First Listen

First Listen: Y La Bamba, 'Court The Storm'

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Y La Bamba's new album, Court the Storm, comes out Feb. 28. i i

hide captionY La Bamba's new album, Court the Storm, comes out Feb. 28.

Sarah Law/Courtesy of the artist
Y La Bamba's new album, Court the Storm, comes out Feb. 28.

Y La Bamba's new album, Court the Storm, comes out Feb. 28.

Sarah Law/Courtesy of the artist

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Cultural background is a tricky thing. Those of us who come from communities with deep and long traditions don't always get it: We know we're supposed to embrace and love our roots, but they can sound and feel so foreign. "Is that old-world stuff really me?"

The music Luz Elena Mendoza makes with her bandmates in the Portland, Ore., group Y La Bamba is a perfect example of how to embrace tradition while still creating something new, exciting and thought-provoking. Mendoza grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, California and Oregon. It seems the further north she moved, the more she peeled away the layers of accordions, gutsy ranchera singers and mariachi, only to discover that those traditions had become part of her musical DNA.

On the new Court the Storm, out Feb. 28, Mendoza's affections for indie-folk and Mexican music seem made for each other, complete with gorgeous harmonies, intricate fingerpicking, waltzes (from Mexico, not Austria), accordions and vocals in English and Spanish. It all comes together in songs that subtly escape the sonic characteristics of other well-intentioned cultural mashups.

Maybe it's because Y La Bamba resides so far from the border that the Mexican-ness of the band's music is so subtle. Sure, there are well-crafted, transparently Latin tracks like "Viuda Encabronada," which dances with the pulse of rhythms from Veracruz. But producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos adds a shimmer on the accordions, guitars and vocals that will never be mistaken for tradition. If anything, it creates a new vocabulary for cross-cultural expression.

Ultimately, it's Luz Elena Mendoza's vocals that draw me in. In interviews, she's said that the music she writes will never sound like traditional Mexican music. But to me, her deep, dreamy voice is exactly the kind I used to hear blasting out of the radio in my mom's kitchen — belting out rancheras, cooing elegant boleros or letting loose over accordion-fueled corridos.

While its music may not sound exactly like the Mexican music of Mendoza's youth, Y La Bamba creates songs that stop me in my tracks with their breathtaking range.

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First Listen