Luz Elena Mendoza’s voice sounds like it’s emanating from an antique gramophone at the bottom of a canyon. It is a strange, disembodied voice — one that seems even more profound when you know that Mendoza was very nearly separated from her body after a serious illness seven years ago.
She is the voice of the seven-piece Portland-based band Y La Bamba, a project that started as a solo endeavor but grew into a collective after a chance meeting at a club in Portland. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Mendoza was raised in a strict Catholic family in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Her family worked in the orchards alongside many other Mexican transplants. After long work days, when the men started to strum their guitars, she found herself drawn to the music of her father’s homeland.
“I remember singing along, mimicking my father’s voice and dancing like a little wild child,” Mendoza says in a press release.
She was always a spiritual quester. First she studied theology in New Zealand; then she embarked on a mission to India, where she was laid low by a devastating combination of giardia and amoebic dysentery. It almost killed her.
She lost 60 pounds and suffered such terrible exhaustion that she nearly lost her mind.
“It shook me in ways I was not expecting, leading me to struggle with my prayer life and search for a healthy relationship with God, the universe, and with myself,” she says. “I gave up on Christianity.”
While still recuperating, Mendoza relocated to Ashland, Ore., and then to Portland — all the while writing the music that would grow into Y La Bamba. In Portland, she started to perform her songs at open-mic nights around town. Bassist and vocalist Ben Meyercord heard her during one of those performances and was wowed. The two discovered they had shared musical interests, and the seeds of a band were planted. Within a week, Mendoza and Meyercord had recruited the rest of Y La Bamba.
Lupon is the name of the first proper album of Mendoza’s songs with Y La Bamba (produced by Chris Funk of the Decemberists). The album is deceptively minimalist — it’s hard to tell that there are seven people in this band. But sparse accompaniment works in perfect harmony with Mendoza’s ghostly, quavering voice. It’s not difficult to imagine the band playing in a dark, smoky room to a crowd of somber patrons crying into their cocktails. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have some soaring moments, but the overall atmosphere is particularly noir-ish. Mendoza seems to like it that way.
“Music is a powerful, sacred entity. It’s about the heavyhearted,” Mendoza told Oregonlive.com earlier this year. “[Lupon] reflects my experience of knowing myself and my awareness, spiritually, physically, mentally, everything. It’s just about wearing my heart on my sleeve.”