The Music of Y La Bamba Invites Listeners Down Life’s River

A photograph of Y La Bamba performing in a venue lit with blue and green light.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Sweeney on Flickr.

Y La Bamba makes music that’s both grounded and airy, and have emerged as an indie folk band that perfects the genre while simultaneously expanding upon it.

Luz Elena, the Portland group’s vocalist and primary lyricist, meanders through each song on their most recent album with a carefree confidence. You’ll find odes to personal growth, love ballads, and a strong sense of clarity and purpose in Y La Bamba’s lyrical landscape.

The record kicks off with the titular track, sung in Spanish like many others previously released by Y La Bamba. One of the softest of the album’s eleven songs, Ojos Del Sol builds an image of intimacy: “En tus ojos me desvelo y tus labios me buscan en la obscuridad, como relaciones de la noche” (“In your eyes I stay awake and your lips find me in the dark, like relationships of the night”).

But Y La Bamba never folds to stereotypical depictions of life, or love. Instead, their music feels consistently honest. Elena ends the track with a somewhat somber reflection on the nature of relationships and the ways they at times can overpower our own agency: “Eres como el viento, el viento que me lleva, volando por allí, volando por donde quiera” (“You are like the wind, the wind that carries me, flying over there, flying wherever you want”).

From there on out, the tempo picks up and the lyrics become increasingly perceptive.

“Libre” whirls through earthy imagery, giving birth to a sense of wonder: “When the water meets the air and the grass, and the grass, and the grass starts to rot. And all the colors were mysterious.” 

Y La Bamba deserves recognition for their ability to build worlds within each song – some are mystical and imaginative, some are much closer to home. More importantly, they resist the tropes of their genre. Their music doesn’t just talk about feeling free like plenty of folk rock bands; it embodies the sensation, and plants it several feet deep.

On “Ostrich,” Elena’s voice carries a message of empowerment: “Rest, stay awake, I’m fine. Gotta rejuvenate my mind, and I can taste fate in my mouth like a copper from the ground.” What’s special here is that Elena doesn’t claim that personal strength is easy to come by; this album is a testament to the winding, often exhausting, continuous process of development, of growing into oneself. 

So, no, Y La Bamba didn’t produce an album about having reached any of life’s summits, because the band seems to be saying they don’t exist at all. Instead of a mountain, they show us a river. And they give listeners the opportunity to travel down it with them.

The concept of fluidity runs through Ojos Del Sol. “Cara Cara” addresses it in an off-kilter love story. Elena sings of searching for “a love that comes and goes.” While it’s true there’s no single interpretation of this narrative, I have always understood the line to express a desire for a flexible relationship. 

Later on, Elena implores, “I can’t be the only one here to feel, feeling only, every world. What is a mystery, at least I fucked up spinning, singing.” If that isn’t a powerful statement, I don’t know what is. Y La Bamba allows for vulnerability; it’s alright to mess up as long as you’re still moving with the current, and still singing along.

The record wraps up with defiance and purpose. “Kali” arrives to assert, “Whatever it is you want, we’re not here to give it you.” Y La Bamba’s music will be what the band decides, nothing less and nothing more: an assertion is refreshing in an era where musical artists are frequently forced to give up their originality for more appetizing, watered-down radio hits. At the same time, they aren’t here to exude any self-aggrandizing claims of uniqueness, which feels rampant in the indie genre.

Y La Bamba is special on their own and don’t need to rely on quirkiness to define them. They’re doing something rare, and they won’t have to tell you for you to feel it.

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