Quetzal Guerrero, accompanied by percussionist Leo Costa, at the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington, D.C., July 20, 2013. Photo by Maria E. Renteria, NMAI.
The singer and multi-instrumentalist
Quetzal Guerrero filled the National Museum of the American
Indian’s Potomac Atrium with the music of his roots. Guerrero has Native
American, Mexican, and Brazilian heritage, making this music one of a kind.
Guerrero visited Washington, D.C., as part of the museum’s
2013 Living Earth Festival. Guerrero played at the festival’s Indian Summer Showcase
concert Saturday night, July 20. If you missed the concert, or if you were
there and want to re-experience a fun night, video is available on the museum’s YouTube
NMAI caught up with Guerrero to talk about his music
and his blue violin.
Tell us about
My mother is from Northeastern Brazil in a city called Recife,
which is in a small state called Pernambuco. She is a musician. She’s a
classically trained pianist since the age of five. She raised us all
playing/learning classical music from an early on age.
She played a lot of Brazilian guitar. She taught me bossa nova. My
first Joe Beam song, she taught me how to play that. She is very musical.
My father, his name is Saco Guerrero. He is an artist, muralist,
mass maker, chicano artist. He actually published various books. He’s a native
of Arizona. His family has roots from Northern Mexico, Yaqui Indian from
Durango. He also has heritage from the Juaneño tribe, from the
San Clemente area in California. He is a native of the Southwest. He is fifth-generation
born and raised in Mesa, Arizona. My great-great-grandfather was actually one
of the founders of Mesa, along with a lot of Mormon settlers. He was non-Mormon,
took part in building the community. So I was raised in a very artistic, creative
family, doing a lot of music and doing a lot of visual art. It gave me the
direction and visual of who I am today. That is my background in a nutshell.
is the reason why you play the violin?
Yes, my mom is definitely the reason. My mom taught my dad. He
played an Andean flute, called the quena.
They had a musical group that they performed and traveled with even before I
was born. So I was pretty much born into the music, performing and playing ever
since I was a young kid. It was part of my daily activities and daily life. So
when I was a child, my mom wanted to choose an instrument that I could play and
have a discipline to study. I was watching Sesame Street, and I saw Itzhak Perlman perform
and saw kids too playing the violin. “Mom, that is what I want to play.” I was
like three or four years old. So she said, “If that is what you want to play,
we’re going to get you lessons and we are going to start learning.”
to study in the Suzuki Method, which is a very popular method used to teach
young children how to play at very early age. What you do is you learn by ear first,
before you learn how to read. As oppose to the school system that teaches you
read and play at the same time, so the prerequisite age is much older. You can
start [that way] when you are nine or ten, because at the point you already
know how to read and write. The Suzuki method is kind how you learn how to
speak. You learn by listening and mimicking, and then you learn how to speak. You learn how to read and write later.
That is the method I learned my violin on.
on, around twelve years old, I began to sing. I started taking choir classes at
school. I started teaching myself guitar. My mom also taught me some guitar. I
learned a lot from musicians around in the environment that I was always in. I
was always around a lot of very talented and experienced musicians. I was always
picking up different things from everybody, kind of practicing it and trying to
learn as much as I could. That is a little bit of the history my musical
I moved to Los Angeles about eight years ago. I think that was a pivotal
point in my musical growth. Anybody who knows about Los Angeles—it is a mecca
of the entertainment industry. Immediately moving to L.A. I was connected with
some very, very talented and driven musicians. I started to working and performing with them. It really helped
me to elevate the level of my musicianship and composition and playing. I think
L.A. again has an important role in my musical development .
Why a blue
I have about six violins. I have a traditional classical violin, which
is cherry red; that one I use specifically for recording or practicing or
certain types of sounds I want. I have a series of different types of electric
violins. Playing with a live band or playing with amplified music, the violin
gets drained out and disappears in the sound. I actually saw a country
violinist, when I was 13 or 14, with a blue electric violin. I went crazy, “I
need one of those, I want one.” He gave me the information where I could get
one. So that blue violin is actually my first electric violin, which I
purchased when I was 14. I’ve had it ever since then. I love it. I have several,
but that is the one I’m most comfortable with. I also think people remember.
People will always remember the blue violin. It stands out and catches the eye.
have any pre-show rituals?
Not really. I am not a very ritualistic kind of guy. I really try just
run over the song list and envision the set list of songs I’m going to do. Visualize
a little bit of my performance, how I’m going to perform, my presence. I try to
warm up, practice a little, get the jitters out a little, feel comfortable with
my instrument. That is pretty much it. I don’t have anything crazy I do.
I can hear
the cultural influences in your music. But how do you explain that to people
who don’t know what bossa nova is or other different musical styles you
incorporate. Your music can fit into multiple categories. How do you explain
That is the thing: I really try not to explain. I try to get the
listener hear it and get their own experience from it because there are so many
subtle rhythms and influences that happen inside the music that if you are not
aware of them, you are not even going to register. I think that more important
than defining the music and trying to tell people what it is, is having them
feel it. The connection of rhythm and song and music in general is that it is
universal and that everyone can connect to it. So I really try to be like, “You
just have to hear it.” I can give you a list of influences, where the things
come from and where they go. But
if you’re not educated or aware of those styles, it is not going to mean
anything. I think that what is more important is the message of the lyrics of
the songs and how they make you feel.
The feeling that a song and music has, it permeates anyone
regardless of their understanding of music or understanding of language. I try
to focus on the feeling and intentions behind the music and rhythms. As opposed to trying to explain it or
make it relatable to most people. I find that when you explain something that
is foreign to them, it closes people’s walls. If you just play it, they
immediately take to it and understand it. That is the only thing I am always
trying to tell people, because that is the first thing they ask, “What does it
sound like? What kind of style is it?” I feel that is so limiting, so putting
inside a box.
That is something very westernized in our way of thought. “What
tribe are you? Where are you from? What language do you speak?” Anybody who
knows anything about history knows that we are all mixed. Everything comes from
everywhere. We are mixed together. So I try to find common ground, especially
with the music.
projects are you working on?
I have a new branded album that we just finished recording and
mastering and that I’m going to start releasing hopefully this fall, if I get
everything together. But if not, it might be at the end of the year or next
year. That album is called American
Import. I feel like that title is something that kind of defines who I am.
I’m a Native American and American-born citizen, but I’m also a world traveler.
I have been all around the world. I have Brazilian heritage and have been to
Brazil many times.
I feel more a world citizen than American, but I am very American
in my perspectives and in my cultural upbringing. I was born and raised here.
So I think what I bring in this album is something very familiar. I am touching
a lot of American folk, rock, and blues influences, along with rhythms from northeastern
Brazil and [elsewhere in] Latin America and things like that. I am importing
something that is American and familiar to everyone, but it has that little
taste of something exotic. That is [what’s behind] the name of my next album, American Import.
for the interview.
No problem. Thank
—Maria E. Renteria, NMAI
Maria Esmeralda Renteria is an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. She is pursuing an MA in Museum Studies from the San Francisco State University and received her BA in both Latin American Studies and Spanish at UCLA.