Luz Elena Mendoza & Y La Bamba 

Heavy Heart: Luz Elena Mendoza’s music pierces deep.

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Luz Elena Mendoza’s voice is like out of a fairy tale—operatic, floating. And the creative force behind Portland, Ore.,’s Y La Bamba certainly has artistic, princess-in-the-rough aesthetic sensibilities. On top of it all, a white, fluffy, polydactyl cat named La Bamba—the band’s namesake—helped save her sanity while recovering from a severe illness several years ago.

However, for now, the 28-year-old’s story doesn’t include Prince Charming, just question marks.

Her music—lush, melodious, minimal—hints of Mexican summers and worldly apparition, yet remains accessible. Deep, earthy instrumentation builds and drops with dramatic flair, as do the two- and three-part harmonies—especially with bassist Ben Meyercord—that meld together like cream and honey. Their 2010 full-length debut, Lupon, produced by The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, reveals this.

Mendoza’s life has no shortage of symbolism: Lupon’s cover art has La Bamba the cat as the “third eye” in a rendering of her grandfather—a Mexican farm worker from a devout Catholic home; her skin is full of allegorical tattoos; her colorful house, decorated with skulls and bones, is called The Purple Church.

As Mendoza waxes esoterically and spiritually about life purposes and music, she’s, understandably, at times tongue-tied. However, she’s articulate about her hopes for music and humanity.

“We can offer each other our deepest songs and prayers, express ourselves in our deepest core and be open,” Mendoza says. “If I’m doing this, I have nothing to lose. I want to say what’s in my heart.”

Her quixotic approach comes from overcoming illness. Lupon’s recent single, “Juniper,” swells and pierces, alluding to this past—“My temple has been compromised/ I was meant to rise/ Six feet above my bed.” So does its accompanying video: A Mexican shaman heals Mendoza with incense and feathers, pulling her into a dream world, where spirit and real life are blurred.

“When [director Matthew Gamlen], who didn’t know my story, approached us with the idea, I just started to cry. This is exactly what happened to me [searching for any cure, anywhere]—to the T,” Mendoza says. “It supports my way of thinking: There can’t just be coincidences in life.”

Her illness is easy to focus on; however, it’s unnecessary, Mendoza says. “That’s what I went through when [the band] came out. It captures that real, raw moment, but that’s not what’s happening now.”

What is happening now is that, after four years in Portland, her whirlwind musical trajectory is moving faster than she’d like.

“When I started recording music, I was sick as fuck and just recorded on my computer, in my underwear, for me,” Mendoza says. “Then, somehow a band formed. I don’t even really know how it’s gotten so huge. I had no plan.”

Attention from Portland has percolated outward, but she’s hesitant about success. “I’m tired; it’s because I’m always hyperaware and sensitive. I don’t want to lose that strong, deep emotion that got it started.”

A more current and accurate portrayal of her life now will be documented when Y La Bamba, as a seven-piece, records a new album in January.

New songs—many in Spanish—showcase the personal and spiritual growth from her last recordings. Afterward, she says, she needs a respite, to visit family in California and Mexico, especially her father—they’ve had a troubled relationship, as documented in Lupon’s lyrics. “That’s the only way I know how to heal, to be a gypsy but not flee completely. I need to go and come back with my sanity,” she says. She’ll certainly also bring back inspiration, because those are her musical roots.

The only daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up harmonizing to folk songs in American farm fields by day, and by night would curl up and listen to Mexican folk records. “My vinyl collection is my Dad’s ’70s and ’80s polka,” Mendoza says. They subtly influence her sound, but mostly she’s attracted to their honesty. “In folk songs, there’s this amazing cry-out. I like the cry.”

“I’m moved by this music—the essence of where I’m from—and the heavy heart that made it,” Mendoza says. “Essentially, that’s why my music is like that, because it’s so heavy. I believe I’ve always had a heavy heart.” 

w/ Horse Feathers, Paul Jacobsen
Kilby Court
741 S. 330 West
Thursday Dec. 9, 7 p.m.

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