Conjunto Aztlan melds the personal and political with new batch of love songs
Somewhat unexpectedly, Conjunto Aztlan's new full-length release, From Aztlan With Love, opens not with a blazing polkita or a rousing cumbia but with an invocation set to a fiery guaguanco rhythm. "Oye tú, Indio/Luchamos por libertad," a call-and-response chant between band members, cries out for justice and freedom in the barrios of San Anto and Austin, New York and Nicaragua, and all the way to Africa.
Midway through, percussionist Clemencia Zapata speaks in a voice-over and sums up the album's guiding ethos: "Como dijo Ché, 'all true revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love.'" Instead of romanticizing revolution, however, Conjunto Aztlan's songs share all of the amor y dolor that comes with being in love, losing it, or finding your way back to it. "They're all reflections of our true love, man," accordionist Juan Tejeda says, matter-of-factly. "You can't have love without pain."
Conjunto Aztlan emerged from Austin's Chicano movement nearly three decades ago at a cultural moment when the personal, political and artistic converged in inspiring ways. Tejeda and bajo sexto player José Flores Peregrino share songwriting duties while Zapata and bassist Erik Flores round out the group. (Incidentally, Conjunto Aztlan is one of too few conjunto ensembles that includes a woman.)
Tejeda and Peregrino were active in traditional danza as well as contemporary social movements so elements of both influenced the group's first album, a collection of movimiento standards. In contrast, From Aztlan With Love features the group's original love songs, both old and new, and shows off its sensitive side, without muting its activist origins.
Some of the songs "we wrote way back," Tejeda says, drawing out his words as if to emphasize the passage of time, but Conjunto Aztlan reconfigured or developed new arrangements for them over the course of their year-and-a-half-long recording process. The songs "are just as political as our first CD," Tejeda explains. He contends that even with explicitly confessional love songs, "you can never separate the personal from the political, and the political from your art."
As its name implies, the quartet forms a basic conjunto lineup rooted in the genre's traditional sound. On "Rosario," the disc's second track, group members play a smooth-and-cool number flavored with the sort of cumbia that the late, great Valerio Longoria helped popularize decades ago. "Quiero recordarte" follows; it's the sort of straight-up polka that would fit on KEDA Radio Jalapeño.
But things subsequently slow down with tunes like "Tlaloc," a bluesy number that combines Mexica mythology and lonely heart lamento backed by accordion grace notes, and "Don't Cry," a do-wop despedida that shows off the group's characteristic vocal harmonizing. Throughout the album, when Conjunto Aztlan lets its jazz and soul influences take center stage, the group shifts from its traditional roots to a more progressive sound reflecting its diverse interests.
"We're a mestizaje now," Tejeda says. "We're influenced by all this other music and those influences are coming through." The sound of Conjunto Aztlan combines conjunto with elements of the blues, R&B, salsa, Latin-jazz, and even ceremonial danza. Tejeda sees the new album as a forum where "all of these things are interrelated and thrown out there" in the form of love songs.
For their upcoming CD-release party at the Guadalupe Theater, Conjunto Aztlan will play the disc in its entirety, backed by guests such as the Westside Sound and Westside Horns, Max Baca and Henry Brun, from San Antonio, and Rodolfo Briseño, Gustavo Mansur, and Chepe Solis (on requinto guitar) out of Austin. Following their performance, The Westside Sound and The Westside Horns, with Arturo "Sauce" Gonzáles, Jack Barber, Al Gómez, and Louie Bustos, will round out the evening with a special set of their own. With a laugh, Tejeda urges people to arrive early and bring an appetite "because mom's gonna be making the rice and beans." •