Fifteen Years of Celebrate Mexico Now
The popular citywide festival Celebrate Mexico Now marks its quinceañera this year with an exciting array of dance, film, literature, visual art installations, and concerts, including a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, October 18. Festival director Claudia Norman has invited two visionary Mexican-American musicians, Renee Goust and Diana Gameros, for what she calls "a night of musical borderlands." Having grown up in two different towns on the U.S.–Mexico border, these two singer-songwriters are now based in New York and San Francisco, respectively, and represent one small part of the rich contemporary Mexican diaspora. In advance of the show, Claudia caught up with the artists to ask them about their music, their influences, and what's next.
How would you describe your music?
Diana Gameros: Latin-folk with nuances of jazz and pop, or as a journalist described it: "at once strong and breathy... wounded and boldly searching.”
Renee Goust: I call my genre bicultural indie folk-pop, because I'm from the U.S.–Mexico border and I write music in Spanish and in English, which are both my first languages. There's a distinctive norteño element to a lot of the music I write and sing in Spanish such as "La Cumbia Feminazi," which is a feminist norteño cumbia, or "Caminar Contigo" which is a waltzed ranchera fusion tune. The music I've recorded in English so far is decisively more in the pop/rock genre, with elements of American folk such as twangy slide guitars and some vocal melodies that are reminiscent of country and bluegrass. My music is that of a feminist queer woman growing up in the Sonoran desert, living between the cultures of two countries and absorbing and reinterpreting their musical traditions.
What about your musical influences? What did you listen to growing up, and what are you listening to lately?
DG: Growing up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, I listened to what my parents played on their record player: a lot of ballads from artists of Mexico and Latin America, and some classical music. Whenever we would go to my grandparents' little rural village, I would listen to mariachi music, rancheras, corridos, and Mexican classics, either on the radio or played on guitars by my uncles and sung by my grandmother and mother. I also remember constantly hearing my grandmother sing very beautiful a cappella verses dedicated to religious figures (the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints, and angels), while cooking or while tending her garden. Now I listen to all kinds of music and from all over the world: classical, avant-garde, jazz, rock, pop, flamenco, classical Indian music, tango, trova, Cuban music, French chanson, African music, and anything new I can get my ears to listen to.
"I am beyond excited to be celebrating with other Mexican artists and with audiences that love our culture."
RG: I've had influences all across the board. I grew up listening to what my parents liked. Trío Los Panchos and Cuco Sánchez were my father's favorites, and my mom was all about Mexican mainstream pop. I was also exposed to endless amounts of banda sinaloense, corridos, and other norteño music during my youth. On weekends, my uncles would blast it on their pick-up trucks (parked outside my parents' house) during parties and we'd be forced to listen into the wee hours of the morning as we tried to get some sleep.
As a pre-teen, I once saw a young Shakira rocking her long black hair and acoustic guitar live on Mexican television. I soon decided it was time for me to trade in my piano days for self-teaching guitar ones. There was something very compelling to me about seeing a woman standing alone on stage holding a guitar and singing her own songs. At age ten, I had never seen that before!
I went through a symphonic metal phase at the end of high school and during part of my college/music school years. Then I turned my ear to singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen, to name a few. I had a rock phase that involved Radiohead, The Smiths, Soda Stereo, and early Caifanes music. Then I discovered Nueva Canción Latinoamericana and I was never the same: Violeta Parra, Amparo Ochoa, Gloria Martín, Silvio Rodriguez, and Pablo Milanés are some of my favorites. Chavela Vargas is also up there on my list! And I'm a big fan of son jarocho! Lately I've been listening to Jorge Drexler's Salvavidas de Hielo a lot, and to music made by dear Mexican friends and peers such as Ampersan, Laura Murcia, and El David Aguilar.
What will you be performing at your show at the Atrium?
DG: I will be performing original songs from my first album, Eterno Retorno, which are an homage to the immigrant experience; a few Mexican classics from my album Arrullo, and some new songs that I haven't recorded yet.
RG: I'll be performing an acoustic set comprised of songs off of my Septiembre EP. I'll also play a well-known Mexican song in the popular domain that I rewrote some of the lyrics to based on a recent personal experience, and I'll share a sneak peek of more recent work I've been writing. I'll touch upon themes such as growing up queer in Mexico, feminism, immigration, and the ups and downs of love in relationships. The great majority of the songs I'll play at the Atrium will be in Spanish because I really want to celebrate Mexico (now)!
What do you hope audiences take away from your music?
DG: I hope people are able to disconnect from their preoccupations, at least for a moment, and soak in the melodies and connect to the stories of home, love, and celebration that I will sing for them.
RG: My hope is always to touch people's hearts, establish a connection with them and leave them with a feeling of honesty and bravery. I tend to be very vulnerable in my songwriting process and on stage. I like to share the things that move me to the core. It's the reason I make music. I want my audiences to know that it's okay to be themselves and to have their own gnarly complicated life stories, that being imperfect doesn't make them weak, that being different is beautiful and a reason to be proud, never ashamed.
I spent a lot of years writing very sad lyrics but now that I've come full circle with myself, I feel compelled to be a voice for the underrepresented; for women and our struggles, for Latinxs, for the LGBTQ+ community. I grew up feeling alienated from social circles because I lived outside of the conservative gender roles that are very much the norm in my border town. This was before the advent of the internet. I never realized how underrepresented we were as a group on mainstream media. I was always hanging with the loners or the nerds or the "weird kids." It wasn't until the world wide web brought me closer to others like me that I felt seen. I found a place of my own in music. It truly saved my life. I would love to be that voice for someone else.
What does it mean to be part of a festival like Celebrate Mexico Now?
DG: Having been away from my dear country, Mexico, for so long, being a part of a festival that celebrates Mexican culture and people means the world to me. I am beyond excited to be celebrating with other Mexican artists and with audiences that love our culture.
"I found a place of my own in music. It truly saved my life. I would love to be that voice for someone else."
RG: It is an immense honor for me to be a part of this festival! I moved to New York eleven years ago and I have been to other years' Celebrate Mexico Now events and have always loved them! It's such a good feeling to know that I'll be on stage for it this time around, and that I'll be representing my beautiful country in a city I love so much. I'm very grateful for the opportunity of becoming a thread in this fabric that's been 15 years in the making and that shows Mexico in all its splendid diversity.
What are your latest projects, and what's next?
DG: I'm thrilled to announce that I will be visiting my dear Mexico very soon, for the first time in 15 years. I'm currently writing and arranging songs for my next album. I will also begin to write music for a documentary film about the legendary Clarion Alley in San Francisco, and in November, I will be one of the musicians to join Icelandic contemporary artist Ragnar Kjartansson on his three-day durational musical performance Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at the Women's Building of San Francisco.
RG: I'm sitting on an EP that's fully recorded and will be released in 2019. All the songs are in English for this one, as Septiembre's songs are all in Spanish. More details will be revealed in the coming months, but it's a concept album about taking a childhood full of social struggle and turning it into an adulthood of self-love and empowerment. There will be a music video for each of the songs and I'm proud to say that most of my collaborators are very talented Northern Mexican artists. I'm also writing original music for a short film by a female Mexican-American director based in Los Angeles, working on new t-shirts with my amazing graphic designer, and playing some shows in my beloved Mexico!
Celebrate Mexico Now founder and director Claudia Norman is an award-winning curator and producer who is internationally recognized for her expertise in contemporary Mexican arts and culture.