Craig Usher is from Sacramento, California. He is the editor and publisher of Sounds Celebrating Resistance, a newspaper / magazine about political change through music. This article was exerpted from Issue No. 4 with permission. Copies of the newspaper are free, and available by writing to SCR at PO Box 191715, Sacramento, CA 95819-1715. Donations are welcome.
An interview with the Nueva Canción troubadour
Austin, Texas based singer-songwriter Lourdes Pérez has been compared to
Argentina's Mercedes Sosa for her soul-touching Spanish language songs,
and to French chanteuse Edith Piaf for her ability to transcend the limitations
of the language. Raised in the music tradition of San Sebastián
and Moca, Pérez carries the spirit of the jíbaro (a
person from the countryside of Puerto Rico) in her voice and guitar.
As a Purto Rican who immigrated to Texas in 1988, Pérez is
at the forefront of a new generation of artists who are redefining contemporary
nueva canción / nuerva trova.
Craig Usher: Where did all the music and everything come from? I know you were born in Puerto Rico and at some point you moved to Texas. Please give me a little background.
Lourdes Perez: I grew up in Puerto Rico. When I was 23, I moved to Connecticut. I went from there to New York then to Texas. Now I'm in Austin. Through all those years I wasn't doing music. I started singing around 1992-93, before then I did political work.
What started you singing?
I have always sung but I never considered myself a songwriter. I learned to play the guitar while growing up in Puerto Rico. I taught myself. Where I'm from, it's is a very musical town where mostly men are musicians, but I grew up very freely around it. I was the singer in my family. In 1992, I saw Mercedes Sosa in concert and I came out happy because I could see her in Texas, but I was also sad because I felt like I wasn't using my singing voice for anything. I had been singing forever, but the music was not a priority in my life. I had been pushing it back even though I grew up with a lot of music. In 1992, I told my partner, Annette, that I really wanted to sing and she said, "Okay, let's do it!" And so I started singing and then writing and everything came out and it became a career.
What got you to Texas?
In 1988 I was working in a ballot access campaign with Leonore Fulani and they needed my bilingual skills. That got me to Texas. I like it here. It's very different than New York and Puerto Rico, it's like a country in and of itself. Soon enough I met a lot of mostly Chicanos and Mexicanos who really welcomed me and taught me the history and about the struggles. Musically it has been very interesting because the Chicano/Mexicano community has been very open to what I've had to share and my roots and at the same time they've influenced a lot of what I've done.
You sing in Spanish. How have you found an audience? Who is your audience?
The audience is very broad. I have been in situations where people may not speak Spanish at all, where the audience is mostly English speaking or Anglo, and I have been in mixed situations.. But I am still able to reach out to people who would not usually hear my music. It has been a challenge, but it's also been a surprise to break those barriers - singing in Spanish, explaining a bit about the song in English and going on with the message. On an emotional level it pushes me to be very connected and in tune to what I'm saying. Pushing people to realize that there is a language of emotion that goes beyond any other language. People say "Wow, I was crying through the whole song even though I didn't understand what you said. I hadn't realized how upset I was about these things." In that way, it has been very powerful. The audiences are pretty broad. Although most of my performances have been in Texas, I've gone to Seattle, Mexico, Philadelphia, Iowa and throughout the Midwest, where audiences have been solely Anglo.
I know you were raised in a musical community and family. What are some of the other musical and political inspirations that encouraged you to do what you do?
My parents are a part of the independence movement of Puerto Rico. That gave me a very strong national identity and connection with my culture. When I was little I sang for the liberation of Puerto Rican prisoners of war. I was very political. That was a very strong foundation for me. As I moved on and went to the University I started to learn the music of Violetta Parra, Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa and some of the Puerto Rican singers. I started to hear the sounds that came from people's movements. That nurtured, not only my desire, but my ability to prioritize my message. What is important for me in singing is to do it in a way that engages the daily struggles and to be relevant about things that are happening. As I went into that period of my life, I developed a more international perspective of music and went beyond national and cultural identity. When I came to the United States it became obvious to me that the world was even bigger than I thought. I've gone into situations, absorbed things, mixed it with my experience, and gave it back. It's very enriching because you open yourself to be changed and then blend it with things you know. It's a kind of legacy. You can't go into a place and not learn because then you don't grow.
Your music seems so entrenched in tradition, yet totally new. There's a very familiar comfortable side and then a side that is new. It's wonderful how you've pulled in so many traditions and present it with your original works. It moves like a seamless whole.
The first recording was very representative of where I came from. It pays tribute to the traditions, but the best tribute you can pay to a tradition is to show what has become of somebody influenced by it.
Tell me about your new CD, Vestigios.
I'm very happy with it. It's shows the same effect as the first, but it's more defined. I have been blessed with some wonderful musicians and vocalists who are on the CD. It's people who are in the U.S. - immigrants and Chicanos. There are collaborations with Irene Farrera from Venezuela who currenly lives in Oregon, Javier Velasquez a vocalist from Monterey, Mexico; Eva Ybarra, a key accordionist in conjunto music, and Javier Chaparro, a violinist from Peru. This time we were able to go in the studio, but there are also a couple of live songs from when I opened for Mercedes Sosa.
Would you like to talk about any of the new songs?
The title track of the CD is Vestigos, which means Vestiges.
Basically a vestige is what's left, the trace. It's very difficult to kill
the essence. For all the attempts at destroying humanity, you still have
a place in your heart for love, for something new. I think cynicism is
a big disease that's killing a lot of our essence and our soul. In the
song: I promise you there is love. I tell you there is love in this
dry heart of mine. There is a place. A vestige of love. That pain, on it's
way, forgot to destroy. Many, many times we walk around wounded.
To me it is a love song based on history.
That leads to the next question...
"What do you think will happen?"?
Yeah. What kind of response have you received. In the first recording the theme of women loving women is there, but it's not pounding you over the head. Have you received a response?
From that song, yeah. It depends on the area. My style is that I don't pound people with my music. If you want to hear it fine. When I performed "Yo Pari una Luchadora" for the first time, the audience was a great crowd. The mother was there. People laughed - the song is very feisty and smart-ass. The other places I've played, the people who understood Spanish got a kick out of it. In Seattle, I explained it to a mostly Anglo audience and they loved it and cracked up. People have liked it, but sometimes you get that silence. It's risky in a way. But it's a way to continue working on my identity as a singer, and as a lesbian. I treat the issue of lesbianism as very honest and matter of fact, inseparable from the rest of my life and family. This is who I am and this is what I am writing. When I perform, I want to use the stage as a way people can understand each other. I'm usually not that blatant, but on "Yo Pari una Luchadora," I decided to and add some folk sound to it, and have some fun with it. Usually a decima is not like that.
Have you had an opportunity to perform in Puerto Rico?
No, I haven't yet. Now that the new CD has come out, we plan to go to Puerto Rico with a set of musicians to present the music the way I present it here. It's very different than what you would hear in Puerto Rico. There, traditional music, the music I grew up with -- the improvisational decima, seis, aguinaldo and plena -- it's all a different thing. There are artists who continue to do political music, but they have a hard time surviving because the market is invaded by other forms of music. If I can do it well, I think it will be well received.
You have visited the Zapatistas in Chiapas, would you talk a little bit about that?
That has been a life-changing experience. I think it shows what can
be done when people have a sense of dignity, a sense of history, a sense
of what's important in terms of human development. I'm not idealizing the
poverty and horrendous conditions people have dealt with. But at the same
time, the indigenous communities have been able to be organized in a very
wise way. They summoned 4,000 people worldwide to come there, and
we did! I met people from everywhere. Four thousand people from all
over the world. The community gives direction to the Zapatistas, it's not
the other way around. We saw that in action. We saw the development of
women as leaders. We saw the struggles of women with men and heard them
speaking about those things. They are aware that they are waging a struggle
in Mexico, but they are very aware that the struggle is worldwide. It was
very inspirational. I was able to meet other artists and write and sing
in every community. I sang everywhere. I dragged my guitar through the
mud and rain for days. We jammed and performed together. As an artist,
it's so nurturing because every event in the community starts and ends
with music. Cultural identity, politics, history, internationalism is all
mixed up together. There is not this separation. There is the reality of
the war, the reality that women get raped, the abuses by the army.
People live with all of that and continue building something in the midst
of that without fear. It was a very powerful experience. This past month
I was invited back to the area to sing in the 15th Annual Festival de Huapango
Arribeo in Xichu, Guanajuanto. I was the only woman singer-songwriter,
and only non-Mexican. I was very well received. Annette, my manager, and
I extended our stay to Mexico City. We joined in the massive organizing
and protest that was in progress surrounding the December 22nd massacre
of mostly women and children. Since then, the Mexican government has sent
in the military into these indigenous areas. The whole experience has really
affected me in terms of what kind of priorities I have when I do my work.
I have a deep committment to their struggle, and plan to return to the