Quetzal Urge Artists in the Era of Trump: "Say Something That Means Something"
Fred Knittel/Smithsonian Folkways
It's been a little over two months now since President Trump took the oath of office. His first week in office saw numerous protests worldwide, with people of all backgrounds blocking highways in Los Angeles, anarchists punching trust-fund Nazis in the face, and millions of women marching in defense of their rights with the power of the knitted pussy hat.
The protests have dwindled since then (though anarchists punching Nazis is still a regular thing), which leaves one wondering: What comes next after the resistance and the protests? One possible answer lies in Quetzal's latest album, The Eternal Getdown.
"It's actually a line ... on a song called 'Critical Time' (Tiempo Crítico)," explains Martha González of the album title. "It's one of the lines toward the end of the song, which is: How do we initiate our people to get down? ... [For] people who are involved in social justice and the struggle in general, how can we not lose momentum and initiate new people? Social movements aren't just about putting out fliers but also about creating generative practices, things that also give us energy and don't just take from us all the time. We're fighting against something but also creating new things."
Political music of any stripe tends to be an emotional outlet for aggression and despair. Most of it takes the form of protest music, which is an outlet against an antagonizing force. That protesting energy, however, is unsustainable, because it rarely offers an alternative to the forces of oppression it's fighting against.
González points to the 1960s and all of the achievements won by radical groups and power movements. The work they put in advanced agendas that propelled people of color and other marginalized groups toward better representation in media and higher education. There has been a massive pushback against many of these progressive advancements, especially during the current administration.
"The question becomes, how do we resource our own communities that have this information already?" adds Quetzal Flores, who founded his eponymous group more than 20 years ago in East L.A. "If the traditional cultures in our community have this information on how a community builds itself [and] how a community engages in dialogue, [then how do] we create circles around issues and solutions and move forward and not get stuck in the mode of resistance, but simultaneously resist and propose and move forward? It's not a sustainable mode to be in. You burn out."
"There's always going to be a challenge but that's really the big question for us in different songs: how to create new forms of social movements," González adds. "There are new ways of involvement in social movements ... so that we don't have to keep reacting."
The album, musically, is centered around the group's love for son jarocho, with most songs using traditional instruments such as the quijada (jawbone), the requinto (a kind of miniature guitar) and others, but is also the quintessential L.A. Chicano album. The traditional instruments of son jarocho work alongside other acoustic and electronic instruments that flow seamlessly from son to funk, rock, R&B, pop and other genres.
"That is part of the complexity of Chicano music," Flores explains. "It has so many places that it pulls from. You synthesize all these ideas. Nothing is safe and nothing goes unexplored."
The album opens with a prayer in Purépecha, a language spoken by the indigenous people of modern-day Michoacán. From there, everything is fair game as violins, acoustic and electric guitars and waves of percussion unite to set the background to various stories of resistance, survival, resilience and, most important, transformation.
The colonial relationship between tourists and indigenous people is viewed from the latter's perspective in "Espejos vs. the Gaze." Aloe Blacc appears on "Get to Knowing" (Conociendo) to extol building communities through new and alternative ways of caring, nurturing and acquiring knowledge. The instrumental "Pajaritos" (Little Birds) is a throwback to their previous album, Quetzanimales, while also referencing barrio slang for the police helicopter, ghetto bird.
The references to Ayotzinapa, the Virgen de Guadalupe and the African diaspora in Mexico and the United States, along with traditional renditions of "La Bamba" and "La Lloroncita," all celebrate the past that lives alongside the multicultural present of Los Angeles.
"We feel very accountable to the community that we're from," González explains. "We feel it's important for us as artists, now more than ever — always, we've done it for more than 22 years — but now more than ever, it's really important that if you're going to pick up a fucking mic, then you need to say something that really means something. There's so many people on television and the radio not saying anything at all. Nothing that's useful to anybody. It's about consumerism, about what you look like ... and we're not into that. It's a waste of time for us, especially at the junction that we find ourselves right now in this country and around the world."
Quetzal's The Eternal Getdown is available now via Smithsonian Folkways, online retailers and your local record store. The band will perform the album in its entirety on Saturday, March 25, at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center with special appearances by Aloe Blacc and other guests featured on the album. Tickets and more info.
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