While a proposed wall might slow people’s movement across the US/Mexico border, it’ll do little to prevent the proliferation of ideas, art, and music. It’s difficult to ignore the vibrant effects Latin America has had on its northern neighbour. Honest, expressive and colourful, this culture crackles with passion – and this particularly shines through in the region’s proud musical heritage. “Passion for music is maybe the most important part of being a musician,” says Tucson-based multi-instrumentalist, Sergio Mendoza. “There’s a lot of sacrifice when it comes to living a normal life or at least our idea of a normal life. We put so much time into what we do and in the end if we had to pay to play we would do it because of the love and passion.” Mendoza was born in Nogales, a Mexican town nestled on the US border. Moving across at the age of eight, he eventually set up home in Tucson. Quickly he established himself with the city’s lively music scene, hooking up with renowned Latin rockers – Calexico. It formed the base for a CV also including work with Y La Bamba’s Luz Elena Mendoza, Giant Sand and Camilo Lara’s Mexrrissey. The constant thread between all his work is the melding of regional Latin styles from his youth and the eclectic music from his adopted home.
In 2009 he formed Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, originally as a way of paying tribute to king of the mambo – Pérez Prado. Theirs is a feverish blend of rock, mambo, easy listening, new wave and pure pop, even squeezing in some country and electronica on last year’s ¡Vamos A Guarachar!album. Treading a line between cinematic and party-starting, it might draw from some diverse places but it’s a ceaselessly compelling affair. For all its bold innovation and assimilation, this is music which still appeals to traditionalists and new music fans alike. Mendoza himself is a purist at heart, so appreciates the need for balance. “I have a lot of respect for traditions. I try to learn them first before changing them. Musically speaking I research chords and structure of old songs before making them my own.” Now he’s establishing credentials as one of the most exciting musicians on either side of that controversial border. But being held in the same esteem as his inspirations only urges him to try harder. “It gives me more energy and inspiration to innovate. It gives me confidence to not be afraid to combine different beats and styles to create a sound of my own.” A respect for what’s come before on both sides of the fence is partly what makes his band so compelling. But not as much as their ferocious live shows, one of which will be lighting up Brighton’s Komedia on Tues 25 April. With six core members and an ever-shifting line-up of guest performers, they attack the stage with a sound so massive as to be unavoidable. Obviously calming this polyrhythmic beast for the recording of an album presents a challenge. “The studio process is a completely different approach. I like the live performances to sound different than the recordings. Of course, we try to imagine what the songs would be like in a live setting. But it’s always a hard thing to nail unless you play the songs out before recording.” Yet these recordings are still an epic affair. Packed with riffing guitars and pulsating brass, this alluring audio spectrum perfectly captures the spirit of their home – a city adrift in the expanse of the Sonoran desert.
This is a landscape set for major change very soon. Not least with the plans for a wall to seal off the USA from its neighbours below. A robust attitude to exploiting the nation’s differences mean it’s more important than ever to celebrate each other’s culture, regardless of where it might originate. “The main thing for me is to be accepting. Yes, we are all different, but we also have to live together. It is the best time to celebrate compassion in all its forms.” Mendoza has often used his position to highlight injustices against the immigrant communities in his home state.
Along with musical friends and collaborators, he has plans to conduct an Arizona border tour which will play on both sides of the fence. “We also plan to do a summer festival here in Tucson with our friends XIXA, to raise awareness on border issues and to help bring our community together in a time when people simply need to forget about the news for one day.” Even when there’s a will to divide people, music will offer a medium to keep them together.
Mendoza says the musicians he knows, or looks up to, all possess a certain quality and sense of compassion. “We care about people and we like to share what we have to offer. In sharing our music, we welcome everyone and nobody is left out. Music is something you can’t see or touch, but it has healing power.” In the face of growing anxiety amongst his community and the rise of far-right groups, strength can come from a strong sense of identity. There’s also solace to be found in the connections and friendships Mendoza has made through his music. “That comfort and love can come anywhere. On the road, at a show and talking to people after the shows. The idea that everything will be ok no matter what, helping those around you and being compassionate… that helps bring comfort and positive vibes.”