Luzelena Mendoza, who is the frontwoman of the Portland band Y La Bamba, is something of a mystic, or at least it feels that way when you watch her sing erratically, in short breaths and her version of a yodel, and seemingly out of nowhere begins to sing at the top of her lungs, coming through a neck that is elaborately inked with tattoos that look ancient. Her twisted black hair protruding from an old black hat adds to the persona -- she's like a gypsy princess.
Y la Bamba mix traditional folk singing in Spanish and English -- an ode to Mendoza's Mexican heritage -- and wheen she sings, she's in character, ready with a quivering lip as if she's about to cry. Her ability to be delicate and strong is a unique device that not many female vocalists can master.
The band is rounded out by guitarist Paul Cameron, drummer Mike Kitson, bassist Ben Meyercord, accordionist Eric Schrepel and ukulele player Scott Magee, most of whom Mendoza discovered serendipitously -- a common enough practice for the highly spiritual and intuitive Mendoza. This sort of karmic nature is how the band itself began: After growing up Catholic to Mexican immigrants, Mendoza traveled to India with the hopes of a spiritual awakening, and she found one, but not how she had planned it. Instead, she contracted amoebic dysentery and glardia, which gave her bouts of insomnia, and she began to question her sanity. It was through this that she discovered a spirituality beyond her religious upbringing. She moved to Portland and began to form the band.
Y la Bamba's sound has drawn comparisons with Devendra Banhardt, Dusty Springfield and Joanna Newsom, and been described as "art folk" and even "wilderness folk," and relies heavily on dark imagery and subtle instrumentation. Just because there are eight members doesn't mean it gets eight times as loud; they all sort of mesh together when necessary but stay relatively calm and slow, almost waltzlike at times. Mendoza's whimsy is what's most captivating: She's courageously revealing all through her music, and it feels like a religious experience.
Joining Y la Bamba is a group called Death Songs, a Portland-based duo that includes Nick Delffs of the Castanets and the Shaky Hands. The act's self-titled EP came out in early October, and it takes influences from European folk, African tribal percussion and lo-fi textures. I've always really enjoyed anything Delff has been apart of, so I wasn't surprised that I loved the EP. It's got this spooky quality; with his shaking vocals, he sometimes sounds possessed. My favorite track is "Water in the Eyes of Man"; it sounds like a Kurt Vile track, a little more upbeat and indie-pop than the rest.
Check out Y la Bamba and Death Songs with Meg and Bryan at Soda Bar on Nov. 16. You might just feel born-again.