Y La Bamba continues to redefine Latin-infused folk music

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There’s something a little strange about the way Y La Bamba talks about its latest album, “Ojos del Sol” (“Eyes of the Sun”). No doubt, as Felix Contreras put it on National Public Radio, the record is “a major step forward” for the Portland, Oregon-based band. Compared to Y La Bamba’s previous offerings, “Ojos del Sol” has a cleaner, more sophisticated sound, and, as Contreras points out, a more imaginative use of the magical voice of lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza. But the band’s description of its own work goes further than that. “There’s a maturity,” according to Y La Bamba, “that speaks to true, lasting transformation.” The music, in case the point wasn’t clear before, “screams of radical transformation on every level.”

The question is what exactly has happened to prompt Mendoza and her collaborators to make such claims. At first listen, “Ojos del Sol” seems like the natural continuation of the band’s previous work. Y La Bamba is still more than Mendoza’s band. It is her avatar, her conduit of communication with the rest of the world. Through it she explores her own psyche, to reveal it in all its messiness to the audience, and her background, her parents’ roots in Mexico and their adventurous voyage to a new land. Her music retains the same thematic concerns as before – identity, self-discovery, the conviction that “a faith is greater than just religion” – and the aural aesthetic, uniquely personal, unveiled in “Alida St.,” Y La Bamba’s debut album from 2008.

Mendoza asserts that the work stems from “a renewed musical approach” and “a greater self-awareness,” which she acquired while collaborating with established figures such as Edna Vazquez and Lila Downs, but there’s little evidence that she’s changed her point of view. Like its predecessors, “Ojos del Sol” combines folk and alternative sounds, catalyzed by Mendoza’s experiences listening to traditional Mexican songs and stories, distorted by distance and nostalgia and the whims of memory. It also remains devoted to what is clearly the pivotal story in Mendoza’s life: the time she fell ill while on a visit to India and “traded her Christianity for something broader.” As always, she alternates between Spanish and English.

So, if the interests are the same, and the musical approach is the same, though refined by time and experience, then what’s different? My sense is that the change is in the artist more than in the work. That Mendoza feels like she’s crossed a threshold, overcome the struggles of her past, and is now ready to begin a new, freer, more empowered, more confident stage of her life and, by extension, her musical career.

Consider how her lyrics have evolved over time. In “Alida St.”, her first album, dank and chilling imagery dominates: “the treasures of mold and the dampness of love,” “all the trees going down, left with no air,” “the damned door of disease.” “Who will take my corpse?” she implores in “My Lukewarm Recovery,” “who will take it home?” She wonders why “my mother cries tears of fear” in “Isla de Hierva Buena,” and concludes, in “Bravo Gustavo,” that “we are the lost sons of the sun/ we are the children of the dark.”

To begin her journey, Mendoza had to first face herself, her foreboding, her fear. There’s a ponderous, melodramatic quality to much of the music here, only rarely interrupted by slashes of humor or whimsy.

By the time she delivered “Court the Storm” (in 2012), Mendoza had moved beyond the darkness and allowed herself to search her past for insight. She shows her ambivalence towards her Christian upbringing, mocking believers in “Como Ratones” (“Like Mice”) – “they have their lives/ full of Christ/ reading the Bible/ marking the days” – then expressing her thanks to the nuns who raised her in “Moral Panic” – “you taught her right/ you gave her all/ holy sister/ you were so brave.” She’s not afraid to be opaque, as in “Idaho’s Genius” – “you hosted me kindly/ you scored my timid throat” – nor straightforward, as in “Michoacán” – “my blood comes from the lands of the state of Michoacán.” Ultimately the judgment here is brighter, more hopeful than in the previous record. “And share your wounds/ and give them all a name,” she counsels in “Hughson Boys,” “it’s all right to be confused/ in the end we will be ok.”

And now, she unambiguously declares, Mendoza is ready for the next step, for abandoning her caterpillar days of searching in doubt and undergoing a metamorphosis and beginning the time of seeking in joy. Two tracks best embody this break with the past. The first is the title song, “Ojos del Sol,” a soulful, sincere, unapologetic handshake to the folk music of rural Mexico. When the heart “crows, currocurroquí, singing its destiny,” one is transported to a different place, a simpler time. Its lack of instrumental adornment, its almost complete reliance on Mendoza’s rich vocals, are truly a mark of self-confidence and maturity.

The second is “Libre” (“Free”), an anthem to spiritual unity, to the attainable quality of ecstasy, a teeming, joyful celebration. I am ready, Mendoza is saying. I’ve disassembled and reconstructed myself. I’ve lost and found myself. And I am ready to be with you, and invite you to be with me: “for example me/ for example I explain myself just so/ I will always be here/ spirit of life.”

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