On the last day of her eight-month stay in San Salvador’s gang-dominated suburb of Soyapango, singer/songwriter Gina Chavez woke up and headed to a morning assembly at the girls’ school where she was teaching English.
About 800 girls packed into the assembly, which, to Chavez’ surprise, was mainly dedicated to her — a humble offer of gratitude. The girls serenaded her, presented a PowerPoint about Chavez and showered her with gifts and letters that filled half of the stage. Chavez sat at the assembly, moved beyond belief.
Hadn’t she put her life and music career in Austin on hold to inspire them? To give to them?
“The overwhelming message that I got back was, ‘Gina you are loved,’” Chavez says. “It’s hard to accept that, especially from people you think you are supposed to be helping.”
Learning how to receive love turned out to be one of the biggest lessons from her volunteer experience in 2009. “That’s a lesson I’m still learning,” she says. “And I know there are a lot of songs there that are not yet written.”
Chavez’ time in El Salvador has been key to her journey of self-discovery, which is the theme of her sophomore studio album,“Up.rooted.” It releases with a launch party and benefit concert on Feb. 15 at Stateside at the Paramount that will include performances by indie-folk songstress Amy Cook and rising star Emily Wolfe and will help support Chavez’ Niña Arriba College Fund for young women in El Salvador. With bilingual songs about travel, heartache and crossing borders, Chavez offers a glimpse of the path she’s been on to reconnect with her Latina roots while figuring out that blurry place between cultural lines.
“They stole our fruit, cut our branches, burned our trunk, but they could not unearth our roots.” — Popol Vuh
Chavez dedicates the album “to those who have been uprooted” and includes the above quote inside the album cover from Popol Vuh, the Quiché Mayan book of creation or “Book of the People.”
With a father of Mexican descent and a mother with a Swiss-German background, Chavez’ desire to explore her roots didn’t blossom until young adulthood. She grew up in Austin listening to Michael Jackson, Little Richard and Lyle Lovett. Her father occasionally played “Love Potion No. 9” on the guitar and “House of the Rising Sun” on piano.
“I grew up culturally pretty much as a gringa,” she says. Her father loved Elvis, 1957 Chevys and the oldies. About the only Spanish word she remembers hearing in the house was “tortilla,” she jokes.
When Chavez was 18, she caught a Toni Price show at the Continental Club that inspired her to pick up a guitar. Lucky for Chavez, her father had a 1954 Martin tucked in the back of a closet, which she still has. That night, her father taught her a fingerpicking pattern called the Travis pick, and, later, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind.”
Everything changed for Chavez when she studied abroad in Argentina as a University of Texas journalism student. At a busy restaurant one night, the rhythmic chacarera, a folkloric six-count from the mountains of Northwest Argentina, captured her. It wasn’t anything like Tejano music, salsa or merengue, and it started her on a journey to discover her Latin roots. “I so want to be Latina and want to know that from every fiber of my being,” Chavez says. “But in a lot of ways I have to seek out (Latino culture and language). It’s in my sangre (blood), but it’s not something that’s like breathing.”
Chavez’ 2007 debut album, “Hanging Spoons,” featured her chacarera-inspired song “Embrujo,” which was included in a compilation CD produced by the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. While mastering the compilation, musician and producer Michael Ramos of Charanga Cakewalk fame heard “Embrujo” and said, “Who is this girl?” He tracked Chavez down and asked if she wanted to write together.
“I need to know you’re closer than 2,000 miles, the tips of my fingers miss the curve of your smile.” — “Miles de Millas (Thousands of Miles)”
Ramos and Chavez teamed up on the bilingual cumbia “Miles de Millas,” which landed her a South by Southwest showcase and garnered national buzz from NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and Alt.Latino.
They knew they had to work on a full-length album together after that. For “Up.rooted,” Ramos produced, recorded, mixed and played keyboards. “It was probably the most pleasant experience of producing an artist and working in the studio that I’ve ever had,” Ramos says. “We just had a really good understanding from the beginning and we had fun.”
A successful Kickstarter campaign funded “Up.rooted” and gave Chavez the resources to bring in top musicians and hire a fashion photographer for the album’s cover. The Grupo Fantasma horn section, the Tosca String Quartet, David Pulkingham and Adrian Quesada all play on the record. Chavez’ fans contributed more than $15,000, surpassing her $10,000 goal.
“She and I had been talking about these tracks and dreaming about these tracks for a year,” Ramos says. “When the music finally came into play, we’d be recording something and I’d look at her and we’d start grinning.”
He remembers the optimistic feeling he had when his much-buzzed about debut album with Charanga Cakewalk came out and says he has the same gut feeling about “Up.rooted.”
“I think there’s a very good chance that this record can put (Chavez) on a national level,” he says. “Gina is going to be a force in the music business. She’s really talented and has this persona on stage that people love. She has a huge heart and a huge passion, and I think it shows.”
“Soy gringa en una tierra Latina…” (I’m a gringa in a Latin land…) — “Siete-D (Seven-D)”
Chavez’ natural warmth makes it easy to see how the introspective musician could connect with teenage girls struggling through life in El Salvador. She sips hot tea at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse and smiles when she talks about the three girls who are enrolled in a private university there thanks to the college fund that’s raised a little more than $15,000 through benefit concerts.
In 2009, Chavez and her girlfriend, Jodi Granado, signed up for a volunteer program with a Catholic mission, which was important since both of them longed to serve a community in need. While in El Salvador, they decided not to share the fact that they were a couple because of some of the culture’s homophobic views.“We weren’t there to change social norms,” she says. “We were there to serve people.”
In Soyapango, which is home to the notoriously violent Mara Salvatrucha gang, Chavez and Granado lived on the school’s campus. At 5 p.m. the doors would lock, and at 8 p.m. the guard dogs would be released. “We would wake up to a chalk drawing of someone who’d been shot outside our door the night before,” Chavez says.
Though the conditions were intense, Chavez embraced the vibrancy of the country and channeled some of her experiences there into the new album. For example, the reggaeton-inflected song “Siete-D” pays homage to the lively Seven-D bus line that features brightly painted former U.S. school buses and bus drivers who zoom down busy streets blasting reggaeton for all to hear. Chavez sends a shout out to her former students in the song’s rap.
“Soy quien soy, voy como el viento…” (I am who I am, I go like the wind …) — “Soy Quien Soy (I Am who I Am)”
While reading Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s book “Mexican Enough,” Chavez couldn’t overlook the word “uprooted.” For the album title, Chavez decided to separate the words. Up represents the moving forward in her journey, she says, while rooted symbolizes the songs in which she finds peace.
On her website, Chavez wrote, “How can something be both up and rooted? The word itself seems torn between two worlds, longing to find its place. And so am I: up.rooted.”
Chavez says she hopes her music can help bridge communities. “Here I am feeling more than ever so connected to my roots and at the same time so disconnected because… (I’m) in two worlds and not ever in one,” she says.
In her song, “Soy Quien Soy,” Chavez laments not being born in Latin America but at the same time realizes that she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be. “I’ve been given wings to go where I want to, soak up all the richest experiences of life and share them,” she says. “I love who I am, and where the journey has brought me and has yet to take me.”
Gina Chavez CD release party
When: Feb. 15
Where: Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.
Time: Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
The concert will benefit the Niña Arriba College Fund, an education fund for impoverished young women in El Salvador. For ticket information, visit austintheatre.org.