It’s not uncommon for a band to take a hiatus, and then return with a new album that incorporates new influences into the mix. That’s what Portland’s Y La Bamba did for Ojos Del Sol, which arrives four years after their last record. But this time, the most striking change is not the music, but singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s voice.
Not only have the timbre and tone changed; it’s also the way she uses her voice that’s different. It’s blended into the music as though it were another instrument in the ensemble.
When I ask Mendoza about her singing on this record, she responds with so much urgency, I think she’s been waiting for this question the entire interview.
“That right there is a representation of how I’m healing through trauma,” she says. We had talked already about how she’s spent time working through her childhood traumas, and the pain of being a person of color living in the United States, and the difficulty of being a creative woman in the music industry.
Her voice, she says, has literally changed as a result of all this. “We as human beings have trapped trauma in our bodies. When you’re in trauma, when you live in fear, and you are scared, you don’t know how to exercise your voice,” she says. “You find a new way to express yourself.”
The record, which is the third for the Portland group, is a confident, powerful recording, a true mixture of styles and influences. There are elements of folk, indie, Latin music, and psych-pop, and the music has a meditative-like repetition to it. It spirals in circles and builds off of itself, flirting with pop in a subtly avant-garde manner.
The title track, Mendoza says, was written first. The song came to her one night, along with a flood of tears, and took her two hours to finish.
“It’s the reason why I recorded the record,” she says. “I thought of my mom, my dad, always trying to heal. Having a really strong Mexican-American background, and being Mexican-American, I feel like I carry those memories with me all the time.”
The song, which is in Spanish, is a meditation on her family, and the deep feelings she has for them. She asks for peace for her madre, padre y hermanos, and says no hay nadie como tú (“there is no one like you.”) It’s a touching, emotive ballad.
There have always been songs in both English and Spanish on Y La Bamba’s records. But this is the first record that has a song (“Libre”) that goes back and forth between languages. It’s a genuine melding of Mendoza’s cultures and identities, something that’s been a theme of her music since day one. On the song, she brought in a choir of her female friends to sing backing vocals on the track. Not all of them spoke Spanish, but they learned enough to sing the song.
“Women are very present on this record. This is so powerful for me,” Mendoza says. “Beyond cool. It’s something that’s beautiful, and really I would like more of that sharing instead of hostility.”
The group of friends sang together in a chant-like style. The lyrics are abstract, as she’s describing a dream. It’s joyous, and feels profound without any clear indication of what it’s shedding light onto.
Even though Y La Bamba took a hiatus for four years, Mendoza wasn’t exactly keeping a low profile. She was involved in several collaborations, which only helped broaden her senses and influence her style as an artist. Many of the people she collaborated with brought her closer to her heritage as a Latina-American. For instance, she worked with Los Dreamers, a group formed by Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli and Shawn King of DeVotchKa.
“It’s a collaboration of multiple artists from first-generation backgrounds that talk about immigration and immigration rights, creating an awareness for immigration,” she says. “A lot of the projects I’ve had, I’m really open with really exploring and healing and diving into people of color, and not creating any separation—just having that different knowledge for how we can heal and come together as the Latin community, through music and art.”
INFO: Y La Bamba performs on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9 in Felton. $10/door.