She's on a return journey home from Greece, standing in line for a connecting flight at LaGuardia Airport. In front of her is a gentleman holding what appears to be a set of skis.
Yet there's something that doesn't quite add up about the scene. Upon closer inspection, she notices that the shafts poking out of his canvas case are wooden; too thin and too long to be associated with the winter sport.
Curiosity might've killed the cat, but for Nacha Mendez, satisfaction brought it back. "Excuse me sir," she says, placing a hand on the stranger's shoulder. "I don't mean to be intrusive, but what is that you're putting through luggage?"
He smiles and carefully parts the fabric, revealing a gourd wrapped in calf skin. Two handles run under the resonating chamber--where a long hardwood neck with two divided ranks of strings is notched into a bridge.
It looks like an ancient harp, some musical relic from yesteryear picked up by a time traveler on his way through an airport.
"It's my kora," he tells Mendez with a smile. "It's an African instrument." "You're going to send it through luggage like that?" she asks, incredulous. "You're not afraid that it's going to crack and break into pieces?" This time he laughs.
"I've been doing this for years," he says. "It has still never been broken." Both traveling musicians, they swapped contact info and parted ways. As her plane left the runway, Mendez reflected upon what the strange man told her. He must have a guardian angel, she thought. Dipping through the clouds, the songwriter dreamt of her own celestial heavens. The traditional images surfaced from old Italian paintings, but the images of beauty were contrasted by feelings of discomfort. Why do angels have to be white with blonde hair playing ivory instruments? She thought about the Gambian man from the airport, with his dark skin and patchwork clothes. He could be an angel, playing his African harp to the stars.
Mendez looked over the piece of paper with his name written on it. Foday Musa Suso. It would take a week or so for Mendez to realize the magnitude of her surprise encounter. As it turns out, Suso is a world-renowned kora player who has collaborated with legends such as Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Ginger Baker, Philip Glass, and Pharoah Sanders, among others. Suso even contributed his music to the Olympic Games in 1984 and 2004.
While Mendez ruminated on the significance of this, her inner songwriting desires started churning. "From all of these thoughts, a song came to my head," Mendez tells BTR. "A traditional song from Mexico, close to where I come from."
The song is "Angelitos Negros," or "Black Angels." Mendez took to arranging piano for her rendition, and then sent the tracks to Suso in Seattle, where he plucked the strings of his kora and returned the completed composition. Melanie Monsour's solo piano, Suso's solo kora, and a duet of the two made the final cut on Mendez's most recent album of the same name, produced by Steve Peters.
Listening, it's incredible to hear how seamless the interplay between instruments becomes. Piano chords tiptoe around harp glissandos that spill like diamonds under the warm lull of Mendez's voice. If the song is an angelic work, there's clearly more than one angel playing.
The record is another unique milestone in a long line of musical accomplishments and rich diversity of collaborations that Mendez has made possible over the years. She's created garage rock with her family, played in a salsa band, studied flamenco guitar under the tutelage of Manuel Granados, and traveled with Robert Ashley's avant-garde Opera Company.
With so much musical variety, it's hard to believe Mendez began her musical upbringing in the quiet seclusion of a farm in New Mexico. Her little fingers would twist the radio dials until she could tap into a nearby FM station. Joni Mitchell was a personal favorite. Out of all the genres she plays, however, Latin music continues to be her most revered.
"It's my favorite because it's so diverse," Mendez says. "I'll really like a song, and then find out it's from Argentina or Chile or Mexico or Cuba--and that's not even getting into the rhythms."
Discovery Artist- Nacha Mendez
By Zack Shepis 2015
BreakThrough Radio BTR
This is a terrific and unusual project that ties together many strands of Latin music, with shades of flamenco, banda, tango, rumba, bolero, Cuban, Chicano rock, blues, Middle-eastern, adult contemporary, Cape Verde, even spoken word. If that sounds schizophrenic, fear not. It's not about a singer who can't make up her mind, but one who understands the common threads of all of these elements and is able to tie them together in a way that makes sense.
First, there is the voice. The woman can sing. She has a huge emotional range, and if the feeling sometimes overshoots the technique, be glad for it. Thankfully she has more in common with Chavela Vargas than with Gloria Estefan in that regard - I'll take that raw authenticity over glitz any day.
Then there are the songs. Stylistically this is all over the map: "Esperame" is a breezy pop tune with a catchy trumpet hook worthy of Burt Bacharach (think Everything But the Girl en español); "Llave de Oro" is a mid-tempo ballad with a flamenco tinge; the title track is a lush, cinematic ballad just waiting to be in an Almodóvar film (¿estás escuchando, Pedro?); "Ventile" is the emotional centerpiece, a heartbreaking tango-esque bolero that miraculously crosses Mercedes Sosa with Billie Holiday; "Libertad" has an upbeat Cape Verdean vibe, with jaunty clarinet solos, joyful accordion, and lots of rhythm; "Illusion" is a classic Chicano rocker with smoking Santana-style lead guitar; "Mano Oscura" nails the Mexican banda sound in a corrido mourning the many murdered and disappeared women in Juarez; "Malagueña" is a classic tune that has thrived throughout the Spanish diaspora, here given a driving Nuevo Flamenco treatment; "Mi Sueño" is a spoken word piece (in English) in the surreal tradition of Garcia-Marquez or Isabel Allende, a dark dream with drumming crickets, singing trees, whispering stones, magical birds; "Canción Mixteca" is the classic Mexican lament for a lost homeland in a stripped-down arrangment for acoustic bass, atmospheric electric guitars, and a lone wistful trumpet.
Finally, there is the band. Nacha is backed here by an all-star group of musicians drawn from every corner of the music scene in her native New Mexico: the Black Brothers (her cousins, sons of ex-Mother of Invention Jimmy Carl Black) on guitar and percussion; writing partner/arranger and pianist Melanie Monsour; brilliant trumpeter Mando Alvillar; jazz bass great David Parlato; Middle-eastern drum master Polly Tapia-Ferber; free jazz guitar/oud explorer Stefan Dill; fiery young flamenco guitarist Joaquin Gallegos; nouveau cabaret accordionist Ron Romanovsky; and many other great local talents.
If you like k.d. lang, Ottmar Liebert, Gypsy Kings, or earthy Latin divas such as Lila Downs, Perla Batalla, Liliana Felipe, Susana Baca, Cesaria Evora, Lydia Mendoza, Juana Molina et al, then Nacha Mendez is someone you should hear.
Reviewed by Steve Peters 2007