Y La Bamba

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Y La Bamba is an enigmatic indie folk-pop project fronted and led by singer and songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza. With vocals sung in both English and Spanish, her group’s sound weds Mexican folk styles from mariachi, nueva canciones, and norteño to trippy American folk-rock and dreamy indie pop with songs that center on themes of spirituality, romantic and familial love, and social justice. While Y La Bamba’s earlier releases showcased a sound that flitted effortlessly between airy, raw indie rock to lo-fi, post-psychedelic Americana, 2012′s Court the Storm fully integrated Mexican cumbia and nuevo canciones into the mix. Y La Bamba continued to expand their idiosyncratic musical approach on albums like 2019′s defiant Mujeres and 2023′s Lucha.
Mendoza was born in San Francisco to parents who had emigrated from Michoacan, Mexico. She was raised in Southern Oregon and spent her childhood summers in California’s San Joaquin Valley with cousins. There she absorbed the melodies, three part-harmonies, and folktales of traditional Mexican mariachis and canciones. In 2003, she took a trip to India where she fell ill. It was there that she developed the expansive spiritual world view that would inform her music.
She moved first to Ashland, where she worked as a solo performer. There she encountered like-minded bandmates and formed Y La Bamba. They relocated to Portland and home-recorded an album entitled Alida St., which was issued in 2008. Though credited to Y La Bamba, it was essentially a Mendoza solo effort. The Decemberists’ Chris Funk produced the follow-up Lupon, the band’s debut for Tender Loving Empire. By the time it was released in 2010, almost the entire lineup had changed. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos produced, engineered, and played on 2012′s Court the Storm. The album drew universally positive critical reviews. NPR featured the recording prominently, giving the band wide exposure. It was considered one of 2012′s best indie albums. A six-track mini-album entitled Oh February was issued in early 2013. Y La Bamba toured extensively throughout the rest of the year and well into 2014.
Berlin introduced Mendoza to Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza (no relation). The pair formed the duo Los Hijos de la Montaña and issued a self-titled Latin-inspired album on Cosmica in mid-2015. The same year, Luz Elena undertook songwriting partnerships with Lila Downs and Edna Vasquez. Y La Bamba returned to the studio with Mendoza in the producer’s chair. Working with composer Richie Greene to craft a new, stripped-down sonic palette, she played guitar throughout and utilized the talents of frequent collaborator Nick Delffs (Shaky Hands, Death Songs) on percussion. Ojos del Sol was issued in September of 2016. The album landed at number ten on the Heatseekers chart and at 20 on the Americana/Folk Album charts. In February of 2019, Mendoza and Y La Bamba returned with Mujeres, a deeply personal collection delving into her heritage and upbringing as well as unpacking weighty emotional topics in the context of the post-2016 election’s social and political climate. Dedicated to her mother, Mujeres was the first Y La Bamba album produced by Mendoza. It was meant to uplift other women who also struggle in a patriarchal society. After its release, Mendoza relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico because, as she told Rolling Stone:”…it was time… I feel there is healing that needs to be done, as well as a letting go. What I find there is something that I haven’t been able to truly meet in the Northwest.” In September, Y La Bamba followed Mujeres with a seven-song sister EP entitled Entre Los Dos (“Between the Two”). Though taped in Portland, the cathartic recording explored the personal, social, and cultural tensions of her co-existence in both Mexico and the U.S.
A two-song single release, “Mariposa De Coalcom​á​n” and “La Última Vez,” appeared on the Sub Pop label in April 2020, though it would be another three years until Mendoza readied the band’s next album. Y La Bamba’s seventh LP, Lucha, was released in April 2023. A rangy and sometimes sprawling set recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown, Lucha explored themes of intimacy, family, and loneliness as well as queer, Chicanx, and Mexican American identity. ~ Thom Jurek