This indie folk-pop band uses two languages and one songwriter to "Court the Storm."

Photo of Y La Bamba
Photo by Ingrid Renan

“It’s something that I couldn’t escape since conception,” says Luzelena Mendoza of her musical beginnings. Call it fate, destiny, or simply faith, but this fierce Y La Bamba gypsy songstress knows of her own power, and senses some driving force behind it.

Y La Bamba performs tonight at the AllWays Lounge, and their latest release Court the Storm is the great invitation into Mendoza’s lyrical world. 

Though her fragile voice guides you through her carefully crafted phrases, expect interruptions. Raw, unrestrained vocals find a breakthrough, often times in Spanish, as though Mendoza’s still discovering her own vocal strength. She admits that since picking up the guitar at age 17, it’s been a journey.

“You just evolve,” she says. “Liking what you like, being influenced by your environment, going with it without even thinking about it.  Before you know what you’re doing, you’re doing it, like a release. Music is the natural healing outlet that has always been necessary in my life.”

In 2008, Mendoza released Alida Street under the name Y La Bamba, not wanting to release it under her own. The lo-fi recordings, unedited and honest, hold true to a different time and place for the band. These may be the songs of a younger Mendoza, but she doesn’t discredit it for a second.

“It’s where I was, and that is something I can never take back, or argue with,” she says. “I’m very proud of having that music documented. It is what it is. It’s a lesson that I’m learning now, to not ever lose that.”

Portland-based Y La Bamba is no longer a simple solo project. A backdrop of tight, hypnotizing harmonies and varied folk-pop instrumentation complete Court the Storm, a follow-up to 2010’s first full-band album, Lupon. 

Acoustic guitar, accordion, and natural percussion sounds fills in when Mendoza’s voice drops off. At several points on the record, she lets her fellow bandmates take over on vocals, lying lower in the mix. And characteristic of her songwriting, the album bounces between languages as well--English to Spanish to English again. 

“It just happens,” she says of the Spanish, never thought of as an option but more of an instinct. The Spanish needn’t be understood to enjoy, either, because the rhythm of her words crosses linguistic boundaries. 

Y La Bamba’s record certainly lends itself to thoughtful listening, best heard through a pair of headphones with the lyrics pulled up. Since Mendoza throws her all into her songwriting, it’s only respectable.

“I’m always writing," she says. "That’s always happening.  Even if I don’t actually have the time to finish something, it doesn’t matter. I just have to write.”

It's not a surprise that Mendoza prefers intimate shows.  House shows and smaller bars are opportunities to truly connect with a crowd.  But how does a band of six fit on those tinier stages?

“It’s kind of awkward,” she says, laughing. “But it’s still good. We make it work.”