Surrealist Women, Martha Gonzalez & Quetzal's Imaginaries & The Politics Of The World Diva

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, March 12, 2012 08:46am | Post a Comment
I couldn’t help but think while viewing LACMA’s new exhibit, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, How many people spent more time at the paintings made by Frida Kahlo than any of the dozens of excellent surrealist artists featured at the exhibit. Certainly, Frida is the rock star. Her artwork is used in advertisements for the exhibit that are plastered all over Los Angeles. So much so that I heard at least a dozen people refer to the exhibit as “The Frida Kahlo Exhibit” and were disappointed over the fact that there were only seven pieces of her work in the show. Still, it didn’t stop the multitude of women in rebozos wearing ethnic jewelry and posing for pictures in front of Kahlo’s artwork, sharing in Frida’s pain and heartbreak.

I don’t want to sound like a hater, because I do appreciate Kahlo’s artwork and to not acknowledge what she has meant for women artist and the art world in general would be unjust. Not only was she a great artist but also her artwork was superior to many of her male counterparts. Her art forced the inclusion of her and many other great female artists that weren’t given much respect beforehand. But as I continued through the exhibit, marveling over the great surrealist art of Maria Izquierdo, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Gertrude Abercrombie and Francesca Woodman, it was evident that people for the most part, were more hung up on Frida’s biography than the art.

This is who we are as a society. We love our icons. We like our revolutionaries handsome and strong and we like our suffering artists to be tragic. You can’t be a multifaceted. You can’t be a tragic icon who met someone nice and settled down. You can’t be a revolutionary that decided, “Eh, I rather get a steady job” We admire them because unlike many of us, they are all or none and they are who they are until their death. Even if it is a perceived notion, we want our icons to make us think they are not like us. Nothing speaks volumes than modern pop music. Was 2Pac really a thug or a very talented rapper/actor who made us believe he was harder than he was?

One World Music term that I hate to hear being used is “World Diva” It is a marketing term used by lazy record industry people and booking agents who book international female singers into festivals. It is a homogenous title to say the least. It doesn’t tell you where the singer is from, is about or what style of music they perform. You just lump them into one category and market it to the suckers that feel like getting “ethnic” for a day. The result of that term is that many of the artists feel thy have to play into that role. You can be a tee shirt and jeans Nigerian singer but if you put on the headdress and wood-beaded necklace you will be perceived as legitimate African singer. Once again, it’s perception. We want Lila Downs in her Frida meet Carmen Miranda wear. We are more comfortable with Susana Baca wearing traditional Afro-Peruvian clothing. We want Angelique Kidjo to wear a thousand gold bracelets and big hoop earrings than to look like western pop star. It's not to dismiss the artists pride in their culture, it just plays into what people want in their World Divas. We want you to dress in ethnic clothing. We want you to sing in a language that we don’t understand. We will think you are more authentic that way. We want you to be from a country that we know nothing of. We will put you on a pedestal as something we wish we could be, but never really take the effort to understand.

I have followed the work of singer Martha Gonzalez. She has performed in the group Quetzal for close to fifteen years. They have released five albums. The latest, Imaginaries, was released a few weeks ago. When I heard it, I thought, “Why isn’t Martha name ever mentioned as a great international singer?” Names like Lila Downs, Angelique Kidjo, Maria Rita, Ana Moura, Carmen Consoli, Azam Ali and Lira are marketed as “World Divas” They are mentioned are all over the press. They play all the world music festivals and are revered by audiences across the world. They have all had some great moments but have become inconsistent at best. Martha just keeps getting better and better with time.

Imaginaries is an example of Martha Gonzalez’s ever-expanding talent. As a writer, (along with husband and long time collaborator, Quetzal Flores) Gonzalez continues to explore complex social issues with storytelling that recalls great songwriters like Ruben Blades. Both Gonzalez and Blades writing are social/political in nature but never overt. Both have ability to getting one singing and dancing first before realizing the subject matter.  An example of that is a song like “Dreamers, Schemers” a blueglass ode to the freestyle movement of the 80’s that also serves as example how a creative force was able to thrive in the barrios of East L.A. during the years of Reaganomics. Another song in the same vein is “Estoy Aqui (I Am Here)” A song that questions the privileges one has living in the U.S. when even the poorest pueblos in Mexico have more self respect and dignity living in squats constructed by found material. Martha’s songs inspire as well as serve as a way to check one self.

Musically, the band continues to grow. The song, “Duermete” recalls the classic Fania-era Son Montuno in both musical styling and in storytelling ability. “Tragafuegos” is the continued evolution of Son Jarocho beyond the traditional, with an organ that takes Jarocho out of Vera Cruz and into the streets of East L.A. “Witness” could comfortably fit in Earth, Wind & Fire’s set list and everyone would rave it’s the best thing they’ve done in years.

Many of Gonzalez’s best songs are often given to other singers to perform. “Time Will Tell’ features the R&B crooning of Quincy McCrary and “Luz & Miel” a Charanga that recalls the great Cuban groups of the eighties, is given to her brother Gabriel Gonzalez to sing. Both Quincy & Gabriel perform commendably but it isn’t that Martha couldn’t shred on those songs. It’s Gonzalez’s sense of community, a desire to give the opportunity for other musicians to share the spotlight rather than to take all the glory.

The underlying theme of Quetzal’s music has always been about community. For that reason, perhaps Martha Gonzalez will not get the same respect as an individual artist would. Perhaps that she is from East Los Angeles and not from the Caribbean, South America or rural part of Mexico like Oaxaca or Vera Cruz, which people see as more “exotic” Perhaps because she is down to earth and you won’t see her playing the game of “World Diva” It’s a shame that most that would appreciate her will miss her in the hype of World Diva-ness, much like Dorothea Tanning’s powerful painting “Birthday” gets overlooked as people rush by it to get to a Frida Kahlo painting.

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Women's History Month (41), Women's History Month 2012 (10), World Music (148), Quetzal (0)