Not counting weddings, funerals or visits to cathedrals in Europe and South America, I’ve been to church three times in my life, and only once for a service.
Blessed with open-minded parents who explored everything from Sufism to Zen to the Saint John Coltrane Orthodox Church in the Fillmore, I was never required to undergo religious brainwashing in any form. I was encouraged to “explore the possibilities, within and without you,” and when I was nine years old, one of my little girlfriends invited me to attend a mass at Saint Philip’s in Noe Valley.
“What the fuck,” I thought, having learned English from disciples of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. “It’s only a couple of blocks away. Here’s my chance to ‘explore the possibilities!’”
I wasn’t there five minutes when I began feeling claustrophobic and wanted to get the fuck out of there. The statues creeped me out. The stand-up-sit-down-kneel routine reminded me of training my puppy. I hated the sermon. I hated the costumes. I hated the music. I hated the smell of holy water. I managed to get through the whole thing only because we two little girls were flanked by her parents, who watched over us like prison guards. I almost escaped when the family went up to take Holy Communion, but a knobby-faced usher at the end of the pew scowled me back onto my butt. When I finally made it out to Diamond Street, I was hyperventilating from the sheer joy of feeling wet fog and wind rush into my lungs.
I related my feelings of horror to my parents, who smiled and nodded and probably told me that it was a great personal growth experience for me. My mom may have patted my knee and said, “You own your feelings, honey, and they’re okay,” or something calming and soothing like that.
So, I was very much surprised when, in my late teens, my father popped into my room and said, “Hey, you wanna go to church tonight?”
“Fuck you, Dad,” I said, and turned up the volume to The Cure album playing in the background (I think it was Wish).
He chuckled just like a TV Dad and said, “No, really. Claudia Gomez is playing at the Ministry and I thought you might like to expand your cultural horizons.”
That was a dig. He thought I’d gone overboard on punk during that period and felt I needed to invigorate my multicultural awareness engrams (as if living in San Francisco didn’t automatically take care of that). I wasn’t really interested; I’d seen Claudia Gomez’ name in the music section of the Bay Guardian, but she was primarily associated with Latin jazz at a time that I was immersed in the burgeoning punk revival and early Oasis. But all parents, even laid-back mellow parents, are experts at throwing guilt trips.
“What the fuck,” I said and threw on a few layers of whatever I had tossed about the room so I could survive the wet fog and wind that accompanies many an evening stroll in The City.
I was so glad I did. The event remains one of my life’s major turning points. After rejecting the musical cornucopia my parents had provided me and immersing myself in the sounds of angry youth energy, Claudia Gomez came as quite a shock. Her acoustic guitar playing was pristine, precise and intensely alluring. Her voice was pure nectar; her delivery perfectly positioned to match the moods and rhythms of the song. It didn’t give me the same form of satisfaction that I experienced in no-shit punk or in Liam Gallagher’s voice, but it was deeply satisfying nonetheless.
Her music was beautiful. Her voice was subtle but rich. Her songs were full of color.
As we were leaving the church, I snapped up a copy of her CD from the merch table and over the next week spent every spare minute listening to Tierradentro on a quaint device called a Walkman (or was it Discman?). By the end of the week, I was a changed chick. Tierradentro had brought me back in touch with the ecstasy of musical diversity . . . at least temporarily until my hormones drove me back into the mosh pit.
Tierradentro itself is a remarkably diverse album. The styles range from samba to folk to indigenous to jazz; the sounds include arrhythmic clapping, whistling, acoustic bass, even a touch of synthesizer. Claudia’s vocals are smooth yet full of life; the harmonies are exceptionally sweet. One aspect of great jazz that I’ve always appreciated is the purity of the relationship between the soloist and the backing musicians; the supporting cast is there only to highlight the talents of the person taking the lead, a stance that requires both discipline and subtlety. You can hear this very clearly on Tierradentro, where some exceptionally talented musicians gladly accept supporting roles to allow Claudia to shine. While all the songs are in Spanish, Claudia sings with such clarity and beauty that she could be singing scat and it wouldn’t make any difference. Tierradentro is living proof that music is the universal language.
Rather than describe the songs individually, I refer you to iTunes or Amazon where you can sample the music for yourself. My personal favorites are the vocal collage “Soltarlo,” the sweet and contemplative “La Lluvia,” the Latin classic “Debi Llorar” (to which Claudia applies a samba feel) and the acoustic beauty, “Recuerdos de Medellin,” where Claudia recalls her birthplace in Colombia in a way that shatters the popular image of Medellin as nothing more than a haven for drug lords. The truth is that all of the music on Tierradentro is extraordinary, an oasis of extreme beauty that has served me often as a welcome refuge from the times when I’ve felt that modern life is nothing but noise and ugliness.
One reviewer on Amazon described Claudia Gomez’ Tierradentro as the one album he would take with him to the proverbial desert island. While I can’t make that kind of commitment, I would certainly rank it as a strong contender. I will be forever amazed why Claudia didn’t hit it big, especially at a time when Latin music was finally getting some attention and Latina women were the new “it.” Another lesson to file in the “never underestimate the stupidity of the American people” folder, for it probably had something to do with the uniquely American belief that all of God’s children should speak English.
Injustice aside, we are fortunate that this wonderfully talented artist still performs and records, and you can acquaint yourself with her entire catalog on her website.
I’ll tell you about my third trip to a church when I write about June Tabor in the very near future.
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