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Eugene Rodriguez: Master Guitarist/Educator/Grammy Nominee

Founder of the Los Cenzontles aims to show the beauty, power and dignity of Mexican and Mexican American culture

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: October 25, 2011


Eugene Rodriguez: Master Guitarist/Educator/Grammy Nominee


Eugene Rodriguez received a Master's degree in classical guitar performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1987. In 1989 he formed the youth group Los Cenzontles through an Artist Residency from the California Arts Council. In 1991 he established the Fandango Project with Gilberto Gutierrez of Grupo Mono Blanco. He incorporated Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in 1994. The arts center is located in Richmond, California - a notoriously high crime area.

His work with Latino youth has made a significant difference in the lives of countless young people and their families as they take a reimagining of Mexican folk music to people around the world.

Los Cenzontles is proud to say that ALL class fees are significantly subsidized. This is a result of funding from foundations as well as generous individuals.

In 1995 Eugene was nominated for a Grammy for "Best Musical Album for Children" for his production of Papa's Dream, a bilingual recording with Los Lobos and Lalo Guerrero. He has produced eighteen CD's for Los Cenzontles.

His productions have included noted musicians Ry Cooder, David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal and Linda Ronstadt, among others. Eugene has played a pioneering role in the revival of Mexican folk music in California and has innovated adaptations of traditional pedagogy to suit contemporary urban contexts.

Eugene serves as a board member of the Arhoolie Foundation. He has received recognition and awards that include the 2010 Local Hero Award from KQED television, 2009 Community Leadership Award from the San Francisco Foundation, the 2009 Business Leadership Award from the San Francisco Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 2002 California Arts Council Director's Award, the Contra Costa County Arts Commission Arts Recognition Award and three awards from the U.S. Mexico Fund for Culture.

LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, was honored to work with Eugene as a writer on his Papa's Dream CD with Los Lobos and was delighted to talk to an old friend again

AC: You grew up in a middle class family in Glendale. What inspired you to begin playing music and what kind of music were you into?

ER: I learned my first few 'cowboy' chords from my dad. He sang American folks songs to us that he picked out of song books. Those songs made me feel connected to him and to my own emotions. Growing up, I was into English language pop music and rock and roll. At family parties two uncles and two aunts sang mariachi songs. They would let me sit in with them as best I could. My brother Phillip and I would sing rock songs in English. Music was the place where the Mexican side and the American side of me coexisted naturally. And the moments of playing music were those moments that I felt most comfortable and connected with family members. Phillip and I began taking guitar lessons together when I was eight and he was eleven. Mostly we tortured the teacher. At fifteen I began taking it more seriously with classical guitar lessons.

AC: Your dad is an attorney. And then there are your brothers: Phillip is a documentary film maker and Gregory is a well-known journalist. What was it that your parents did to promote you Rodriguez children into such success?

ER: My dad was not actually a practicing attorney. He practiced law for a while but did not enjoy it so he taught Spanish at LA Valley College for 41 years. He did what he enjoyed doing. I don't remember my parents ever telling us what we 'should' do or 'should' be. We were provided enormous freedom to explore our worlds. We received (and still receive) a lot of attention and support for our efforts as well.

AC: Were you inspired by your parents and/or life experience to work with kids?

ER: I was always good with younger kids, even as a kid myself. I remember taking care of my younger brother Gregory when he was sick. Compassion came naturally to me. When I was a teen, my mom thought I would become a child psychologist.

AC: Was there a specific incident that let you know you wanted to make music your life's work? Why the guitar and who were your guitar heroes?

ER: My father took me and my brother Greg to Europe when I was 18. Seeing the depth of history in the streets of Paris really impressed upon me the brevity of life. At that point I knew that I needed to do something that was meaningful to me. At UC Santa Cruz I studied some music, theater and humanities. But I did not care for the rigidity of the studies so I quit in the middle of my third year. I began studying privately with a wonderful classical guitarist, David Tanenbaum. He really mentored my musical education. Eventually, he convinced me to apply to the SF Conservatory of Music where I received my BM and MM in Classical guitar. David HiIdalgo is my guitar hero. God speaks through Dave's playing.

AC: You have a masters degree in guitar performance so why not be a rock star and make millions?

ER: Sounds good. Where do I sign up? LOL. It really wasn't until the last ten years when I begin to see how my disparate talents added up into something. I follow my interests and dig deep into certain things. I lose interest easily with other things. So I have zig-zagged my way into creating a path that is my path, and I have been fortunate to have found kindred spirits to share it with. One of the many reasons I began working with kids was that there were so few 'professional' musicians with whom I shared musical interests. The 'kids' I play with are excellent musicians. They are who I want to play with.

AC: Spanish was not your first language. What inspired you to pursue the music of Mexican culture?

ER: I think I am drawn to Mexican music because it was planted in me early on. As a small child I felt very connected to my mom's mother and the sounds and smells of her farm in Chula Vista. I did not grow up speaking Spanish. But in a way that allows me to hear the language as music and not fixate too much on the literal meaning. I love the rhythms and textures of the music. Mexican music is hugely underrated. It has a spirit that is part of me in a very deep way.

AC: With such a bright future and a familial legacy of doing big things, why did you start a music and arts school in Richmond, California - a high crime area?

ER: Landing in Richmond/San Pablo was an accident. I answered an ad to teach while I was studying and living in SF. I was not particularly drawn to the area but there was this opportunity. I was appalled, and am still appalled, at the low level of education the kids receive. It is as if our kids are not fully capable of excellence. It is a terrible shame for them and for society. The kids who stick it out and work hard really are amazing. There is a lot there.

AC: How has the school and the music evolved over the years? Small gigs, then larger gigs, then CD's? How do you keep it together financially?

ER: It began as a group in the late 80's. I incorporated the school in 1994. I always recorded the kids. It was a fun thing to do. It is a good teaching tool and a motivator. We always sold the tapes to raise money for projects like trips to Mexico. We always did gigs. And I always took them seriously. I am sure I exasperated many by insisting on respectful treatment for the group even from the very beginning. Little by little people, including some key people, started taking it seriously as well. Financially, I have always just cobbled together funding piece by piece. I did not pay myself well for a very long time. And since I was working with kids, they did not require too much pay. Things are different now that the core group is older - not to mention me. But it is still a struggle.

AC: I spoke to Linda Ronstadt, who adores you, and she tells me she is on your board of directors; tell me about Linda, your board and why she loves you guys?

ER: We first met Linda when we were playing for change in the streets of SF in 1993. It was an accident. She really loved what we were doing and made that year's trip to Mexico possible with a generous donation. She respects the quality of our work and the fact that we are addressing contemporary issues, like immigration, with a strong and authentic voice. She also is a great advocate for participatory culture ÔÇô that people should not delegate music to the professionals. That all people must get involved with the creation of art and culture. That is what we are doing. She is a terrific mentor.

AC: In 1996 you were nominated for a Grammy with Los Lobos and Lalo Guerrero. Has that been the highlight of your career so far? What was "Papa's Dream" all about?

ER: Papa's Dream was my first professional recording. It was very important to me. It was the highlight of 1996! However, I would not say that has been the highlight of my career. There has been too much going on. Working with David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Linda Ronstadt and others. These are some high highlights that are good to remember. But the highlight is really always the next project I am about to embark upon. Love that feeling of anticipation and preparation.

AC: What is your relationship with Los Lobos? They, too, seemed to down play rock star mega-millions by doing an all traditional Mexican album after La Bamba. Why?

ER: I respect Los Lobos a great deal. They created the blueprint for Mexican musicians. They embrace the Mexican - that is cool. And they don't let anyone pigeon hole them or bring them down. They keep innovating with courage and respect.

AC: How has your music and culturally instructive methods affected the lives of young people and the community at large?

ER: I think we have influenced a lot of lives. The Bay Area music scene is filled with musicians who grew up in our program. They play a wide variety of musical styles. There are many more alumni who don't play music professionally but whose lives were affected deeply by our program. We believe in our students. We support them and keep them moving on a path of personal growth as long as they are with us. We challenge them to challenge themselves. And we do all of this within a cultural framework that is part of us - it is our heritage. For the community at large I think we are showing what is possible. I think we are a source of pride. And they know that we will be there and they can come and be part of it. We have a lot of children of alumni coming in now. It is a beautiful thing.

AC: Tell us about the group Los Cenzontles. What does it mean and how has the group changed? How have the gigs have gotten better over the years and what are some of the more memorable gigs?

ER: Los Cenzontles means "The Mockingbirds" - the bird of many voices. We play different styles of music (as the mockingbird sings songs from different birds) in order to strengthen our voice. The group changes with every new person. Every person contributes something very special. The gigs have always been exciting for that particular time.

Highlights include performing for 18,500 people at the Hollywood Bowl for the Bienvenido Gustavo (Dudamel) celebration. Wow! Performing in Europe with The Chieftains and Ry Cooder was life changing. But not all our highlights are in grand arenas. Recently we were asked to play for migrant workers who tend horses at a local racetrack. They live in deplorable conditions. There are no cooking facilities or decent bathrooms. However, many of these workers rarely leave the premises. Playing for them, them singing along or dancing, was very meaningful to us. We can't change these conditions but we can console people for some brief moments. That is something memorable.

AC: How many CD's do you have out? Tell a little about each one and what you were trying to accomplish? Videos?

ER: I think we have 18 or 19 CD's now. Some are very traditional, others are original, and others mix cultural traditions. I love them all. We are trying to show the beauty, power and dignity of Mexican and Mexican American culture - the real culture - the culture that we live daily - not the glossy stuff you see on TV. We have made three documentaries that are designed to show our journey into the past and inspire others. We are now making music videos - lots of them!

AC: Who have you worked with over the years and who do you hope to collaborate with in the future?

ER: We have collaborated with many wonderful folks artists that are not so well known from many valuable traditions. Julian Gonzalez of the traditional mariachi, Atilano Lopez, Purepecha artist of Michoac?ín, Santiago Jimenez Jr. of San Antonio, and Mono Blanco of Veracruz, to name a few. We have also collaborated with Los Lobos, The Chieftains (San Patricio CD), Linda Ronstadt, Saul Hernandez of Jaguares, Taj Mahal on our American Horizon CD, and Ry has been very generous with us. He is a smart man with excellent instincts and an original ear. David Hidalgo is brilliant and soulful. We have also worked with the legendary filmmaker Les Blank on a few music videos. Collaborations - I love them the best.

AC: What would be the ideal tour? What are places you hope to play someday? What about doing a reality TV show?

ER: We would love to go to Europe again. But this time, all over Europe. Reality show? I am not so sure about that. I imagine that the producers would try to provoke problems. We have our problems, but we'd rather resolve them in-house and not for entertainment purposes.

AC: How has New Media, and social networking effect the way you do things? Does it make it easier and are you teaching the kids?

ER: I think it is great. I work pretty fast, so the social network world is good for us. Last year I composed my song Estado de Verguenza about the Arizona SB 1070 fiasco in a few days, made a video in two days and got it up on You Tube in a few hours. Soon after, I am told, the song was blasting at protests in various cities. How cool is that?

AC: As an artist, what are some of your personal goals? What are the goals of the school and of the band?

ER: My personal goal is to keep growing artistically. The goal of the school is to find sustainability for the future. The goal of the band is to keep creating cool music with more and more input from each and every member.

AC: If everything went 100% right, what would be the perfect future in actualizing your vision?

ER: That all people, include Mexican Americans, can reach in and find the best of themselves, then exchange that with the best of others in order to fulfill our promise as a society and as a world.

AC: What would you like your legacy to be and how do you want the world to remember you?

ER: I don't feel quite ready to answer that question. Ask me in five years! LOL!!!

AC: How can people find out more about you and maybe purchase CD's and merchandise?

www.loscenzontles.com

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