In 2001 Jorge Ledezma was playing synths in Defender with his older brother, Angel, on drums and their friend Gabor Meszaros also on synths. I'd probably seen them open for dozens of indie and punk bands by then—like hundreds of bands in Chicago, they had enough juice to snag a good support slot, but not to headline. But at around that time Jorge decided to stop competing with those bands—he wanted to leapfrog past them, and the ones they were opening for too. He set his sights on the lofty heights occupied by universally recognized pop geniuses like Brian Wilson.
The catalyst was a song he was recording with Defender called "El Movimiento." It had strayed from their Krautrock-inspired synth-punk style, and he and Angel thought it would be better served by their side project, Allá, whose much more organic sound marries colorful psych pop and Mexican folk. Gradually the Defender album they were working on became Allá's in-progress debut, and the side project became their focus. Jorge, then 24, decided that the Allá record would be his "do-or-die moment."
"The plan was, if I was going to make one record, this would be my record," he says. "And I'd spend as much time and as much money as I had to." To finance it, he asked for, and got, a promotion to manager at Whole Foods and gave up his Wicker Park apartment to move back in with his parents in Wheeling. Now, seven years and roughly $40,000 later, the Allá album is out. Es Tiempo was released Tuesday by Crammed Discs, the Belgian label best known in America for releasing music by Kinshasa street band Konono No. 1.
Jorge's plan may sound quixotic, but Es Tiempo sounds amazing. The songs' ratio of hooky pop to artsy experimentation hits the sweet spot where you can almost hear that an indie record's gonna blow up. Jorge and Angel spent about two months tracking and two weeks mixing, in quality local studios like Soma and Clava as well as out-of-town digs like Key Club in Benton Harbor and Tambourine in Malmo, Sweden. Jorge plays mostly guitars, Angel mostly drums, and Lupe Martinez, who joined when the album was almost done, handles lead vocals, but there are loads of overdubs—everything from jaw harp to turntables—and nearly two dozen other players on the record. The live band is usually a six-piece, with a bassist, keyboardist, and percussionist, but for Friday's release party at Schubas they're going nuts—Jorge promises "a lot of crazy shit," including a string section, a horn section, a quadraphonic sound system, and a 60s-style liquid light show.
Musicians who sink a small fortune and years of their lives into an album face the danger of ending up with something overworked and sterile, but despite intricate layers of strings, percussion, keys, and electronics on Es Tiempo, the arrangements are beautifully uncluttered and airy. Having cleared that hurdle, though, the Ledezmas are headed straight for another: All the songs on the record are in Spanish. There aren't even English translations in the lyric sheet. "I knew that if I make a record and it's going to be serious," says Jorge, "it's gotta be personal." And if it was going to be personal, it had to be in Spanish.
"Being in the indie/emo scene back in the day, all of those Fireside shows and Lounge Ax shows, my brother and I were always the only Latinos. You'd see the odd black guy there—y'know, Damon Locks or whatever," he says. "My brother and I always thought, 'There's gotta be more kids like us.' I mean, sure, we fit in with all our white suburban weird kids, but we were still another minority amongst them. We were still dealing with our own stereotypes about being Mexican-American. We had Mexicans in our own school telling us we weren't Mexican enough. How do you prove that?"
But it's those white suburban weird kids who'll most likely end up deciding Allá's fate, since so far the band has its best foothold in the indie-rock scene. That's a chancy proposition. Allá transforms traditional Mexican music—especially the combination of lushly harmonized folk melodies and Spanish-influenced guitar made famous by groups like the legendary Trio Los Panchos—into psychedelic confections, much the way Os Mutantes did with Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean styles in the 60s. But white Americans have a blind spot when it comes to Mexican music, even in the normally curious indie-rock scene. Konono No. 1 can pack the Logan Square Auditorium with their electrified version of the Congolese masikulu style, and Sigur Ros can entrance the same crowd with lyrics in a completely invented language—but many white record geeks, myself included, get our primary exposure to Mexican music from the stereos of passing cars and our neighbors' backyard barbecues.
Jorge has at least a partial explanation for that lack of interest. "Besides traditional music," he says, "there isn't a lot of good Mexican music." Compounding the problem, he explains, is the near monopoly that conservative megacorporations Univision and Telemundo have over Spanish-speaking mass media in the U.S.—only the glossiest, most denatured pap gets aired. Meanwhile, pockets of progressive Latino music languish in isolation across the continent like, well, Mexican punks standing by themselves at a Fireside show. To galvanize the fragmented Latino indie scene, Jorge figures he needs to follow the advice another Latino indie rocker gave him: "Go for the white kids, man. If you wanna get to the Latinos you gotta get the white kids first."
If there is a Latino-indie revolution brewing in this country (and I'm really rooting for one), Allá belongs in the vanguard. Martinez's vocals nail the combination of romanticism, ennui, and gutsiness that women in Ibero-American musical traditions have been perfecting for centuries, and the brothers have an almost eerie ability to balance cerebral experimentation (tricky meters that still groove, songs that dissolve into odd ambient drones) with structures and gestures lifted from Mexican folk and American pop. Any Os Mutantes comparisons are well deserved—both groups get real far-out but still come off tropical-drink breezy—but Allá's palette might be even broader, including bits of everything from Krautrock to hip-hop.
In the States, the simple act of making a Spanish-language record that isn't intended for an exclusively Latino audience is political, because millions of Americans are afflicted with Lou Dobbs-style xenophobia. And Jorge has gone further than that: many of the lyrics he wrote for Martinez address immigration issues, or living as a Mexican in white culture. But Es Tiempo is so ravishing sonically that maybe nothing else will matter—and anyway, the indie audience has already embraced bands with much more explicitly radical lyrics.
Despite his personal investment in the politics of the album, Jorge mostly just hopes people respond to the music. "I wanna get a Grammy for this record," he says. "It deserves a Grammy. Even if it's a Latin/alternative fucking Grammy, it deserves it."v
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