Thursday, December 10, 2009

American Stories, From Mexican Roots

The first song on the new album “American Horizon” sends you right away to a place you’ve never been and might never want to leave: a tropical countryside under a full moon, where men come down from hills on horseback and women gather by a lagoon, full of anticipation that a warm, dark evening will become, through music and dance, a night of light and heat.

The song, “La Luna,” is sung in Spanish by, of all people, Taj Mahal, the African-American blues master. Though not a native speaker, he cradles the words in his gravel voice, and when he sings of the moonlight as “muy sensual,” and of this “baile celestial,” this heavenly dance, he clearly knows what he’s talking about, and so do you.

That’s the strange beauty of “American Horizon,” by a little-known Mexican-American folk-roots group, Los Cenzontles, with guest appearances by Taj Mahal and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. It both honors and upends traditional Mexican music, tapping deep roots as it flowers into something completely new, and distinctly American.

What may be more remarkable is that Los Cenzontles — The Mockingbirds — is not the creation of some music label’s cross-marketing department, but a tiny storefront nonprofit organization for young people in San Pablo, Calif., a heavily immigrant and Hispanic neighborhood outside Oakland.

There’s a whole story, much too long to tell here, of what Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center has accomplished since it began 20 years ago. Its founder, Eugene Rodriguez, is a third-generation Mexican-American, a classical guitarist who wanted to create a haven for youths in a community scarred by gang violence, graffiti and drugs.

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