But the territory and its stories live deep inside her voice - one that is eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head-knowing with more than a little fight in it. "I come from a musical family. Singers. My mother always humming songs on the radio.
And they were all in Spanish," says Arvizu, "But that's how I learned: "Get Daddy's guitar and I'll teach you. First how to strum and then the fingering on the neck. . .
" These fine points - large and small, both in lyrics and in musical motifs - form the foundation of Arvizu's new album, "Friend For Life." It is a trip through those old environs, made new, in a dozen autobiographical songs - sung both in Spanish and English - the greater part co-written by Arvizu and her collaborator, keyboardist, Joey Navarro; the album produced by Ry Cooder. "The world has changed," says Cooder. And with it, its shifts, its evolution, "We've moved away from certain qualities that made music great, made it widely appealing." One of the things lost, he notes, "was that beautiful romantic sensibility. It is a sound of the past like gospel singing or like blues." Consequently, a voice that feels untouched, unharmed "is someone who has been in a time warp, somebody who has been isolated, protected from contamination," he says. "Here in Los Angeles, it's less likely, less available, where everything is hurtling forward in time and away - from these moods, these articulations - as fast as you can possibly go." There is an insight that comes only with stillness, contemplativeness.
It can't be manufactured or contrived. "It's an inner-voice that is expansive and expressive," he says. It inspires something softer, something that "allows for a lot of space and room for personality. You got it and saw it - it was individual, tremendously expressive.
And it also gave the listener the opportunity to be part of the conjuring." And he found all that in Arvizu. "Friend for Life" recalls that long-turned page: A different L.A., a different storytelling-in-song sensibility. Arvizu grew up in East L.A., on the other side of the bridge, in a neighborhood known by its ruling street gang's name, Maravilla. At an early age, her mother, who struggled to keep her six children safe - which meant close-by - taught her and her brothers and sisters how to play guitar and blend their voices singing. "Mostly ranchera and mariachi style," Arvizu remembers.
"We would go to parties to sing and I could remember that my feet didn't even hit the ground. But I was always wanting to rush through the song so I can go out to play - dodge ball, kick the can, football with the guys." Eventually they were singing before fights at the Olympic Auditorium, the stage, at show's conclusion, littered with money - bills and coins. By high school, three of the sisters - Ersi and her siblings Rosella and Mary - would eventually become known beyond the borders of East L.A. "The Sisters" singing at dances at the El Monte Legion Stadium or the Paramount Ballroom or afternoon parties around East L.A.
"I used to climb the tree, so they couldn't find me, my sister would have to put my nylons on. I so hated going." (a ritual detailed in "El Arbol") They signed with Bob Keane's Del-Fi Records, (Ritchie Valens' label) and found themselves on bills with Tina Turner and the Righteous Brothers and Caesar and Cleo (later to be known as Sonny and Cher), quickly charting with singles, "Gee Baby Gee" and "Ooh Pooh Pah Doo." Hitting No. 3 on the Top Ten with "Gee Baby Gee, "Until the Supremes came with "Where Did Our Love Go" - and boom - it knocked us out." But in her imagination singing was no competition for boxing. "My Dad had a gym at the back of our home," she recalls, where he trained boys from around the neighborhood how to feint and jab - to fight their way out of circumstance.
But, "He wouldn't let me in because it was a man's sport, and I was a little girl." So she drilled holes in the gym wall and watched them; slipped in after-hours and hit the speed bag and shadow boxed. (A remembrance detailed in, "Windows of Dreams"). "I loved to see them spar. I just liked the art.
I learned in this sport: You could be the strongest guy and you could have a skinny old guy - but if you had the brains you can beat 'em." Forever sidelined - or so it seemed - she sunk her hopes into singing. After performing in a string of ensembles post-The Sisters - a series of garage bands and then a spot singing with a band called the Village Callers, Arvizu was lured away to a group called, the V.I.P.s who would soon come to be known as El Chicano. Ersi sang on the band's second, non-instrumental album, "Revolucion" - which featured "Sabor a Mi" and "I'm a Good Woman," both of which, in their own ways, evolved into Eastside anthems. But soon after, she parted ways with the band.
"Too much drinking, too much drugs, too much, too much. . ." all around her. "I couldn't take all of that." For a time, she put together her own small bands, gigged around town and up and down the state, but a sort of restlessness set in.
She even spent some time in the ring ("I was 4 and 0. That's four knockouts.") Until her parents caught wind of it. "I guess I just had to get it out of my system," says Arvizu, "but I didn't' want to disgrace them." She ultimately broke ties with California, settling in Arizona. She moved in with a friend, drove a truck for FedEx and was content to train young fighters and put music - professionally speaking, behind.
"I just needed a rest from everything." Until Cooder came looking. It was 2004 and he was mid-work on his album "Chavez Ravine," a cycle of songs re-telling the saga of another old Los Angeles neighborhood, and the politically charged wrangling over what it would ultimately become. He was looking for a particular voice, a particular point of view - and it had to sound authentic, of its time and possess sense of place. But he was road-blocked. "I was looking for Miss Chavez Ravine," says Cooder, who was creating a story from a collage of representative voices: He had Lalo Guerrero, the venerable father of Chicano music, bandleader Don Tosti, who set in motion the "Pachuco Boogie" craze; and Little Willie G.
of Thee Midniters, "Even Willie, to a certain extent, hadn't changed a bit," says Cooder. "He was a product of that soul thing in the 60s and 70s. But who is Miss Chavez Ravine?" Cooder retreated to his books. He found her in a section about "The Sisters" in a volume about the East L.A.
sound; there was something about the photograph: "A look in the eyes said it all: 'This is what I'm doing.' You can see it. That certain look in the face." He dug up an old CD and heard something promising, "a rough voice, the slow laid back delivery." "I hope it's her - I hope it's that one." Some phone calls, good leads and some knotty negotiations, eventually unearthed her. He located her in a rehearsal studio in East L.A., while she was working on some songs for an El Chicano reunion. He sat back, listened - "The microphone doesn't lie.
She had the voice, the voice the microphone wants," says Cooder, "The voice that moves you." Ultimately, for Arvizu, "Chavez Ravine" was just the prelude. "Friend for Life" is her story. That experience behind the microphone once more had warmed something inside her, got her thinking differently - about music again - and how it had imprinted itself on her and her life. Surrounded, fittingly, by old friends - Joey Navarro, guitarist Mickey Lespron (also one of the founding members of El Chicano) and percussionist Johnny Sandoval, newer friends like bassist Rene Camacho and trombonist Francisco Torres; and even a couple of cameos by her sisters Mary Rey and Rosella Barraza ("Angel de Mil Voces" and "El Arbol"), "Friend for Life" is Arvizu's story strung into a dozen songs.
Hers is a life that has traveled an unlikely arc: It's about survival, "the fight" both literally and metaphorically. It's a scrapbook of compromises, disappointments and love, old haunts and new friends and joy all conveyed in a voice that's not just reliving old stories, but still sorting through the emotions - something insistent, alive. "That's the voice. And it's the best thing going.
I can't tell you how rare it is," says Cooder. "It's about where you're located emotionally." In Arvizu's imagination, it's something rooted and timeless, something without ornament or affectation; stripped-down, simple - an act of recollection: "Mine is a true story," says Arvizu, "And what comes through is all these avenues I've gone through." Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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