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 channel.
NMAI caught up with Guerrero to talk about his music and his blue violin.
Tell us about your background.
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.
Your mom 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.”
I began 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.
Later 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 upbringing.
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 violin?
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.
Do you 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 your music?
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.
What 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.
Thank you for the interview.
No problem. Thank you.
—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.