Boxing trainer, singing
prizefighter and legendary Chicana vocalist
There is a kind of sound that delivers you back
to a place and time that you loved 行 or that you imagine you would have loved
if given the opportunity. Ersi Arvizu's recent Friend for Life is just such an experience.
When I say this album takes me back, I'm talking
about a sound that we haven't heard for a long, long time, because they
just haven't been making it, that peculiarly Los Angeles hybrid of rock,
soul, funk, jazz and Afro-Cuban flavors that one band in particular, El
Chicano, specialized in and briefly found favor with on the national charts
in the early '70s, and most especially on their home turf of East L.A.
For a time, the band featured a young woman
named Ersi Arvizu on lead vocals. Arvizu possesses a set of pipes that emit
this sandpapery, deep, melodious richness, a voice of the warmest but
grittiest passion, inspired by the great bolero singers of Mexico but
emanating from a special place inside a special person.
Ry Cooder-producedFriend for Life represents her re-emergence
after many years out of the limelight, a time she spent surviving 行 working
for FedEx to pay the bills, but, more interestingly, also as a boxing
trainer and, for a time, a singing prizefighter. (The latter two were not
simultaneous, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
Arvizu's return and her new album's genesis all started
when Cooder was scouting female singers to balance out the recording of his
acclaimed 2005 Chavez Ravine album, and found her. In fact, though, the story starts
back in the early '60s, when the teenage Arvizu had a singing group with
her siblings called the Sisters.
"I was about halfway through the Chavez
album," says Cooder, "and I had gotten Lalo Guerrero down, I had
Don Tosti, I had Willie G and I had about five, six tunes, so it occurred
to me that it was important to try to find some kind of female voice; it
would just be a good thing. But in the repertoire of the East L.A. scene,
there just hadn't been very many 行 or that I was aware of." While
consulting Barrio Rhythm, an encyclopedia of East L.A. music, he saw a photo of the
Sisters. "Here was this picture of a trio with three teenage girls,
sisters, with their beehive hairdos and all this, and I said, 'Look at
Cooder asked his Eastside pal Gene Aguilera to
help find Arvizu. He wanted to see if she still sang like she did back in
the day. It took only two songs. "It sounded exactly the same as the
record," he says. "So I thought, well, this is too good to be
true, because, you know, time does things to people in music. The problem I
find is that in the intervening time, tastes change, and demands change,
and people change in order to try to accommodate those changes. That's the
worst thing of all 行 styles or originality or individuality, it's stamped
out half the time. Anyway, here was Ersi singing, and it didn't sound any
different, and moreover, she sounded fantastic."
Arvizu had grown up in a musical family in East
L.A. She and her two sisters and younger brother were bilingual as
children; their mother was from Sonora, Mexico, while her father was from
Tucson, Arizona. He trained boxers in a gym in the family's back yard, with
the assistance of eager young Ersi. With the encouragement of their mother,
Arvizu and her sisters formed a singing group that performed at high school
"My sisters and I used to sing the doo-wop
stuff," she says. "And there was a gentlemen by the name of Billy
Cardenas who heard us, and he took us to Bob Keane [of Del-Fi Records]. Bob
signed us, and we had a No. 3 record in '65 called 'Gee Baby Gee,' until
the Supremes came and knocked us down."
The Sisters performed all over Los Angeles,
opening up for the touring pop stars of the day, including Tina Turner,
Sonny and Cher, the Righteous Brothers and Stevie Wonder. "We would
sing at the big union hall in Vernon, or we would go to El Monte Legion
Stadium, and then we would play local dances, like the Mardi Gras in
Arvizu's parents played a significant part in
forming her musical sensibilities; her mother was a songwriter of sorts,
though her father didn't like that much: He was jealous, and thought
Arvizu's mother's evenings spent songwriting downstairs a little
suspicious. So she played the guitar and sang while she was making dinner,
and would call the children in one by one and rehearse with them.
After the Sisters, Arvizu sang with a Top 40
group called the Village Callers, then got offered money to go with a band
called the V. I. P.s, which eventually became El Chicano. The
group had minor success nationally with the jazzy instrumental "Viva
Tirado," but they remain iconic in East L.A. for Arvizu's soulful
singing on their lovely signature tune, "Sabor a Mi."
As Arvizu was one of the very few Latinas,
possibly the only one, fronting a rock band in 1970, her time spent in El
Chicano was a rewarding but often pretty rough encounter. There was the
group's legendary performance at Leavenworth Penitentiary, for example,
which she sings about in Friend's "En el
Cambo." The inmates weren't exactly cool about Arvizu's presence.
"At Tehachapi," she says,
"backstage, the guards would lock me up in a cage. Because the inmates
were like animals. At that time, usually they would allow a woman to go
only once a year. At Leavenworth, we were doing a concert in their baseball
field, and it was scary, because I had 10 guards around me, and all the
inmates are out, and they're going to the field, and the guards would tell
me, 'You're going to hear profanity, because they haven't seen a woman in
years. So just keep walking.'"
When El Chicano fizzled out, Arvizu eventually
moved to Arizona and had a band with which she would sing in different
nightclubs once in a while. But then she decided to jump into the boxing
ring. She figured singing and boxing weren't mutually exclusive
"I had, like, four fights in Lake
Tahoe," she says, "and the first time I fought, I stopped the
girl in the second round, and then after, I went to go eat, and then I went
to the lounge to see the combo. Well, I got up to sing with the combo, and
after that, they booked me for three fights, and then I got to sing in the
lounge! The promoter told me, 'I will pay you this much money to box and
sing.' I told him, 'What if I get a black eye? What if they stop me? It's
not gonna look good.'"
Arvizu ended up being featured in the boxing mag
and while her father was at the barbershop, a customer said to him, "I
thought your daughter was a professional singer." Dad said, "She
is." "Well, what's she doing in this Ring magazine?"
Arvizu laughs. "My mother called me,
crying, saying it was a disgrace to our family, why are you doing this? So
I just stopped 行 I had the four fights, and that was it. And, you know, I was okay with it,
because to me, honestly, it's not a woman's sport. And I never did train
women, never. They asked me to, but I refused to, because I don't believe a
woman should be in that ring. The reason I did it is, I needed to take it
out of my system."
Stories like these were what Cooder encouraged
Arvizu to draw upon when he asked her to write material for the Chavez
and for her new solo album. He'd asked her to probe deeply, to go all the
way back. Among the most moving tracks on Friend is a love letter to her
father titled "Mi
India," Papa's affectionate nickname for his little girl.
Music and her father's training regimens for
boxers in that backyard room (and later at Resurrection gym, now owned by
Oscar De La Hoya) were equally integral experiences for little Ersi. She
gives shout-outs to her homeboy fighters on Friend's opening track,"Windows of Dreams," in
which she sings about making holes in the walls of the workout room so she
could watch the boxers train. Because she was only 8, her father wouldn't
let her into the gym 行 the men walked around in various states of undress.
"I remember him asking me, 'Well, you made those holes, what is it
that you were trying to see on the other side?' And what I wanted to see
was to see them spar."
For the Chavez Ravine album, Cooder had dared
Arvizu to write about her life, to get those pictures of what she wanted to
see on the other side. "I was looking for a 'musical neighborhood'
kind of thing," he says. "Then Ersi revealed the fact that her
mother had written songs 行 not many, but some 行 and some had survived, and
here was this one that told a very interesting story about how the soldiers
went to World War II and fought, had all the shit jobs in the Army, then
came home, and then afterward they were eminent-domained out of there and
Friend for Life is a heady dive into a sound
that invites you in, perhaps to experience sounds you can't put a name on
but that seem somehow familiar 行 as if it's been buried deep in your
psyche, or your soul. For the most part, the songs are lushly imbued with
the traditional Mexican love song, the bolero.
Says Cooder, "Bolero music, which flourished in the '40s and '50s, was based
around one idea, and that was that you could deliver this romantic poetry
in such a way as to make people feel it; they don't sit there and
sentiments, simple ideas, the poetry is very simple 行 it isn't anything
fancy, but if you really can sing it, people really will feel it." He
places Arvizu in the upper echelons of the great bolero-style singers, a discipline
always in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.
And as with Ibrahim Ferrer from Cooder's Buena
Vista Social Club, Arvizu's feel is not about the lyric in the Spanish
language. "It's wonderful," Cooder says, "but you don't have
to know exactly what the singer's saying; it's what the singer's able to
do, and that they do it inside themselves, and that it originates in there.
Ersi talks about her parents teaching her to sing, but, you know, this is
really just something that you have inside."
"God gave me that," says Arvizu.
"I don't know where it came from, but he gave me that. You have to be
born with that. But then, the rest you learn in experience 行 the more you
sing, you know where to put your vibrato, you know where to sing sexier,
where to sing softer. You learn that, but as far as what's gonna come out
of your throat, you have to be born with that."
It's kind of like boxing: "I know how to
throw a combination, I know how to break to the left and hook 'em to the
body. I know how to execute."