(Los Angeles) Lysa Flores was a pioneer in LA’s East Los alternative scene. Raised in East LA with an older brother with a guitar, she played a box as a child, then filled journals in grammar school with lyrics and by the time she was in high school she was in a band. A first generation Mexican-American who was named by Newsweek as one of “20 young Latinos to watch in the new millennium”, Flores is also an actress, a record producer who created her own label, and a print maker as well as a community activist and powerful voice for women’s rights. She starred in and served as musical director of the film “Star Maps”, and has released numerous albums and songs, including the very personal, It Hurts to be Your Girl. She has toured extensively in both the US and Europe on her own and with various stars.
Lysa sat down to talk with us at MusicaFusionLA in English and Spanish. This is the English portion of the conversation.
Patrick Some of your music, and especially the song It Hurts To Be Your Girl, makes me uncomfortable and also makes me hopeful. It makes me uncomfortable because you are telling some terrible truths about my gender, things I know that happened to you. It makes me hopeful that you can tell them and you do tell them. You took a break from music; now that you are back, and a mother of a daughter. Looking at today’s artistic and political landscape, are you hopeful?
Lysa. Yes I am very hopeful. I think with the current administration, one of the things I have seen from the artists community is a sense of urgency to speak out, to not be passive about this. You can’t just sit around and not expose these ugly truths. Various things are happing now – just having such a sexist, racist President…I didn’t know when I started working on this project that this was to come. I started working on this project much earlier – it has been 10 years in the making. That uncomfortable feeling – it is different for everyone. I wrote these songs when I was living with domestic violence but I hadn’t yet understood that it was domestic violence. I knew it was painful and it didn’t make sense to me. I was figuring it out. I was deep in the process of abuse, but not understanding. Once it became physical, I understood.
Patrick Was it difficult to put those songs out for the public to see what you had been through?
Lysa. Once I looked back at these songs and understood this was a cathartic process I was going through to being able to identify what I was participating in, then it became that process of asking “do I actually want to put this out in the world?” I had to ask myself if I wanted to admit that I was part of this or that this happened to me because there is a slot of shaming of victims or participants of domestic violence. But I did. Back to your original question, am I hopeful with the artistic community. I look at what is going on in the arts and I am hopeful. It has taken different artists different levels of experience where they can get to the point where they can say, like me, that they can say to themselves that this is happening in popular culture, this is our president, this is happening all around us, we have to speak up and tell these stories so we can process and feel and say what needs to be changed. This album is my contribution.
Patrick And it is a valuable contributions; as a father of a daughter, I very much appreciate it. I want to read you a quote – your words actually speaking about Alice Bag:
Chicana/os often do not get credited for our artistic contributions and being at the forefront of musical movements and decision-making that sets the stage for other important works to exist.
Do you think that Chicana and Chicano artists are finally being recognized to the degree they deserve, or is this just a blip on the radar?
Lysa. It opens up a couple of different things. Whether or not we are getting what is rightfully due, I don’t think Chicanos have received the attention as other Latinos. Let me tell you about my experience. As a young Chicana artist I was the musical director of a film Star Maps in 1997. I placed 52 musical cues throughout the films — not only Chicanos, but also artists from the States and Britain and all over the world. The (release of this music) would be the first time Chicano music would be released by an American label; traditionally it is released by the Latin division of the music company, Geffen in this case. As a 21-year old Chicana I was in charge of it and I found a bit of exoticizing of the artists – the “Latino explosion”. Also when I was touring, as a Chicana I encountered classism and cultural racism from some Latinos who thought Chicanos were not Latin enough. So in some ways I got credited for that and all that was to come, in some ways I didn’t – we still don’t have the money behind us that other Latino artists have. Last week X The Band performed at the Grammy Museum and they talked about their inspirations – bands like Alice Bags, and Plugs and other Mexican and Chicano bands that created the early Latin rock scene that prepared the way for other bands to follow. I think that story will tell itself now.
Patrick I think that the song “No One Knows” incorporates Taiko drumming – at least it sounds like it although I am not sure. Tell us about Taiko drumming and you.
Lysa. Those are not Taiko drums in that song, but Alfredo Ortiz, who is an East LA Taiko drummer, is playing drums. I did this record as a trio, which is very different from my previous records, and I played all the guitars. I wanted it to be very powerful but simplified so that it wasn’t produced in a way where I was adding layers of things. I wanted it to be in your face, and in your gut, to replicate that experience – that tension you go through in the experience of violence.
Patrick You succeeded in that. I understand you collaborate with Maceo Hernandez and East LA Taiko (an ancient form of Japanese drumming that is notated not with notes but with words and phrases) How did that happen?
Lysa. Taiko is something I have been very passionate about and I have been working with Maceo Hernandez for years. Speaking of the words (that make up Taiko drumming music notation), when Maceo is teaching me he will say something like don-tuku–don –tuku-don as the notes for me to follow. This is written very differently than western notes, which was extremely difficult for me to wrap my head around when I first started learning to play Taiko.
Patrick. What is it like to work with Maceo?
Lysa. I have known him for close to 30 years now. He was playing conga’s when I first met him. I didn’t know he was also playing Taiko – there is actually a film documentary on him called The Demon Drummer of East LA. He was recruited at an early age to learn Taiko in Japan. Part of his preparation was running 20 miles a day and one of the songs we performed at the benefit was 26.2, referring to a New York Marathon he ran even though he had had his legs amputated in a car accident. He performed at Carnegie Hall right after the Marathon. When I was taking a break from music as a performer and artist, he opened the doors for me to learn Taiko drumming.
Patrick. What was it like to learn Taiko and blend it with western and Latino music?
Lysa. For me, who had always about melody and structure and needed lyrics and melody to support the song, all of a sudden with the Taiko verbal annotation, I felt like I had to change to learn. I didn’t feel like myself. It would upset me. I was trying my best to learn it but there was this wall that I had figure out how to get around to feel the song structure of drumming. We would rehearse in a Buddhist temple and get together with other people. There is a such strong physical aspect to drumming, which is different from regular drums, it has very choreographed elements, I am super grateful to Maceo. He knew me as a songwriter and we integrated Taiko with my music while he was also teaching me how to play Taiko. That is a great fusion – Maceo has been responsible for starting that great Japanese –Chicano mixture in Los Angeles.
Patrick. What now with the Taiko and your music?
Lysa. We are finishing our first record as a collaboration. It’s being produced by Quetzal Flores and we are now at the final stages of our first collaborative record. This has been an 8-year long collaboration. And Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez, the Grammy Award winning Mexican-American accordion star and singer from San Antonio, Texas, is on the record. I am also finishing producing a second record for Alice Bag and I am completing my project Immigrant Daughter. It has been a work in progress, especially with Tom Petty’s passing. I had recorded Mexican-American Girl – a version of Petty’s American Girl – some time ago and we just got back in the studio last week to put the finishing touches on that so it will go out to the world for free. As far performances, none are scheduled but I do have a showing coming up of my artwork for a benefit for Puerto Rico.
Patrick. With a to do list like that I had better let you get back to work. Thank you very much.
Lysa.. Thank you
Lysa Flores. http://www.lysafloresmusic.com/
It Hurts to be your Girl, released 2016. Available on iTunes, CDBaby, Spotify