Quetzal a long time to get this recording out, but it should be known that various productive experiences took place within this time—children, education, living abroad, fellowships, and producing other projects and bands in their communities. These realities provided a substantial inspiration for the songs on this recording, which was released on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label and produced by Quetzal Flores and Dan Sheehy (an ACTA founding board member). 

Now, in this short space I could talk about the songs of this Grammy-winning recording, but I would rather speak upon the action taken when the group found out they were nominated for a Grammy. Instead of making plans on attending the pre-Grammy dinner gathering that is open to all nominees, Quetzal Flores and the band began to plan their own pre-Grammy party that would be open to their community. Held in the heart of Boyle Heights at the Breed Street Shul, and with the help of the MusiciansCorps, the Breed Street Shul, and Guadalupe Custom Strings, Quetzal hosted the son jarocho ensemble Los Cojolites (Grammy-nominated in the Mexican regional category), La Marisoul of the band La Santa Cecilia (which was nominated for a Grammy in 2011), jarocho musician Andres Flores (who participated on the Sistema Bomb project, which was nominated in the same category as Quetzal), the vinyl spinnings of DJ Thank You Mr. Omar, and a collective of academics and public intellectual which included George Lipstiz, Victor Viesca, Michelle Habell-Pallan, Greg Landau (who produced Los Cojolites), Josh Kun, Roberto Flores, Martha Gonzalez, and myself. The night was a joyous and magical gathering of music, thoughts, food, friendship, and convivencia. And the desire for Quetzal to want to share their celebration with their family, friends, and neighbors, clearly demonstrates where their heart is, where they get inspiration, where they write and compose, where they represent, and where they live—in their community.

Felicidades to the band Quetzal for winning their first Grammy in the category of Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album!

See Quetzal’s Facebook page for photos, video clips, and updates on their Grammy win:

Also support Quetzal by purchasing their music where ever you buy your music: iTunes, Amazon, or from the artists when you go see them live.  Support live music!

The following 30-minute documentary, Pre-Grammy Encounter — Forget you, we’ll stomp on wood!, was filmed by Angelica and Scott Macklin.