Hybrid Songs

Perla Batalla combines Spanish and English in her diverse blend of music

For singer Perla Batalla, music and performance is about pride and speaking up.

Like such similar-minded artists as Lila Downs, Los Lobos and Quetzal, Batalla finds that her music, politics and Latino heritage are inseparable.

"We are Americans and often have grown up in the United States, but our families happen to be from other countries, where when we return there, we feel a little displaced," she says. "We wonder: 'Where do we belong if not in the communities where we were raised?' We are hybrids who sometimes feel like we don't know what it feels like to fit in anywhere," she said during an interview last weekend.

"We need to let people know who we are. We need to state our political views. We need to not be ashamed or embarrassed about who we are."

Batalla was on her cell phone from Sevilla, Spain, where she was attending WOMEX 07, the 13th annual world-music exposition. After the conference finished, she was to head back to the United States, and she will perform on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the UA's Centennial Hall.

The concert will feature opening act Charanga Cakewalk, which has appeared several times in Tucson during the last few years. Led by composer Michael Ramos, that group combines influences such as hip hop, rock, reggae, electronica and Latin styles.

Batalla's music is equally diverse, a combination of pop, country, Latin, folk, jazz and blues, performed in both English and Spanish, sometimes in the same song.

Batalla grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., the daughter of a Mexican-American father and an Argentine mother. Her parents owned and operated a record store in nearby Venice, so she was surrounded by music and has been singing as long as she can remember.

Batalla flirted with careers in graphic arts, law and creative writing, but she has been performing professionally since she was a teenager.

"Singing was just something I always did," she says. "It was just in my heart all the time. I loved music because of the foundation my parents laid with the record shop.

"But in school, I had teachers who were passionate about music, and they made it meaningful for me, showing me that there was other music out there, such as orchestral and classical. And then I would discover it on my own, like when I was at a record distributor's with my mother, and I just found a Tom Waits album in a pile of records."

She first captured the attention of the greater music world as a background vocalist for Leonard Cohen in the early 1990s. (In fact, I heard her sing with Cohen's band at an unforgettable 1993 performance in Santa Fe, N.M.)

The next year, she saw the release of her debut album, the now-out-of-print Perla Batalla, on the Discovery jazz imprint under the umbrella of the Warner Music Group. It was her first and last album for a major label.

She said the relationship with Warner started well, mostly because she had been signed to the label by the legendary producer and record executive Jac Holzman, who founded the Elektra and Nonesuch labels and who was at the time working for Warner.

"Jac was one my early champions, and he pretty much left me to my own devices in terms of what I was going to do with the album, but by the time the record came out, it was the marketing people who had no idea what to do with me, as I was very strong on the fact that I wanted to sing both in Spanish and English. This was just before the Latin music phenomenon came into existence in the mainstream."

Soon after, Batalla founded her independent label, Mechuda Music, and began running her career herself, alternating between English- and Spanish-language recordings.

"Absolutely, I need to be in a place where not a lot of people are having any real opinions about what I am going to play or about what I'm going to say, or who are telling me what to do, so this arrangement fits me the best."

She has released four albums through Mechuda Music, including Mestiza and Heaven and Earth, on which she collaborated with acclaimed songwriter David Batteau. These recordings represent what she calls "a cross-pollination of Latin and North American musical influences that cuts across genre and language."

Her next CD, Discoteca Batalla, was collection of the Spanish-language classics that she grew up listening to in her parents' record shop of the same name.

Her most recent album, Bird on the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, pays tribute to the artist who has become one of her mentors. "Leonard had so much to do with why I decided to stay on this path. I believe he's one of the most important singer-songwriters alive today, if not of all times. His songs are profound and spiritual."

Batalla recently produced a concert tribute to Cohen in Los Angeles, calling upon many of her musical friends and colleagues to participate.

She also has a CD in the can and awaiting release--the sublime What I Did on My Summer Vacation, a collection of South American standards that she learned while visiting her mother's family in Argentina in 2005.

Batalla said in Tucson, she will perform some of the South American material, some Spanish-language originals and "as much Leonard Cohen as I can work in there."