I first encountered Gina Chavez in a tiny venue in San Francisco and began following her career and her incredible personal story. Chavez is a bilingual Latin-folk singer/songwriter from Austin, Texas, part of the American Latin Music genre that I love. She blends the sounds of the Americas - cumbia, bossa nova, pop, reggaeton, folk, rock – whatever – into earworm songs, some with pointed social commentary and stories of hardship and bravery. And she has put her body where her lyrics are, volunteering to work with poor people in a very dangerous El Salvador. Her latest independent release, Uprooted, topped the iTunes and Amazon Latin charts. I was fortunate enough to talk with her from her tour while she was in New Mexico, heading for a concert in Hollywood, Saturday night at the Hotel Café.
Patrick. There are so many great songs on this album – “all thrillers and no fillers”, as we say in the music business. One song on the album, Soy Quien Soy, “I am who I am” popped out immediately when I listened to the album. Does this album and that song mark a turning point in your life, one so powerful that that you wanted to make this statement?
Gina. It is really funny – our strengths are sometimes our weaknesses and our weaknesses sometimes our strengths. I wrote that when I was in a songwriting group and the assignment was to write a song out of our comfort zone – different genre, language, etc. I wrote that because I hadn’t written a song in Spanish in a really long time and it just sort of came out. I started playing the chords and the words just popped out of my mouth. Sometimes I lament the fact that I wasn’t born in Spain or Mexico and I have to learn the language and the music of South America. But the chorus reminds me that I am exactly who I am supposed to be. I am very blessed with my journey and I hope to share some of those blessings with other people.
Patrick. As I said in the introduction, one of the things that makes you so appealing to me is that you put your body where your lyrics are in your journey. Your song “SIETE-D” is about the bus line you rode while you were in El Salvador. What was that time like?
Gina. My girlfriend and I spent 8 months doing mission work in one of the strongholds of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, but we were surrounded by so many loving people I felt safe. We were teaching English in a girls school run by nuns and I felt that we received so much more love than we could have possibly given. The song is about that experience and a tribute to the Salvadoran people who are some of the most generous and accepting and loving people I have met even though they are dealing with some of the worst times I can imagine.
Patrick. In addition to this song, your time in El Salvador also inspired a foundation that you created. Please tell us about it.
Gina. We started a college fellowship fund, Niñas Arriba. It supports four girls that we lived with in the boarding school and we got to know them really well, like our sisters. We started the funds to help seniors and we have added another girl so we have four students receiving scholarships to a private, Catholic university for girls, all through the help of friends and fans. As we travel on tour we talk about it and people support everywhere. Go to my website ginachavez.com, and click on College Fund. It is tax deductible and all funds go directly to the school.
Patrick. Let’s get back to music. your father played the guitar – or at least he owned a martin guitar which you appropriated. but I understand that you also had a kind of music epiphany in Buenos Aries, listing to music. what was that?
Gina. I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but not much Latin much. I was in Argentina on a summer program at the University of Texas. I was hanging out with friends at a restaurant and this band gets on stage in a packed house and begins plying a certain rhythm called la chacarera and everyone clapped. It was an Argentine folk rhythm and it still makes my heart beat. That started my journey to discover my Latin roots – my dad was Mexican, my mom Swiss-German but I am third generation Texan. So that was it.
Patrick. You play the charango, which for my listeners, is a kind of 10 –string Andean lute. I understand that it is not easy to learn or even to tune? What motivated you to pick it up?
Gina. I first heard the charango in Argentina and it is very typical of Andean music when you hear it. It is a tiny instrument wo so much sound. It is a very robust instrument. When I went to El Salvador I had one made for me by a luthier there. And I am still learning how to play it. I get away with it because most people don’t know how to play it. I am on a journey to learn how to play the charango.
Patrick. My favorite song on the album talks about how distant policy can destroy local lives. This song is Maize – corn. One of the side effects of the NAFTA treaty, how it allowed subsidized US corn into Mexico bankrupting thousands of corn farmers who then immigrated to the U.S. to finds jobs. Where did that song come from?
Gina. I met a man, Armando, whose family was one of those Mexican corn farmers and he told me the story. I did not know about this effect of NAFTA and I was angered as an American with Mexican roots that we could sign a treaty that could do so much harm. The chorus is one of my favorite parts because it turns the song into hope – about the uplifting resilience of the Mexican people – and of people from other parts of South America.
Patrick. You recently recorded an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. What was that like?
Gina. We very fortunate to record and release one just recently We recorded three songs in front of a live offices in the NPR audiences. Our music is somewhat interactive so people were screaming along. People can see by going to my website or Google NPR Tiny Desk and my name. It is also on NPR’s website. Or go to YouTube and search for it.
Patrick. Gina, I look forward to seeing you at the Hotel Café tomorrow. Thank you.
Gina. Thank you.