Immigration has clearly catapulted its way to the top of the political discourse in North America and Europe in recent months. From debates over refugee policy in Canada and Europe, to the persistence of Donald Trump’s campaign and anti-immigrant soundbites in the United States, it seems that all political actors have an opinion on what to do about the 244 million people in the world who can be labelled as “immigrants”. Yet, often missing from these debates are the voices of immigrants themselves. Moreover, as immigration becomes increasingly politicized – that is, treated as an “issue” with competing perspective that needs to be resolved – it’s often easy to forget about the human dimensions of the immigrant experience. How does the process of moving to a new country affect an immigrant’s day-to-day life? What are an immigrant’s sources of hope and frustration, as he or she attempts to build a new career, move into a new neighbourhood, and send their children to a new school? How do children of immigrants make sense of the multiple cultures they inhabit, and who are their heroes?
These are all questions that Texas-based singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez explores in her beautiful new album, Lola, a beguiling mix of Mexican ranchera and Texas folk-country traditions.
April 2016 Feature Album: “Lola”, by Carrie Rodriguez (2016)
Carrie Rodriguez hails from the songwriting hotspot of Austin, Texas, a crucible for Texas’s rich musical traditions, including country and honky-tonk, blues, rock and roll, jazz, Cajun and Tex-Mex. Rodriguez’s own musical traditions extend back into previous generations of her family; her great-aunt, Eva Garza, gained fame as a Texas-based Chicana singer who performed songs in both English and Spanish. Rodriguez’s music takes inspiration from Garza and other artists from the 20th century Mexican songbook, while layering on connections to other Texan-based traditions. Added to this creative mix is Rodriguez’s sharp fiddling abilities, and her own experience as an artist who straddles two worlds across the Rio Grande.
Lola is the latest record from Carrie Rodriguez and The Sacred Hearts band, which includes the eclectic guitarist and arranger Bill Frisell. This is truly a bilingual record – not just because it includes Spanish and English songs, but because most songs on the album are sung in a mix of Spanish and English (or “Spanglish”, as most students of Spanish or English as a second language will be familiar with). This intertwining of languages itself serves to explore the challenges and creative opportunities of the immigrant experience – the listener either must become familiar with both cultures to understand the full story of any one song, or otherwise is left to imagine the “other half” of the artist’s experience. This is perhaps best exemplified in Rodriguez’s re-interpretation of the Mexican ballad “Que Manera de Perder”, in which her Spanish-speaking character mourns a lost (and perhaps never fully-understood) love with an English-speaking counterpart.
Sonically, the record mixes elements of Texan roots and country with ranchera, a traditional genre of Mexican music that was born shortly before the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Seeking to forge a new national consciousness, musicians used the aristocratic instruments of the colonial power – guitars, trumpets, and violins – to sing tales of the common folk, patriotism, and nature. The commonalities in subject matter and the structured instrumental/verse/refrain patterns in both country and ranchera music make it ripe for connections, which Rodriguez explores at various points in Lola.
Thematically, several of the original compositions on Lola explore the invisibility of immigrants and their descendants – or at least, their inability to truly express their whole identities in their new land. The song “Llano Estacado” laments a girl whose family immigrates north from Mexico (presumably under-the-radar) to “a pueblo olvidado [a forgotten town], where no one knows their name”, until “la migra” raids a factory and deports her father. The next song, “I Dreamed I was Lola Beltrán”, catches Rodriguez day-dreaming about Lola Beltran and Javier Solis, two Mexican ranchera singers and actors of the mid-20th century. Rodriguez’s vocals are mournful, almost as if she rues the fact that she never had a chance to see her heroes in person.
One of the album’s highlights – and perhaps the most autobiographical song – is the country rocker “Z”. It’s an addictive, go-get-’em anthem that’s built around the advice Rodriguez received from her grandmother during the long road towards visibility and acceptance in the music industry:
Not everybody’s gonna to spell your name right, honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee
But you can just sing ’em a song, hija mia
Tell country music where to put the Z.
The track is an ode to musicians who have had to make a living on the margins of their industry. It’s also paradoxically one of the few places on the album that features Rodriguez’s fiddle for an extended period of time, and well worth the listen:
The back half of Lola includes some sweet renditions of classic ranchera ballads, including “Noche de Ronda” (sung in a previous era by the aforementioned Javier Solis, among others), and Si No Te Vas, a beautiful love letter popularized by Cuco Sanchez:
In the meta-narrative of the album, Rodriguez’s covers of old ranchera songs could be interpreted as her attempt to keep one foot firmly planted in her heritage, while adapting to and thriving in the blended Texan music scene. But Rodriguez’s last original composition of the album, “The West Side”, lays bare the subtle racism and power imbalances that continue to impede immigrants and their children from fully belonging to their new communities:
You are welcome here
But remember, dear
That you are different in every way.
You may take a bus
Join the rest of us
But don’t be tempted to stay.
In presenting her takes on the traditional Mexican songbook of her heritage, and blending them with her own 21st century updates of the Mexican-American experience, Carrie Rodriguez is perhaps seeking to break out of the boundaries that she herself has felt as a bi-cultural artist. She asks that we listen and seek to understand her whole self, ranging from the Mexican idols of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations, to the country rock of her native Austin, and the particular challenges of being a hyphenated American. It’s to our benefit as listeners to accept her challenge, as a few spins of Lola is sure to add a few cherished sounds to the already rich mosaic of Texan and American music.
Recommended Tracks: Llano Estacado, Que Manera de Perder, Z, The West Side, Si No Te Vas
Recommended Site to stay up-to-date on ranchera and other Latin music: Latinomusiccafe.com.