For some, September will mark the end of a vanishing act. Portland's much-admired Latin-folk act Y La Bamba will release its first full-length in more than four years—a deeply personal record called Ojos del Sol. It's music to the patient ears of frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza's many fans. But in terms of the evolution that took place within that window, it's really a flash in time.
Mendoza did not flee to India for spiritual awakening during this stretch, nor hide in a cave with just her thoughts for company. The artist has kept plenty busy, playing in both Tiburones and Los Hijos de la Montaña, a band co-fronted by Calexico's Sergio Mendoza. She's a city fixture, immediately recognizable with her long frame and lengthy, silver-tinged locks, who pops up frequently at shows.
"I'm celebrating this other part of myself," Mendoza says of the forthcoming record. "Everyone grows, we're all growing, and now I'm awake to that."
She speaks quickly, with palpable excitement—the hurried words of somebody saturated with ideas. She refers to life in the band several years ago as "habitual," which might as well have been an eternity ago, as her tone is as confident and self-aware as the new album itself.
No single event sparked her newfound philosophy of listening to herself and honoring whatever it is that can be heard there. She mentions family, and the ups and downs of being a woman in the industry. Much of the growth is natural. Mendoza is not the 24-year-old body piercer questioning her Catholic upbringing she was a decade ago, listening obsessively to Devendra Banhart. The freak-folk musician was about Mendoza's age and shared a love and aptitude for visual art, and his experimental sound would help nudge her north from quiet Southern Oregon to bustling Portland.
Y La Bamba would form a few years later, a clever combination of the folk revivalism prevalent at the time and Mendoza's own Mexican roots. Her articulate vocals played alongside sunny guitar work and the bouncy riffs and handclaps of traditional Latin music. Those tired of the New Americana played by the likes of Blitzen Trapper and the Lumineers found relief in Y La Bamba's bright fusion, and the band's two records issued via Tender Loving Empire were widely praised.
Ojos del Sol finds Mendoza at her most open and personal yet, offering an honest examination of herself and looming socio-political strife set to a familiar combination of stripped-down folk and giddy rock with South American rhythmic underpinnings. It offers the highs and lows of the human condition, often all the more musical thanks to Mendoza's vocal inflection and Spanish-language lyrics. There is fear in producing something so near and dear, but also sweet relief.
"I am using vulnerability as a teacher," she says, "not a monster."
SEE IT: Ya La Bamba plays Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., No. 110, with Orquestra Pacifico Tropical and Haley Heynderickx, on Friday, Aug. 26. 8 pm. $15. 21+.