Russ Slater chats to the Mexican musical polymath Sergio Mendoza about his influences and various projects, prior to his UK tour
Talking to Sergio Mendoza, Orkesta Mendoza’s softly spoken bandleader, you get the impression of how different life can be either side of the US/Mexico border, and how incredible it is that his own music has been able to traverse the two countries so freely. His first musical memories hail from Mexico, when he was living in the border town of Nogales, Sonora. At an early age he would listen to cumbias and rancheras, learning to play the melodies on the family keyboard. Then when he was around eight years old his family moved north to Nogales, Arizona, back when the border didn’t seem so immutable.
Though only a few miles north, the move meant a big change in culture. “I remember the first day of school,” Mendoza says. “There was free paper and pencils and that was a big shock to me. In Mexico you show up to your class and there’s nothing but a desk and a chalkboard.” Of bigger impact though was the change in his musical habits.
“I started letting go of all that [Mexican] music and just listened to everything American,” Mendoza tells me. “My friends looked down on all the Mexican stuff because they thought it was cheesy. So we started listening to classic rock, rock’n’roll and grunge.”
It would take years, many fateful rock groups and a stint in a local salsa band until Mendoza would finally get in touch with his roots again. By that time he’d become known in the Tucson, Arizona music scene when Calexico’s Joey Burns got in touch, asking if he wanted to play with them. “I was the perfect combination of a guy they wanted to play with. Somebody who was Latin but also loves rock’n’roll.”
He’d also come to a point where he was ready to re-embrace his earliest musical influences, going back to mambo and cumbia. “I wanted to learn Pérez Prado’s style,” says Mendoza, “so we decided to do a Prado tribute. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but Joey Burns and the local promoters were like, nah, you’re going to do this again and started booking us. Then right away I started writing songs in a similar style, and that’s how we made those first [Orkesta Mendoza] recordings.”
Three albums later – the latest one, Vamos a Guarachar, was reviewed in #124 – and Orkesta Mendoza are as strong as ever, moving fluidly between Mexican and American music with a fiery mix of ranchera rock’n’roll, indie mambo and psych cumbia. Their music represents the cultural fusions that could only exist on the border. Mendoza, who continues to play with Calexico, as well as the Mexican Morrissey tribute band Mexrrissey, and Los Hijos de la Montaña (an experimental indie-pop collaboration with fellow US Latino Luz Elena Mendoza) is the perfect example of this.
“I feel like I fit in both worlds,” he replies, when I ask him whether he feels more Mexican or American. Thankfully, unlike the hard hand of politics, music does not seek to erect walls. Though, you can be sure that, if it did, Orkesta Mendoza would do their best to shake them down.