Don’t Tell Me Who I Am

Y La Bamba admonishes anyone who has tried to put them in a box

For more than a decade, Portland, Oregon's Y La Bamba has made music on their own terms—not according to those provided by critics' standards. Primary songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza has struggled with a strange boxing-in of terms like "traditional folk" in short-sighted reference to both traditional American and Mexican forms, due mainly to her heritage as a first-generation Chicana. The phantom of folk music, the categorization largely assigned to Mendoza by critics along the way, is one she has finally bucked off completely on the strength of the new single "Mujeres," the first track from Y La Bamba's upcoming full-length album of the same name.

The single feels utterly contemporary, featuring a forceful percussive center that anchors a passionate vocal rebuke of much of the machismo that seems to have followed Mendoza throughout her career. A driving Latin bass line and subtle atmospheric keys round out the underlying music as Mendoza quips rapid-fire lyrics in Spanish. As an intimate songwriter whose oeuvre to date has featured a thoughtful lyrical content at the forefront of an otherwise self-assured musicality, "Mujeres" feels like an announcement of the band's evolution since their previous album, 2016's Ojos del Sol, which featured intricate layers of jangling guitars and a triumph of harmonic vocals.

Y La Bamba has come far since the 2008 debut Alida St., which featured a more sparse iteration of Mendoza's songwriting that could lazily be placed in the Mexican-American folk canon. Since then, Mendoza says she has felt coerced by mainstream music media into accepting others' interpretation of her songwriting. The music itself, she says, is more of a personal expression than anything else; like a letter to a friend as much as it is a song written to a stranger.

"Just because I'm Mexican doesn't mean I play mariachi music," she tells SFR, confronting years of critique that cannot seem to look past her heritage. "No one really knows how to talk about me. … I'm Chicana, first generation, on her journey trying to express herself in the most visceral, natural way and being pushed down through trauma and personal anxieties."

This uncertainty seems dispelled to a large degree on the new songs, particularly the single, which is available as a 7-inch on the band's current tour. Its B-side, "Paloma Negra," also plays a role as a mission statement against the white patriarchy that so fully inhabits the music industry, but the music does not take on a tragic tone. Rather, it acts as a rallying cry or, as Mendoza says, it helps in "deconstructing all this shit that doesn't serve me at all."

Indeed, Y La Bamba's output in the last two years seems to give no quarter in how Mendoza's point of view might be interpreted going forward. The music is no longer searching for its voice in contemporary culture, but rather has decisively carved out its own entry in the international musical lexicon in place of caring how it might be classified. You can dance to Y La Bamba, no question, but "Mujeres" is also an anthem that cannot be ignored.

Y La Bamba, then, is becoming vital music crafted by a singular visionary who is tired of being misunderstood. But it is also joyful music, and a style that is informed by heritage rather than running from it. There is even an optimism, Mendoza says, that occurs as a result of "being guided by my ancestors."

"I'm watching myself evolve as I speak," she adds.

If this is the case, potential listeners are lucky. The more leaps and bounds Mendoza takes with this project, the more benefits we will reap. But it will, of course, require a bit of deprogramming—both in terms of how we classify rock and pop music and in how the patriarchal music industry seems to require easily definable, cookie-cutter genreifications. Y La Bamba has time for neither.

Y La Bamba with Trashcat and Trevor Bahnson
8 pm Tuesday Nov. 6. $7.
Second Street Brewery Rufina Taproom,
2920 Rufina St.,

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