Gadfly Online.


By Jennie Rose

By listening to the language of his locality the poet begins to learn his
craft. It is his function to lift, by use of his imagination and the
language he hears, the material conditions and appearances of his
environment to the sphere of the intelligence where they will have new
currency. —William Carlos Williams

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans try to cross the border into the United States each year, but not all of them make it—14 Mexicans died last month from exposure in the Arizona desert near Nogales. Others who remain in Mexico live tenuously in the lawless conditions of border towns like Juarez, where transience is the norm and drug trafficking the primary economy.

Joey Burns and the other principal members of the band Calexico, including percussionist John Convertino, live in Tucson on a parallel trajectory, just miles from Nogales, the vortex of the Arizona desert where so many Mexicans have perished in attempts to get across.

As residents of Arizona, Calexico are witness to the desperation and hope brought on by the desire to reach for a dream on the other side. It’s practically the band’s calling to reflect back to us this crossroads where Mexican folk culture and the lure of North America meld. The songs on their latest EP, Even My Sure Things Fall Through, a collection of unreleased tracks, B-sides, re-mixes and CD-ROM videos, address the themes of this place with the poignancy of poetry.

"Living in downtown Tucson, in el barrio viejo, the locale does conjure of some inspiration for us," says Calexico guitarist and singer Joey Burns. "The fact that it’s a crossroads," he muses. "This part of the southwest in the Sonoran Desert, the same desert that sprawls all the way down to Mexico into Sonora—this region adds a certain feeling. It has a kind of a haunting quality. It’s both beautiful and so extreme and harsh."

Even My Sure Things opens up with "The Crystal Frontier," accompanied by an evocative video by director John Pirozzi shot in Nogales. The song, which borrows from a Carlos Fuentes novel of the same name, sets a tone of compassion for human longing found throughout the EP.

"'The Crystal Frontier' is alluding to the frontier that’s just over the border; alluding to that dream that’s just on the other side of your reality," says Burns. "It’s the grass that’s greener on the other side. The book’s themes bring about these questions of the importance of your dreams and your own life, the reality that you’re living in, and how do you deal with the fact that you’re here in this position."

Like so many artists, Burns dips into the collective soup of ideas, borrowing from novels and, even more so, from ethnic folk music. Starting as a music student (he studied classical music at UC Irvine), Burns is continually inspired by folk traditions from all over the world. You’ll hear it on "Black Light," which lifts a riff from an Afro-Peruvian tune and in the mariachi trumpet sound in songs such as "Banderilla" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue."

Calexico’s connection to traditional Mexican mariachi music vividly demonstrates Burns’ commitment to the lifelong school of music. Last year, on a tour of Europe, the Calexico lineup included four mariachi players, which led Burns to an epiphany. Strolling mariachi-style through a festival in Hamburg, their music started to fuse with the local German fare. This brought it all back home for Burns, showing him that the folk tradition is all interconnected in one global pageant of humanity.

"All of a sudden these traditionally dressed German sailors are playing accordion and they’re playing the same song as we are," says Burns. "One group is singing in German, the other in Spanish, and it just hit me, this is the direct connection!"

As for playing with the mariachis, he says, "This is the point. We’re playing on each other’s stuff. And after playing for a while, it starts meshing and becoming something else. I learn by hanging out with those guys and picking up on techniques and different nuances of strumming, or singing, or the aesthetics or the heart and spirit behind their music."

Having worked up a full head of steam, Burns explains, with a refreshing earnestness, his mental map of world music, the map that draws parallel lines from Nogales to Tucson, from Africa to America; lines of human experience all drawn to transform pain into beauty.

"I think of it as a blue vein that comes from the east, goes west, and through parts of the Far East, goes down in Africa and into Europe and southern African elements, shipped off to South America where you’ve got this beautiful spectrum of Cuban, Mexican folk, and mariachi, Afro-Peruvian, Brazilian—My gosh! Oh, it’s just so amazing," he exclaims. "And you’ve got the blues in America. It’s all the positive reflection of horrible experiences in our history. Making music, even the blues—it’s painful but it’s a really beautiful thing."