An American band

Some say touring bands don’t want to come through San Antonio because we’re just too lame. Others — like me, often in this very column — claim San Antonio promoters have no balls. And last week, Cleveland straightedge icon Don Foose told me that he doesn’t like to play in any city within two hours’ distance of his last show. If many musicians think like him, we’re screwed. Thanks, Austin.

Whatever the reason, an increasing number of touring acts are systematically skipping San Antonio. I find it particularly sad and absurd that a band like California’s Los Cenzontles (sehn-SONT-less, Spanish for “mockingbirds”), except for a private event here in 1995, are busier and more appreciated in Scotland and Ireland (for God’s sake!) than they are in San Antonio. Irish legends the Chieftains invited the band to the isles in late January, when Los Cenzontles will play alongside Ry Cooder.

More than a band, Los Cenzontles is the most eloquent byproduct of a model nonprofit: Los Cenzontles Mexican Art Center, which started as a California Arts Council residency in 1989 by Eugene Rodríguez and Berenice Zuniga-Yap, and became a full-fledged nonprofit in 1994. The center teaches Mexican folk music and dance to hundreds of young kids, and the center’s crown jewel is the band. Rodríguez, his son, and three other former students he taught from an early age have released 17 albums in 14 years. Despite their eclecticism (they explore styles ranging from mariachi to obscure Mexican folk), their most recent original material is deeply influenced by Los Lobos’ folk fusion (along with Ry Cooder, the other two elements of what I call the musical “axis of goodness”). Their latest gem, American Horizon, was recorded with guests such as David Hidalgo and Taj Mahal (yes, you read right: the bluesman … singing in Spanish).

In addition to Rodríguez (guitars, requintos, vihuela) and 15-year-old son Emiliano (percussion, guitar, bass), Los Cenzontles are Hugo Arroyo (vocals, jarana, bass, and percussion, a student of Rodríguez since age 7), and what I consider the backbone of the group: the beautiful harmonies of Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodríguez (no relation to Eugene), who met their mentor when they were 15.

“One of the most important things we do with Los Cenzontles is to teach them how to sing in harmonies as quickly as possible,” Rodríguez told the Current by phone from San Pablo, California. “Music is all about connecting with other people; whether it is through instruments or voices, it’s all about connecting.”

Connect they did. American Horizon reached number five on’s Latin Pop chart, and earned a glowing review from the New York Times.

While managing the center, Rodríguez records and tours with Los Cenzontles, and he says the current economic crisis hasn’t changed either enterprise.

“It’s been difficult, but one thing that we Mexican-Americans know is how to survive,” he says. “Right now a lot of organizations are closing because they’re shocked by the economic impact this crisis has had. But we’ve been shocked for years! `laughs` Mexicans have to work twice as hard in order to get the same attention or the same money. We’re just used to working very, very hard, trying to be resourceful, strategic, and smart about how we do things.”

Their visit to Glasgow on January 26 follows Los Cenzontles’ participation in the Chieftains’ upcoming release, a concept album about the San Patricios — the Irish, German, and other Catholic-immigrant U.S. soldiers who switched sides during the Mexican-American war. Other guests on the album include Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Downs, Linda Ronstadt, Chavela Vargas, and Los Folkloristas.

Days after their Glasgow appearance, the Cenzontles and Cooder will play in Dublin, and later, on February 25, the Chieftains will perform at Houston’s Jones Hall. There’s no San Antonio on their horizons. Yet.

“We’d like to play `in San Antonio`, this time for everyone,” Rodríguez says. “And no, we don’t care if you’re too close to Austin. We go wherever anybody invites us. We love San Antonio music, and we’d love to come back.”

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