As the founder of the Chicano rock band Quetzal, Quetzal Flores believes in music with a conscience.
“I grew up in social movements, surrounded by them,” Flores explained, “understanding that no matter what you do, it’s all connected to communities.”
As a result, Quetzal strives to reflect “the social, cultural, political and musical stories of people in struggle” with its multicultural sound and powerful, poetic lyrics.
“I don’t have anything against people writing dance music,” Flores said, “(But) we don’t necessarily enter into composing with that intention.”
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“What’s important for me is to have a message that people can connect to on a broad level and to have music that’s crafted with great care and passion,” he said.
Flores’s love affair with rock ’n’ roll began at age 14, when his older brother returned from boarding school with a suitcase full of albums by The Grateful Dead and The Smiths.
“From that moment, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” recalled Flores, who quickly picked up the guitar. “I was hopelessly and blindly in love.”
In 1992, the East Los Angeles native discovered son jarocho, the traditional music of Veracruz, which became the soundtrack of the Chicano civil rights movement in the late 1970s.
Flores channeled both influences when he formed Quetzal in 1993. Vocalist and percussionist Martha Gonzalez joined the band shortly afterward.
According to Flores, Quetzal’s formation came during a particularly turbulent time for the Los Angeles Latino community — coinciding with the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1994 campaign to pass Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants in California from using health care, public education and other services.
Still, he said, that aspect of political and social awareness didn’t enter the band’s music until later.
The switch was inspired in part by a conversation with his uncle.
“He said, ‘Hey, you need to start writing conscious music,’” Flores recalled, the way that his heroes, who include The Clash, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell and Steve Wonder, imbued their own music with political messages.
“We saw that (our musical direction) was affecting our way to change and grow. It was just stifling,” he said, adding that the band members found their folkloric focus artistically limiting as well. “We decided , ‘We’re too complex and diverse to be relegated to this style of music only.’”
Quetzal’s latest album, 2011’s “Imaginaries,” showcases the band’s difficult-todefine sound, incorporating elements of rock, R& B, Colombian cumbia, Cuban charanga and Brazilian pandeiro.
Each of the band members brings something different to the table, Flores said, whether it’s violinist Tylana Enomoto’s classical background or bass player Juan Perez’s love of industrial metal and jarocho music.
“That all organically filters into the music,” he said.
Although Flores and Gonzalez are the only remaining original members of Quetzal’s lineup, which now includes cellist Peter Jacobson and drummer Evan Greer, “Imaginaries” features appearances by a number of band of veterans .
“There’s sort of this revolving door that exists in the band,” he explained. “People know they always have a home here.”
Another way that Queztal fosters that sense of community is “Remembering the Dead,” an onstage celebration of the Mexican holiday known as El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
“It’s a constructive way of looking at death not based on fear and efficiency but on life,” Flores explained, especially “the lives that continue to inspire us even in death.”
“Remembering the Dead” features narration, musical numbers and projected images. “Each song is a story about a person or a moment,” Flores said, adding that Quetzal gives audience members a chance to shout out the names of their loved ones.
Flores and his band mates welcome heartfelt reactions to their show, whether it’s tears, laughter or both.
When his uncle saw “Remembering the Dead” shortly after the death of Flores’ grandfather, “He was uncontrollably sobbing for an hour,” Flores recalled. “That was an inspiring reaction for us. We want people to be able to feel safe in that space.”
According to Flores, giving audiences a healthy way to grieve is all part of Quetzal’s mission to help music lovers reconnect with their humanity.
“People need to feel human, so they revert back to the thing that will never let them down — and that’s art and culture,” he said.