Rhythm Around Us

José Saavedra sings about what he sees in the world surrounding him

Throughout his life, José Saavedra Iguina has heard the melodies and rhythm created by the world around him. As a singer and songwriter, he works to transform those sounds into music.

Enjoying a double espresso and hand-rolled cigarette at a sidewalk café within walking distance of his Tucson home, the Puerto Rican-born Saavedra (whose friends call him Pepo) gestures to a nearby bird and says, "I want to write music that that pigeon can be part of."

He speaks perfect English, with only the slightest hint of an accent, thanks to English studies that began in first grade.

"Everything around us has its unique rhythm and melody. That's why I write in noisy places, urban environments," Saavedra says as a Harley rumbles and a trolley car clatters in the street beside him.

A Tucson resident for four years, Saavedra has released two independently made CDs of his original Spanish-language folk music--Veredas Verdes (Green Paths) last year, and Versos Reversos (Verse Reverse) this past fall.

Saavedra writes, plays and sings music in the style known as nuevo canción (new song) in Latin America and, more specifically, nueva trova (new ballad) in Cuba and his native country.

Both forms are known for combining traditional Latino folk-music idioms with progressive lyrics about social issues and the human condition. Many nueva trova artists are as influenced by the work of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and The Beatles as they are by the traditional music of their homelands.

Saavedra's next gig is Wednesday, Dec. 28, at Plush. He will also perform live earlier that evening on community radio station KXCI (91.3 FM). He'll be the featured guest on the show Onda Suave, which airs from 6 to 8 p.m.

Born in the town of Quebradillas, on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, Saavedra grew up all over the island, in a large, extended family devoted to music. His father--whom he still calls his best friend--was a great fan of the traditional romantic trios of Puerto Rico, and all of his uncles played guitar, he says.

"My mother has 11 brothers and sisters, and all the men are guitarists. When there would be a family party, no recorded music would be played. It was all love. And in their breaks, I would pick at their guitars."

When Saavedra's father asked him what he wanted to do with his life, the 11-year-old answered that he wanted to play music. So his dad bought him his first guitar.

Because Saavedra is left-handed, he learned to play guitar on right-handed instruments by inverting the chords--not unlike an early idol of his, Jimi Hendrix. "I still keep a right-handed guitar around so I can pick it up to play the inverted chords--it's like speaking a different language."

Until he was 8 years old, Saavedra had never heard English-language music.

"I remember going as a child to the Sears in Puerto Rico, and they had this table of cassette tapes, all with this music I had never heard--Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin. I remember bringing home Band of Gypsies and Houses of the Holy when I was 8. It was life-changing."

As a teenager, Saavedra switched to electric bass to earn extra money by playing with rock and jazz bands in bars. In that manner, he put himself through school at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. During this period, he also started writing songs.

"When I left Puerto Rico, I didn't have enough money or space to travel with an electric bass and an amp and all that, so I got out the acoustic guitar again."

Saavedra has lived in Guatemala (where he was a Peace Corps volunteer for two years), Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Minnesota before moving to Tucson four years ago so his wife, Elise DuBord, could pursue a doctorate in border studies at the University of Arizona.

DuBord, a Minnesota native of French-Croatian heritage, also is Saavedra's musical partner. She plays violin, accompanying her husband on recordings and in concert.

Saavedra works in Tucson as an early childhood educator for children with special needs. He has also been involved over the years in social justice issues, especially with migrant farm worker populations.

As a performer in the nuevo trova tradition, Saavedra feels a responsibility to sing about what he sees happening in the world around him. "I see writing as a way of reflecting on what's around us: events, people, color, movement. Songs are a way of honoring the people around you and the space you occupy at a given time."

Although Tucson's population boasts many listeners who are bilingual, Saavedra often finds himself performing to primarily English-speaking audiences. This has presented him with a special challenge. "I've had to resolve the circumstance of singing live if people don't necessarily understand what you're singing. It can be devastating, but it can also be a great growing experience," he says.

"Music is a language in itself. It can put you in a space, even without words, for creating and communicating experience."

Saavedra has begun to write in English as well. "Hunting Season," a song on the new album about the Minuteman project, is the first English-language tune he's recorded. He expects to write more.

"It depends on the need I have for a song. There are some things that I want to sing in English, and some things I want to sing in Spanish."

Saavedra says that his adopted home of Tucson, compared to the other places in which he has lived, "is a very artist-friendly community. People just go that extra mile to support local artists and independent artists."

"The venues are extremely helpful to the independent performer, and the studios aren't just for big-time musicians, but they all help to more deeply explore the creative process."

Saavedra, who sells his CDs at his Web site (www.josesaavedra.com), has discovered he has fans outside of Tucson: "I get checks from New Jersey to Wyoming."

That might have something to do with the fact that Saavedra's music has appeared the nationally syndicated radio show Democracy Now!, which also airs Monday through Friday on KXCI.

And yet Saavedra hasn't really taken his music on the road for concert tours, except when he goes to Puerto Rico for his annual visit home. This year, he'll be there Jan. 13-29, and he already has arranged four gigs.

What the future holds for Saavedra is not always clear, and he knows he's not always in control. "For me, the path in life ... well, the path walks you in a way. Our mission is to let it do that, as best we can."

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