Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve long been aware of the entertainment industry’s coveted “It Factor.” While perhaps tossed around too loosely nowadays (American Idol, I’m looking at you), the proverbial “it” used to carry weight and imply not just a level of talent but an extra special something that simply couldn’t be defined. Over the years, I’ve seen “it” pop up on stages big and small (but mostly big) and court everything from pin-drop silence to ecstatic dance parties to teary-eyed sing-alongs. Still, to this day, one of my most startling interactions with “it” came by way of Y La Bamba. Among an average-sized crowd, and on an otherwise average night at Muddy Waters Café, a ragtag crew of mysterious Portlanders quietly set up and sound-checked. Come showtime, though, they quickly achieved that aforementioned pin-drop silence — in the span of just a few bars, no less.
Long before stepping foot in Santa Barbara, Y La Bamba was the moniker of singer/songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza. The lone daughter of a Mexican immigrant, Mendoza was raised a strict Catholic. She grew up singing in church and can recall being enamored with music from early childhood.
“Music was everywhere growing up,” she explained recently. “I don’t know what came first, really, the music or me being able to sing, but the Catholic worship songs were always my favorite. After church, we would go to a Mexican party, and there’d always be some sort of live band playing. Even though I grew up in the States, my upbringing was pretty bold.”
Following a “spiritual quest” to India and faced with a serious bout of illness upon her return, Mendoza picked up the guitar as a way of healing and soon began putting her songs to tape. Not surprisingly, her lo-fi recordings and riveting open-mike performances quickly pricked the ears of Portland’s myriad music makers, and not long afterward, Y La Bamba the band was formed.
“In the beginning I was writing songs by myself, and other people would just play on them,” she recalled. “Then slowly, as the years went by, we started to learn how to work together as a band and started arranging and writing as a group.”
Together with current members Michael Kitson (percussion), Eric Schrepel (accordion), Ben Meyercord (bass), Scott Magee (percussion), and Paul Cameron (guitar), Mendoza has blossomed from captivating songstress to full-blown frontwoman, her long limbs, intricate tattoos, and somewhat incongruous salt-and-peppered locks only adding to her vocal mystique. Sonically, Y La Bamba is an ambitious mix of culturally rich touchstones: Mendoza’s Mexican heritage and familial ties play a large role in her songwriting process, while the band’s four-part harmonies and finger-picked guitars pull directly from the American folk canon. Accordions and trumpets sneak through in smaller doses, calling to mind the mariachis of Mendoza’s youth, while fast-paced and layered percussion ties the group to so many of their Portland-bred indie contemporaries.
At the center of it all, Mendoza’s vocals dance between haunting and ethereal, and are just as resonant in a featherlight whisper as they are in a low, tortured bellow. More importantly, though, her voice radiates emotion and can convey a sentiment just as fluidly in English as in Spanish. To speak from experience, it’s chill inducing.
Since that fated night at Muddy Waters back in 2009, Y La Bamba has made Santa Barbara a repeat tour stop, at least one time bridging the group’s set list into an all-night round robin of communal jamming in the living room of one particular Westside homestead. This Sunday, March 11, Y La Bamba returns to town for a show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club with fellow female-fronted folkies The Mynabirds. The date comes directly on the heels of the band’s much-anticipated sophomore release for Portland label Tender Loving Empire. For Court the Storm, the follow-up to 2010’s Lupon, Mendoza & Co. teamed up with Los Lobos member and producer Steve Berlin to create an 11-track collection that pulls heavily from Mendoza’s cultural roots (four of the songs are sung entirely in Spanish) and expands upon the intricate and tight-knit orchestrations that make Y La Bamba tick.
“The whole album is just about tribulations and conquering [them],” explained Mendoza. “Without getting super hippie about it, it’s about spiritual warfare. … It’s about taking responsibility for your life right now. I’ve had struggles, and I know I’m not the only one, and songs like ‘Hughson Boys’ and ‘Moral Panic’ and ‘Dialect of Faith’ are about that. I’m not religious whatsoever, but I’m religiously thinking about what it means to be a human on this planet and how I’m going to learn what humble survival is about.”
Perhaps it’s that humility that makes Mendoza’s songs resonate so strongly. Or maybe it’s just part of the magnetic whole. Either way, even she recognizes her sonic power, however modestly. “I’ve been playing music forever,” she noted. “I think no matter where I go, I just attract those people. They find me.”
Y La Bamba plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Sunday, March 11, at 8 p.m. with The Mynabirds and Big Harp. For tickets and info, call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com.