American Routes Shortcuts: Los Cenzontles
Los Cenzontles means “the mockingbirds” in the indigenous Nahuatl language. The band mixes traditional Mexican music with contemporary sounds including American rock and soul. They’ve collaborated with Linda Ronstadt, Taj Mahal, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and Jackson Browne, but their main collaborators are children. Los Cenzontles is also a community-based arts academy that teaches music, dance, arts and crafts to its young students. We sat down with Los Cenzontles’ founder and guitarist Eugene Rodriguez and with singers Lucina Rodriguez, and Fabiola Trujillo.
Eugene Rodriguez: Well I started Los Cenzontles back in the ‘80s. It was an artist in residency long before the organization, and it was really a way to just connect kids to culture. It wasn’t so easy to find deep roots music from Mexico in those days. You go to a record store and you see commercial music, so it really was an exploration, and the kids became my partners in crime.
Nick Spitzer: Lucina, when did you first get involved with Los Cenzontles?
Lucina Rodriguez: I joined Los Cenzontles when I was fifteen. I was a freshman in high school. I was born and raised in Mexico, and I came to the US when I was eleven years old. I learned a lot about our culture through Los Cenzontles, and there’s all this rich culture in Mexico that you’re not aware of if you’re not from that area.
NS: And what about you Fabiola, how did you find Los Cenzontles?
Fabiola Trujillo: Yes I also joined when I was fifteen, and a friend of mine told me about Los Cenzontles. I always loved music too, so I was very shy, came in, and I was afraid to say I wanted to sing, but later on Eugene figured it out. I always loved the cine mexicano so I always wanted to be the singer in those movies.
NS: I guess I think that the genius of the center and your projects is that you’ve been able to both help educate people but have done your own research, educated yourself, and performance is really at the center of it.
ER: Los Cenzontles was really always more about expression and exploration, research like you say, and the kids were there by my side being brave and just going for it. Little by little it just grew but it grew in a way that was very tightly woven. We’re pretty much doing now what we did back then, which was to record ourselves, learn music, find master artists, and collaborate. It’s kind of doing the same thing, just a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger every time. Cenzontles has always been about people. I often say that mockingbirds don’t mock other birds; they listen to the sounds of other birds and incorporate their sounds into their voices. And that’s something that we do; we embrace our roots, and I always taught our kids the same thing. Even if you’re not living in Mexico, this is also your music, and you’re part of this legacy.
NS: Now I want to turn back to Fabiola and Lucina if I could. I was listening to “Mi Unico Camino.” When you sing duets, how long have you been singing together that you’re able to keep your harmonies and work so beautifully in precision, but we hear both your voices?
FT: Yeah I think it takes a lot of listening and just finding your way with the song and collaborating that way because Lucina is more rhythmic than I am, so we always kind of lock it in somehow, and it’s great.
LR: Well when we first started there were not that many duets. That was in the early ‘90s, and nowadays with social media and with modern life and all of that, we see a lot of duets coming up, and in a way we’re proud of it because in a way we feel like we’re sort of pioneers. We were people that brought this style back.
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