Los Cenzontles: A 'Little Factory' Of Culture Raza De Oro is the newest album from Los Cenzontles, a remarkable group from San Pablo, Calif. Leader Eugene Rodriguez says the band was formed when he created a place for kids in San Pablo to hang out.
NPR logo

Los Cenzontles: A 'Little Factory' Of Culture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130866714/130878739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Los Cenzontles: A 'Little Factory' Of Culture

Los Cenzontles: A 'Little Factory' Of Culture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130866714/130878739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

Our next story is about a remarkable band called Los Cenzontles, The Mockingbirds. Here's a taste from their new album, "Raza de Oro" or "Golden People."

LOS CENZONTLES: (Singing) Thank you, Lord, for another day. Help my brother along his way. And please, bring peace to the neighborhood....

LOUISE KELLY: What makes Los Cenzontles remarkable is, there's no big record label at work here. They're mostly a bunch of kids who walked in the door of a tiny, nonprofit cultural center in San Pablo, California.

We invited them to come in and perform some of their more traditional songs for us. And here they are - along with their leader, Eugene Rodriquez. Rodriquez is a third-generation Mexican-American, and he says the whole idea was to create a place for kids in San Pablo to hang out.

LOUISE KELLY: Our neighborhood, it's known more for problems than for good things. Our actual center is actually an ex-liquor store. We got together to transform this little liquor store into a cultural space where we teach music, dance, arts and crafts. We create CDs and make documentaries; it's a little - like a little factory of cultural workers.

LOUISE KELLY: I want to draw into the conversation, one of the young people you attracted. This is Hugo Arroyo, who's now the lead singer on a lot of the songs on this CD.

And, Hugo Arroyo, you started attending the community center soon after it was founded. What brought you through the door?

LOUISE KELLY: Well, I think - I mean, I hate to say it - but it was - I was bored. There was nothing, really, to do in our neighborhood. And when I was 8 years old, I went to see the movie "La Bamba," which is a story about Ritchie Valens. And then I found out there were guitar lessons after school. And that's when I started with Eugene.

LOUISE KELLY: I want to ask you about one of the songs on this CD, "Soy Mexicano, Americano." Eugene, this is a song about being, as the title says, Mexican- American.

LOUISE KELLY: Right.

LOUISE KELLY: What is the story behind this song?

LOUISE KELLY: Well, I think a lot of Mexican-Americans, at least myself, feel split. Sometimes, you have a white American saying that we're not American enough, and Mexican - Mexicans saying that we're not Mexican enough. And so, you know, this song really says it, with clarity and with pride, that this is who I am.

And the song was actually written during the Chicano movement, back in the early '70s. And it is just amazing to me how these many years later, it's developing a whole new - a resonance with a whole new generation of Mexican-Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOY MEXICANO, AMERICANO")

CENZONTLES: (Singing in Spanish)

LOUISE KELLY: We opened for a very famous Mexican rock band, called Jaguares, and the audiences are rock and rollers. They're young Mexican kids. There we were, playing traditional songs, singing corridos, which are traditional ballads. And these kids, you could see the transformation in their faces - from kind of expecting the mosh pit and the electric guitars.

But when they heard us, something about what we were saying really resonated with them. And they started to really look and listen to the words that we were singing - and with some of them even singing along.

CENZONTLES: (Singing in Spanish)

LOUISE KELLY: I have a question for Marisa Bautista. You are 17 years old now, and I hear you grew up in the states. Did you grow up with this kind of music in your house?

LOUISE KELLY: Somewhat - not so much as traditional music that I've learned at the center. But you know, we'd listen to salsa, and I grew up listening to music by Selena. So I had it in my house, but I learned more about it when I got to Los Cenzontles.

LOUISE KELLY: And what was it that brought you in the door at Los Cenzontles?

LOUISE KELLY: Actually, I originally wanted to take piano, and got a flier at school. I went there, and I saw that they were dancing and singing. And I knew that I had to do it. So I started as soon as I could.

LOUISE KELLY: Eugene Rodriquez, on this album, you tackle some current, very hot-button political issues. I want to ask you about one song, in particular. And this is "Estado De Verguenza," which means "State of Shame." This is written in response to the Arizona immigration law.

LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. To be honest, I was a little concerned when we first came out with it. But I think our approach really isn't so political or divisive, it's really more about unity and just the humanity of the issue. Just two days ago, we were playing in front of a bunch of high school students in Oakland, about 85 percent Latino - almost all the kids spoke Spanish. And when I told them that we were singing a song about Arizona, one of the kids yelled out: Dang.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: As if we dared to do that. But I think it's important, as a community, that we dare to say what we have to say, because that's our contribution to the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ESTADO DE VERGUENZA")

CENZONTLES: (Singing in Spanish)

LOUISE KELLY: When we first started teaching back in the '80s, it was a little bit like getting kids to take their medicine, you know? Here, take some culture - it's good for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: And so - when all these kids came from Mexico, all of a sudden they wanted to do it. They came in off the streets on their own. They weren't with their parents. They wanted to learn trumpet or accordion, because the music was very popular on the street, in their homes. And I think that also gave a real vitality to the music, 'cause if the kids are dancing it, then it has that rhythmic vitality. You know, it's quite alive.

LOUISE KELLY: When the kids are dancing, when they're coming in the door without you having to drag them in, does that - that's what counts as a successful day for you?

LOUISE KELLY: Well, absolutely. And also, when I see the kids in the room right now who have been with us since they were 4 or 5 and now, they're 13 or 16 or 17. And they want to stay, and their identity is wrapped up in the work that we do. It makes me extremely proud, and extremely happy.

LOUISE KELLY: I have a question for Mireya Ramirez. Mireya, you are 13 years old, I understand.

LOUISE KELLY: Yes.

LOUISE KELLY: And I'm told you moved to the states from Mexico, and that you play an instrument that probably, a lot of American listeners might not be familiar with. Tell us what it is.

LOUISE KELLY: It's the quijada, which is the jawbone of a donkey.

LOUISE KELLY: The jawbone of a donkey. So what does it actually look like?

LOUISE KELLY: Well, it looks like a jawbone and it has the teeth, which I scrape to get the sound out of.

LOUISE KELLY: What do you scrape them with?

LOUISE KELLY: It's an antler from a deer.

LOUISE KELLY: Uh-ha. Give us a little sense of what that sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF A QUIJADA)

LOUISE KELLY: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: And that's all with a deer horn and a donkey jawbone. Now, I hear this is featured on "El Awaluka(ph)."

LOUISE KELLY: A song from Veracruz. This is a style of music that we love to play, called Sones Jarochos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL AWALUKA")

LOUISE KELLY: Something you don't hear every day. That's music featuring the quijada, the jawbone of a donkey. And that's Los Cenzontles, performing for us from member station KQED. Their new album is called "Raza De Oro."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL ALA OOKA")

CENZONTLES: (Singing in Spanish)

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.