It’s easy to talk about an artist’s growth as a series of musical decisions: an expanding sonic palette, a change in mood or tempo, an escape from the trappings of genre. It’s harder to talk about an artist’s personal—or even spiritual—growth, because that kind of progress is hard to track. Until, that is, an album like Y La Bamba’s Ojos Del Sol comes along and screams of radical transformation on every level. The Portland act’s fourth offering is a sweeping, playful and vulnerable collection that’s ripe with both musical and personal discovery. From the intimate, contemplative verses of the Spanish-language title track to the revelations delivered over the loping beats of “Ostrich,” this is an album that’s painstakingly produced while remaining emotionally raw.
Throughout the collection, Y La Bamba frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza returns to themes of searching and metamorphosis. On one level, this is born from the Y La Bamba frontwoman’s continuing exploration of her identity as Mexican woman. Both of Mendoza’s parents grew up in Mexico—Luz was born in San Francisco, then brought up in a strict Catholic household in Southern Oregon. She spent her childhood summers playing in the orchards of California’s San Joaquin Valley with her cousins, and it was there that she soaked up the melodies and stories that were being told through traditional folk songs with three-part harmonies. These are sounds that remain a vital building block of the songs on Ojos Del Sol, an album which she says represents “a celebration of family and community.”
But on another level, Ojos Del Sol is about Luz’s search for shared humanity outside of her own community, and for a faith that is greater than just religion. These are themes that run throughout Y La Bamba’s body of work work—with roots in a 2003 journey to India, which found Mendoza falling ill and trading her Christianity for something broader—but there’s a maturity to Ojos Del Sol that speaks to true, lasting transformation. You can hear this on the lush “Kali,” where she sings—with wonderment rather than fear—that “to know yourself is to lose everything.” And you can hear it on the album’s epic closer, “Ulysses,” where Mendoza sings that her life is “written in sand and ash and stone.”
These are songs built to soundtrack coming to grips not just with one’s own mortality, but with the fragility of the world. This is heady, emotional fare, and “this record is about being a mother to these emotions,” Mendoza says.
Her clarity of voice is intimately tied to a renewed musical approach, which Luz attributes to a greater self-awareness that developed through recent collaborations with singer-songwriters Edna Vazquez and Lila Downs, as well as an exploration of mariachi, cumbia, and Latin pop with Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza—no relation—on a collaborative 2015 album released under the name Los Hijos De La Montaña.
Those collaborations helped Mendoza find her own voice as a more confident producer and songwriter on an album that is often a stripped-down affair. Mendoza plays guitar throughout Ojos Del Sol, and worked actively with composer Richie Greene to create a new sonic voice. Percussion from another regular Mendoza collaborator, Nick Delffs (Shaky Hands, Death Songs), is a welcome near-constant that adds depth and soul to the album. To that same end, Mendoza hand-cut stencil art pieces, which appear in Ojos Del Sol’s liner notes, to pair with each new song. All of this is presented as a cohesive offering, an entry in Y La Bamba’s ongoing musical conversation about community, about the self, and about survival.
“I am thankful for all of my hardships,” Mendoza says in the album’s liner notes. “They have guided me to find rest in my soul, time after time. Over and over again.”