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February 8, 2013

Quetzal: On Their Own Terms

After listening to the band Quetzal’s album Imaginaries (Smithsonian Folkways, 2012), it comes as no surprise that they have been nominated for a GRAMMY; the combination of superb song writing, a diversity of influences, and flawless execution is impressive. However, what never ceases to amaze me is the breadth of projects in which lead singer, songwriter, and zapateado percussionist Martha González and her husband, bandleader, songwriter, and jarana player, Quetzal Flores, are involved. In the short time I have known them, Quetzal has become the new program manager for ACTA (Alliance for California Traditional Arts), while Martha has launched Entre Mujeres, a translocal musical collaboration between Chicanas/Latinas and jarochas/Mexican women. In particular, for me, as a woman and current Ph.D. student, Martha’s ability to move with fluidity and grace between her roles as musician, academic, and loving mother is particularly inspiring as it encourages the rest of us to pursue our goals and not be limited by prescribed gender roles.  

In addition to leading the band Quetzal, Martha and Quetzal have been instrumental in promoting son jarocho, a musical style from Veracruz, Mexico, in Seattle and Los Angeles. It was in this capacity while conducting my M.A. thesis research that I had the opportunity to work with them. The first time I heard the band Quetzal was in 2011 when I was interning at the Smithsonian Folklife Center in Washington D.C., and I overheard my supervisor, Charlie Weber, editing the video for the song “Todo Lo Que Tengo.” I was immediately drawn to the music and the piece itself, which continues to be one of my favorite tracks from the album. However, I was not only looking for musicians to work with who produced good music but who also consider the arts, as I do, to be a crucial vehicle for social justice. A few days after first hearing Quetzal I saw them perform at the Library of Congress; I approached the band members and broached the subject of working with them and learning more about their involvement in social justice activism.

Martha and Quetzal were more than receptive and granted me an interview as well as welcomed me into the Los Angeles son jarocho community, in the process providing invaluable inroads for my thesis research. I could not have asked for a better opportunity to explore the overlap of music and social justice; Martha and Quetzal at every turn appear to be motivated by goals larger than their individual success. Their work conducting workshops and organizing fandangos, for instance, along with many other amazing musicians in the Los Angeles area, is about creating and maintaining communities and fostering positive models for interaction based on the idea of convivencia, or togetherness. In fandangos, a person is judged on the merit of his or her participation rather than by how much money he or she makes or even by his or her level of musicianship. Martha and Quetzal move effortlessly from these venues, where they participate alongside musicians of various skill levels, to the spotlight of Los Angeles clubs; this speaks volumes to the pair’s flexibility, their refreshing humility, and their dedication to their community.

During my interview, Quetzal shared that years ago the band had been offered a high paying contract, which they turned down because they did not feel comfortable promoting the particular sponsor. It makes me exceedingly happy that they are now being recognized on the grand stage of the GRAMMYS, and, that despite sacrifices, they have managed to do this on their own terms.

Hannah Balcomb is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, where she recently completed her master’s degree in ethnomusicology. Her thesis, “Jaraneros and Jarochas: Son Jarocho and the Meanings of Immigrant and Diasporic Performance,” analyzes the way that groups in Los Angeles use son jarocho to build community and connect with their Mexican heritage. For her dissertation, Hannah plans to explore the tensions between regionalism, nationalism and transnationalism in Argentina and the ways that these issues manifest in music.

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