The Fellowship of the Tortilla

Peña Unites Central-American Folk

by Stephen McGuire

Even for Austin's super- charged music scene it's an unlikely time for a show: Sunday afternoon. But when I open Chicago House's oblique door and step inside, it could be a Saturday night. The two bleachers are filled, kids sit on the floor, others stand where they can. Applause repeatedly erupts for a mixed bill of Yiddish tunes, poetry, and Latin American folk music in its many forms. In spite of the closing of Chicago House, this type of capacity crowd has sparked requests from other promoters to provide new venues for the event - an event that's working not merely because it's a collection of remarkably fine musicians, but because it's a developing scene and a community. It is the "Last Sunday of the Month Peña."

"The reason we started it," relates singer and guitarist Lourdes Perez, "was to create and expand a context in which to come together. Correo Aereo [airmail], myself and Cenzontle [mockingbird] started The Last Sunday of the Month Peña so musicians could come together and establish a community. The most valuable thing is collaboration. People are starting to know they are welcome where their music stands on its own in a culture that is totally different from their own." Madeleine Sosin, who with Abel Rocha form the popular folk duo Correo Aereo, sees the Latin American concept of a Peña as truly foreign to the mainstream of this country. "There is less distinction and more interaction between the artist and the audience. We also have poets, dancers, and some drama. There has been music in the Mexican mercados forever; it is not a new movement."

For Chicago House co-owner Peg Miller, who has observed many a proceeding, the Peña (not to be confused with "La Peña," a local organization which promotes multi-disciplinary arts, including the "Last Sunday Peña") goes well beyond a music and art exchange. "People come together and embrace each other's politics and culture," says Miller. "It's a lot more than getting together to break bread once a month. It's the fellowship of the tortilla." In short, what was once a cut-off collection of foreign souls with even more obscure music is now a collective community, preserving and creating in a remarkably warm and efficient atmosphere. For Perez, that specific function of the Peña is serious: "If the context is not respectful of what you do, don't go there. A lot of us work in the community and have very strong political convictions. I won't go where the place is not conducive to your growth or audience growth."

Yet outside the Peña, problems extend beyond just another new face trying to get gigs: both musician and music are foreign and on the cutting edge of nowhere. Angel Ibanez, a Mexican who plays harp and guitar, knows about other venues and the occupational hazards of immigrant status. "I used to play in a group called Cuerdas Latina [latin strings], until the other [principle] member went back to Peru." Now, Ibanez is retooling the group with new members before he can return to the mixed bag of Ruta Maya Coffee House, El Torito Restaurant, Huntington Art Gallery, and the Dougherty Arts Center.

Similarly, Antonio Dionisio is waiting for the rest of his band, MMR, to arrive from Brazil. Then he will fly one-way to South Florida for a rendezvous, rent a van, and hit the road. "The tour starts in Miami, then Tampa, Athens, Atlanta, New Orleans, then hopefully La Zona Rosa." In the meantime, like other Latin musicians, he plays solo guitar at Flipnotics, Mojo's, Casa de Luz, and Resistencia Book Store - roughly, the same coffeehouse/storefront/free-fire zone that forms the circuit for many unsanctified jazz ensembles.

Lambada it ain't. The great musical variety seen in just one Peña stands in contrast to what most Americans visualize about Latin music. "Salsa has become very popular," explains Perez, "due to immigration to the U.S. from Puerto Rico where Latin music and jazz were incorporated. But when a form becomes popular, everyone thinks it's the only form from that area." According to Javier Palacios, vocalist for Centzontle, the Peña's format helps clear up that misconception. "People hear all these styles and get up and dance, [but] it's very educational: we give a short explanation about the music and where its from. [Otherwise], they think Mexican, Bolivian, and Argentinian music is all the same."

The tension resulting from a convergence of Latin American folk forms plays out differently among musicians. "I'm trying to keep the same style from Mexico that I have been playing since I was nine," Ibanez states quite simply. And it's much the same for Dionisio. "I don't see change, but an adding to [Latin music]," he explains. "That's how it grows, gets better, and gets bigger - more complex. What I play is Brazilian. People know that kind of music and don't confuse it with others."

No wonder. The predominant language of Brazil is Portuguese, and most Americans shopping a mall know the Getz-Gilberto pop bossa nova tune "Girl From Ipanema," and the super-group Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66. Other countries have a presence as well in the subconscious of American pop charts. When the late superstar Selena's parents were babes, Mexican culture gave us Tejano music, in the form of Betto Villa, and the Los Angeles-based rock of Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela). Puerto Rico has its Salsa and Chile its Andean folk, made famous by that country's most famous group, Inti-Illimani. Clearly, Latin American cultures have a long track record of dealing with "el Norte."

But reconciling folk forms with the current upsurge in salsa, cumbia, and other hot and danceable forms can be difficult. "Borinquen (on South Congress) was the first place to start with Latin [dance] music," says Palacios, "then it was Calle Ocho. They're going to open more. People are starving to death for this type of music. We would like to play Calle Ocho, but we don't have three hours of music like cumbia for people to dance to. This is scary because it forces us to concentrate on a commercial dance form instead of traditional forms."

Sosin sees another kind of starvation. "People, in general, are hungrier and hungrier for the kind of getting together that satisfies the soul instead of going out, watching a show, and getting crazy. I had someone come up after a set and say, `after all that red light music, it's good to be penetrated in a deeper, softer way.' You need both. You don't have to get drunk at the Peña."

For underlying the flowering popular musics are the root folk forms which, while symbiotic to the whole, remain out of sight for most. "The scene has changed, but not very fast," says Ibanez. "Five years ago, there were few musicians. But now we are more and people are getting accustomed to it. It has improved [perhaps because] salsa and merengue are getting popular."

The Peña has primed the pump. But Dionisio sees the need for more than drip irrigation. "If [the Peña] is done twice a month, I think it will grow. Advertise more, get more sponsors from the business community like Seis Salsas Restaurant. Musicians are not as organized as they should be. It's a serious scene and you have to deal with the business side." There is a personal and artistic side to expansion as well. "It would be good to have a place to go once a week for everyone who is involved in folk and roots music."

Some signs of a more conventional circuit can be seen. The Cactus Cafe, long a folk-friendly venue, tops out when Correo Aereo plays. And Ruta Maya, which has quickly developed a long line of credit as an alternative culture oasis, brings a loose-shoes, Ellis Island ambiance for musicians and audience alike. "People finally know we exist," contends Palacios. "We can draw crowds; we developed a following at Seis Salsas."

For Sosin, there is opportunity - some of it missed. "What is promising is that we are always playing for new people and not just Latin Americans. They want to know where this has been all their lives. But Mexic-Arte Museum, which is centrally located and has space, doesn't treat music as a viable art form. There should be workshops and a concert series." Yet, while Sosin is critical of the lack of creative booking in clubs, she's amused by the potential in irregular venues, such as Central Market. "It certainly is unconventional. Mercados in Latin America are natural places full of life where everything comes together: the food, the flowers, people, clothes, music... it's wonderful. Here in the U.S., we have created grocery stores that start out with a sterile environment; now there are some stores which are trying to be a mercado. It's a healthy instinct and brings families and children together if they don't go to clubs. Music opens peoples' hearts at a young age." She does salute the airwaves without reservation: "KUT and KOOP radio do an excellent job when they present world music."

In the meantime, can the Peña continue to work? After all, collective community, though bandied about daily in sound bites as somehow vaguely missing in our lives, is literally a foreign and subversive concept: It requires giving up a little of that precious individualism that besots our non-collective psyches. Ironically, few can question the business end of the Peña. It has consolidated music and artistic forms, reached out to new markets, and created that all-important "buzz." Still, it's easy, when things go wrong or tastes change, to just turn and walk away. The Last Sunday Peña may not stop that, but it continues to work in a hostile environment not because of "reinvention" or another marketing trend, but because the people in it make it work. They will be sorely tested when Chicago House closes.

"We're sad," laments Annette D'Armata, Director of Encanto Productions and a member of the Peña collective. "Lourdes recorded her CD there. It's a special room. Peña at Chicago House was important for the spirit of the people. Peg and [co-owner] Glynda Cox would give you the shirt off their backs. We want to keep to a theatre-type space. It's important that the context not be a bar or restaurant, but a place where we can be heard."

The Peña rises or falls on the faith or foibles of individuals wanting to be together. That's a concept which could stand some reinvention even in Austin. n The next "The Last Sunday of the Month Peña" will be held at Chicago House, October 29, 4-7pm, in celebration of the Day of the Dead. Admission is $5.

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