Born out of a small café in Little Tokyo and driven by Chicano rock, rhythm and blues, Afro-Cuban rhythms, rancheras, salsa and soul, for the past three decades the Los Angeles-based ensemble Quetzal has been creating music focusing on progressive cultural and political stories about real people and struggle.
They’ve recorded nine albums and won a Grammy along the way, yet they’ve never been too interested in commercial success or selling out huge venues.
For the last three decades the group, founded and led by Quetzal Flores, an affable and soft-spoken self-described “Chicano Artivista,” and Flores’ wife and lead bilingual singer Martha Gonzalez, Quetzal has become an integral part of Los Angeles’ musical and political tapestry.
And the band is now marking its milestone anniversary with a free concert on Saturday, Aug. 19 at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.
“It doesn’t feel like 30 years, but then it does when I think about it. If it wasn’t for us rooting ourselves in a different value system, we wouldn’t exist. There would be no reason to exist,” said 50-year-old Flores, as he sat in the backyard of his bright green El Sereno home while sporting a pink guayabera shirt and fedora-style hat, just a couple of weeks before the show.
The anniversary concert will feature songs from their wide catalog of activist music that has helped define the Los Angeles Chicano music scene since the early ’90s.
“They represent a giant community that exists in Los Angeles that often gets cornered into a label like ‘minority.’ In reality, we are a huge presence here and Quetzal is the soundtrack to all of these communities, whether it’s the Spanish speaking community, or fifth generation Mexican-American communities, Quetzal represents all of these communities in their music and their lyrics,” said Mark Torres, a radio show host for 90.7 FM/KPFK who was one of the first to play the band’s music on-air.
Born in Salinas, Flores was raised in East L.A. after his parents, who were both social justice activists, moved to the area so they could join the August 29 Movement, a leftist Chicano rights organization.
While he was raised in a politically active family, music was also a constant presence in his young life.
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“My mom was a deep lover of R&B and soul music and also rock ‘n’ roll and she had a lot of albums. Whenever we were cleaning the house, whenever we were doing anything, there was always music around,” he recalled. “I would just sit in front of the record player and get lost in the album art and the lyrics.”
It was at the age of 13 when his older brother came home from boarding school with an electric guitar that Flores said his love for music was cemented in his life.
“He once left his guitar from one of his summer vacations back in L.A. and he told me ‘Don’t touch it.’ But as soon as he left I grabbed that thing,” he said with a laugh.
After a stint in college at San Francisco State University, where he studied international relations and journalism, Flores decided he could tell better stories with his music rather than through journalism.
“I would be reading my books and my guitar would be like ‘Pssst! Hey, pick me up!’ And that would happen constantly and I would just want to play and write songs,” he said.
Flores formed Quetzal in 1993, during a political and culturally-driven time in the music scene in Los Angeles that emerged after the 1992 L.A. riots, which also gave rise to other Chicano-fusion bands like Ozomatli and Aztlan Underground. At the time, Flores was heavily into bands like The Cure, REM, The Smiths and U2, so the first manifestation of the group was more alt-rock oriented with the band often compared to the group 10,000 Maniacs.
The band performed its first show in a tiny Chicano-owned café in Little Tokyo called Troy Café.
“We didn’t even have a name yet,” Flores said. “The guy introducing us said ‘This is the world premiere of …’ and he turned around and said Quetzal. So he named us,” he said.
At the same time, Flores was also immersing himself in the revival of the traditional music of Veracruz, Mexico called son jarocho, a regional folk musical style. That, coupled with Gonzalez joining the band a couple of years after its inception, solidified Quetzal’s current sound.
“The sound of Quetzal is alternative rock music deeply infused with traditional Mexican and Latin American traditional music,” Flores said.
The band eschewed the more flashy musical scenes in Hollywood, where burgeoning groups hoped to get gigs at venues like The Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. Instead, Quetzal stuck close to home, playing at places like community centers including Self Help Graphics and other local spaces.
“We had a good band, and it was creative and it was a really good sound,” Flores said. “Growing up the way I did, there was always a thing in me that said this had to be contributing to justice, building justice, or how can this be in service of struggle. That was always there.”
That’s not to say they didn’t find success outside of their local community since Quetzal has toured the world playing festivals in Mexico, played in Japan and has teamed up with bands like fellow East Los Angeles band Los Lobos for shows and even performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s Homegrown Music Series and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series.
Songs with meaning
The band not only makes its roots obvious with their fusion of traditional sounds and Chicano rock, but also with the messages behind the songs.
Songs that exemplify Quetzal’s cultural and political spirit include “Pasa Montañas,” from the band’s 1999 self-titled debut album. The song is about the Zapatista movement that happened in Chiapas, Mexico in the mid-’90s.
Other songs like “Chicana Skies,” which talks about claiming your identity and “Todos Somos Ramona,” a feminist ode to women in the Zapatista movement, also helped define the band.
Their lyrics and music have inspired younger acts like Grammy-winning band La Santa Cecilia, Las Cafeteras and Coachella veterans Quitapenas.
“I’ve always been a fan of how they mix rock music with Afro-Mexican and Afro-indigenous traditions,” said Eduardo Valencia, the conga and tambora player for the Inland Empire-based Quitapenas.
“The fact that they have a political perspective kind of gave me orientation politically. It was like, OK, Chicanos can rock out and we’re bilingual. It helped me feel seen. It wasn’t just a white rock band, it was a band full of Mexicans and they were rocking out and it was dope,” he added.
Then there’s that Grammy they won in 2013 for the album “Imaginaries” in the Latin rock, urban or alternative album category.
While most musicians dream of winning this award, for Flores and the band, the Grammy was not something they were expecting.
“We just continued on our path. We were like, OK, that happened and we can now continue to do this,” he said.
“It’s in the house somewhere. You wouldn’t be able to see it unless you knew where it was,” Flores added, referring to the award.
Three decades after emerging from that Little Tokyo café, Flores sees Quetzal continuing down the same path that has given the band meaning and purpose all these years.
“We love playing music together. We still have a lot of creative energy and output and I feel as long as that exists we will continue to do music,” he said.
Quetzal 30-year Anniversary Celebration
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19
Where: La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 North Main Street, Los Angeles
Tickets: Free admission. For more information, go to lapca.org.