High Sierra: For Y La Bamba, music is conversation

Tahoe Onstage

Y La Bamba: Margaret Wehr, John Niekrasz, Luz Elena Mendoza, Grace Bugbee and Ryan Oxford.
Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

In between sets at the 2018 High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California, Y La Bamba sat down with Tahoe Onstage to discuss its growth as a band, music as a basic form of communication and the trials of patriarchal society.

When Y La Bamba plays multiple sets at festivals, it has the same set list, but changes the interludes and feelings.

“It’s in the moment,” frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza said. “We have a structure and know where we are going to go, but we let each other participate in their own way.”

Band members trust each other and view their time together as a learning experience. They are a collective organism that pools together influences and experiences to create something more.

Mendoza grew up listening to Boleros Rancheros and other Mexican folk music from Michoacán. She was also influenced by Mexican cumbia, ballads and pop music such as Los Humildes and Grupo Miramar. Later on, she found Sunny Day Real Estate, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Nirvana.

Guitarist Ryan Oxford loves African guitar music and ’60s/’70s music from all over the world.

By the age of 11, drummer John Niekrasz was putting together punk bands with the neighborhood kids. He studied Afro-Cuban hand drumming in Cuba and tabla for Hindustani music in the north of India. He’s also a writer and often will start with text then build rhythms around it.

Bassist Grace Bugbee played the cello as a kid. She surrounded herself with classical music and was in a fiddle group with her sister. She played steel drums in middle school and was influenced by the music of Trinidad. She turned to jazz, funk fusion and neo soul in high school, which sparked her love for improvisational music. She wrote her senior thesis on Björk, arguably the most complex and beautiful woman to ever live

Vocalist Margaret Wehr grew up listening to country and classical music. Mainstream pop helped pull her out of that world a little. Storytelling and singing harmonies shaped what she does musically to this day.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Wehr and Mendoza have a vocal kinship onstage and off. Mendoza’s first language was Spanish, Wehr’s wasn’t. When Wehr learns vocal parts, she can compartmentalize the rhythm from the meaning.

“The process is funny,” Wehr said. “(Mendoza) writes everything. I learn the rhythm and syllables first, then finally add meaning. Whereas Luz can’t separate it.”

They sing Spanish tongue twisters together — Mendoza writes them. Wehr learns them. Then Wehr teaches them back to their creator.

“I can’t memorize everything quickly,” Mendoza said. “She’s a rock for me. Her saying it helps me memorize and finish it.”

It’s powerful to hear two people share vocal parts together with pinpoint precision, but it’s special when they share the meaning, as well. Wehr researches Mendoza’s lyrics as homework for clarity, then asks her for a personal translation for emotion.

Knowing we are collectively trying to find a solution for how to make us feel safe and badass.”

“It makes a difference in how it feels,” Wehr said. “I don’t want to stand up there and not know what I’m saying. The meaning is so important in music.”

Mendoza describes her perfect show as “when you’re fucking up, but you just keep going and you’re smiling all the way.”

“My favorite part is knowing I’m not alone in that feeling,” Mendoza said. “I feel like I’m being supported.”

Y La Bamba played a show in San Luis Obispo full of bros during a $2 pint night. Instead of facing the audience, they found themselves circling and facing each other.

“That’s a perfect show,” Mendoza said. “Knowing we are collectively trying to find a solution for how to make us feel safe and badass.”

Mendoza and guitarist Oxford spend time between songs adjusting effect-pedal knobs. The feedback and swells lead them from track to track. They create music together, but the approach and intent can be applied to other parts of their lives, such as being bold and stepping out of their comfort zones.

“I feel grateful I can explore and feel trusted by the people I play music with,” Mendoza said. “You see a lot of magic happen when you engage that in other people. It becomes infectious.”

Mendoza said she’s a different person since her last High Sierra appearance in 2012.

“With my previous configuration, I was still learning about my artistry and contribution,” she said. “It worked and it was awesome, but I inevitably grew into another part of myself. It was uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to explore that.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

In our world, and especially the music industry, you find patriarchy and misogyny everywhere. Mendoza feels society urges you to not feel the most beautiful and euphoric parts of yourself, including pain. She said it’s hard to trust your power and women are programmed to feel heavy things they don’t know how to achieve.

“I learned to make my own decisions and trust my opinions,” she said. “We have to unlearn certain ways to be, and men don’t see that. My approach now is to let go of things that don’t serve me anymore.”

That approach has changed the music she writes, the people she spends time with and how she decides to move forward in the world. To Mendoza, music is her voice. It’s important for her to be exactly who she is. She gets energy and wisdom from both younger and older generations.

“It’s so empowering,” Mendoza said. “These women give me grounding. I feel the youth today have more validation in areas I wish I had as a woman. They have strength.”

She uses her musical voice for conversations and as a transfer of energy. She said even actual conversation is a learned art, and art, as a conversation, is used to help move us through the hardest times of life.

“We want to separate things into categories,” Mendoza said. “But it’s everything. It’s my lungs. It’s my mind. It’s my spirit. It’s my friends. It’s my mom.”

There’s a new single and album on the horizon for Y La Bamba. This year will prove to be busy with their trajectory. They said things going on in our country and the world affect them personally. They bounce those feelings around and grow as people and musicians.

“I didn’t grow up with the privileges to articulate myself,” Mendoza said. “I’ve learned to be very vocal and present. I take chances, even if it’s awkward, because I can’t afford not to.”

   –Tony Contini

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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