The life and mythology of Tucson's stomp-box king

He has a paintbrush in one hand, and a guitar in the other. To Salvador Duran, these aren't mutually exclusive tools; they're one in the same.

"I paint my music and sing my paintings," Duran says in Spanish, the language he spoke during most of our conversations.

Duran's twin brother died when they were only one week old, and his mother theorized that Salvador received his brother's talent.

"She said my brother might have given me the music or the painting. It could be true," he says.

For 10 years, the 60-year-old Duran has made his home in Tucson. The desert, he says, captured him, "and I wasn't able to leave." He puts his hands together to illustrate the connection.

"The desert took hold of me, and I'm happy," Duran says. "... I found roots and solitude with the communities here in Tucson—los pochos, los Chicanos, other artists and musicians, and family."

Born in the Mexican mining town of Cananea, Duran spent most his college days and the beginning of his career in Mexico City. He planned a move to Vancouver, British Columbia, but Duran stopped in Tucson to visit family. He liked the fact that it was close to his sisters and mother, who live in Cananea and Hermosillo. So he stayed.

When he first moved to Tucson, Duran says, he worked at Zee's Gallery while he applied for refugee status. At the gallery that was then located in the warehouse next door to Solar Culture, Duran cut rocks, made jewelry and delivered rocks for the gallery.

"My fingers were raw," Duran remembers, holding his fingers in front of his face for a close inspection.

Steven Eye invited him to open a music show at Solar Culture. Eye then told Joey Burns, the Calexico frontman, that he had to meet Duran; when he did, Burns was impressed enough to ask him to perform at a KXCI FM 91.3 benefit.

From there, Duran played more on his own before becoming a fixture with Calexico, and now Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.

Even though Duran has only called Tucson home for a decade, it almost seems as if this Mexican gypsy troubadour on a stomp box has been part of Tucson forever; he's a perfect fit with our desert mythology that embraces what is weird, sincere and/or triumphant.

It's a mythology that counters what our brethren do in Maricopa County. A mad superintendent of public instruction comes to put us in our place, and we ignore him. A mad Legislature and governor pass racist, arcane laws, and we dance and sing against them.

Well, Duran is a salve against all that madness. When he plays a cumbia, our hips move. When he sings a vallenato or corrido, our hearts ache.

Duran says he recognizes that a special connection has been formed between him and his audiences since he began performing here. He's surprised at the connection—especially because those audiences are an unusual mix of young and old, and most fans speak only English.

"It's hard for me to talk about myself. I think that it might be that in that immediate contact, there is the most sincere form of honesty," Duran says. "I was surprised at this act of giving, but not exactly receiving anything in return, but there is a satisfaction of the connection that takes place with the music."

Duran says most of his music has roots in Latin American traditions, but he is particularly fond of the style that he calls huapango—his famous stomp-box songs.

Duran says the desert has healed him and helped him deal with the long list of tragedies that have followed him and his family. With his hands, he puts on an invisible mochila, a pack filled with worries, and holds on to its invisible straps that lay across his chest.

"I have told my family, 'Look, don't put too much of something bad on your back when something else happens.' It will affect your health," Duran says.

His uncle Alejandro Ochoa, a miner in Cananea, taught him as a little boy that when those worries weigh on you, the best way to deal with them is to do a grita—a yell. Duran says his big uncle was called "the Viking," and during mine union meetings, when everyone would start to argue, his uncle would head to the microphone and shout a grita to get everyone to calm down.

"When I came here from Mexico, I was very sad. I had to meet other artists and find some kind of satisfaction, to find a better life, to understand other aspects of life. ... This way of yelling my uncle taught me has helped me over the years. Only a few times have I gone to where the red statue is in front of the (Joel D. Valdez Main) Library and yelled out when I didn't feel good. But art and music are also ways to connect with other people and feel better."

Steven Eye, Solar Culture

(I first met Salvador when) Zee Haag and Colin (Cople) brought him over to our building and said he was an artist and musician. Salvador was very shy and didn't say much. I meet so many people all the time, and didn't really know what to think of him. Six months later, Colin came over to our building again, and said, "Have you seen Salvador's space? He is living on the block in 15 E. Toole," and I was astounded, because I had no idea that he was living on the block, two doors down from our building. I had never seen him going in and out of his building. I went over with Colin to Salvador's building, and for the first time, I saw the world that he had created. There were drawings all over the place. He was drawing and painting on the walls; it was really mind-blowing. That first time that I went to his building, he says, "I will play a song for you." He started singing, and right away, chills went up my spine. The power of his voice transported me to a distant time. I said to him, "What are you doing tomorrow?"

We had an indie-rock show at our building, and I knew there would be over 100 jaded indie-rock kids who were coming to the show, and I wanted to see what would happen if he would sing for them. No one knew that he was going to sing, and right before the headlining band went on, all the kids were very anxious, and we had Salvador get up there to do a couple of songs. I stood back wondering if the kids would be able to appreciate his traditional folkloric music. After his first song, the crowd went wild. I knew from that moment he was a rock star; his music could transcend all ages and genres.

Salvador is an amazing painter; his work belongs in museums; the flowing lines that he does are masterful.

Salvador is one of Tucson's greatest gems. His spirit shines very brightly, and he radiates love. Culture is what nourishes the human spirit. Without it, we lose our compassion and our connection to humanity. We all need to encourage and support our musicians and artists in our local communities; otherwise they will have to move somewhere else where people will appreciate them. Salvador is a great treasure of Tucson, and he struggles day to day to survive here. We as a community need to let him know how much we appreciate him.

When Duran walks into his small art studio tucked inside of Solar Culture, the paintings and sketches against the walls seem almost incidental. He doesn't describe the new set of drawings set against an easel, or remark on the paintings he showed at a recent gallery opening. Instead, he walks straight to some small shelves in a corner.

On one shelf sits an identification card. It pictures a youthful male face topped with a 1970s-era hairstyle and a thick mustache. Duran takes it down and cups it in his hands.

"Mi hermano," he says, looking at the black-and-white image of his brother. Duran's eyes look a little sad, even though he smiles as he puts the card back on the shelf.

The shelves are an altar, Duran says. The religious items there help him feel connected to his culture and traditions. He takes down a small painting of a guardian angel on a square piece of wood.

"My grandmother gave this to me when I was 6 years old," he says.

There is also a little picture of a man playing guitar. Duran says he painted it on toilet paper that he pressed together with plastic, in a circle as wide as his palm, in a Mexican jail. He was detained while police questioned him about his brother, who was a union leader.

There's also a statue of Willie Nelson, a reminder of when he and members of Calexico recorded a Bob Dylan song with Nelson for the I'm Not There soundtrack.

There's a space on the top shelf, as if something is missing.

"I had a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe there that my mother had given me, but this indigenous woman came to visit me, and she loved it so much, I had to give it to her," he says.

When he turns from the corner, he faces his work. The new sketches illustrate what he considers a simpler style than what he's done previously. In one sketch, he revisits the legend of La Llorona.

"When I studied the story of La Llorona, my teachers explained that it was part of our history. It was a story about indigenous people, and when the Spanish would come through, the women would drown the children themselves before the soldiers would kill them," Duran says.

Against the wall are several large paintings he just showed at M.A.S.T., including his take on the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. In Duran's painting, she is holding a man. He explains that it's a portrait of his own mother, and the man is the same brother pictured on the identification card.

"I thought about giving it to my mother, but my other brother told me not to. She is still hurting," Duran says.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Duran and his brother worked as activists in Mexico City. Duran was studying sociology, and his brother studied economics, but both wanted to create change, to make life better for people in their country.

"I attribute this to a philanthropic spirit we were taught at home," Duran says.

Duran's brother decided to work for a mining union, to advocate for mine workers, like their father did in Cananea.

After being jailed twice, in late 1983, his brother disappeared, Duran says.

"He worked with the miners and the union. I worked more with the farmers and the students. We wanted to change the conditions for the life of the workers. The more they are poor, the more they need, and because we were sons of miners, we understood," Duran says.

"My brother worked for a union that represented a very important part of the mining industry. The companies didn't want the unions. He was working for better jobs, better salary and a better life. That could have been a reason that they had to move him out of the way. Of course, we don't know if this is true, but it's something we've told ourselves."

In 1995, Duran was taken into custody, and Mexican officials demanded information on the whereabouts of Duran's brother. They thought they had evidence that linked Duran's brother to the infamous Chiapas leader Marcos. In fact, they suspected his brother was Marcos.

"They thought my brother was Marcos, working with farmers in Chiapas, and that he worked with the indigenous people. ... They would question me every day, the same questions. At 3 in the morning, they would wake me to question me, and then finally someone said it was somebody else and not my brother, and they let me go," Duran remembers.

"But that is my history. That is the past. Now I am here. My life in Tucson is as an artist and a musician."

That time of Duran's life, however, is reflected in his paintings, he says, like that portrait of his mother as the Virgen de Guadalupe, and other drawings of musicians and Aztec figures.

"I like to paint about the Aztecs, the mythology, so I can have that emotional memory and for us not to get lost. ... I can better interpret the reality of things—the economy, what groups are fighting, what countries are in the game and what the rules are. Sometimes you can't understand everything that's going on, and that's the time to have better mental health, and that's why art is important."

Sergio Mendoza, Calexico and Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta

I met Sal through Calexico. It was Sept. 3, 2007, at a Reid Park Bookmans' anniversary party featuring Calexico. I was pretty impressed with the box he stomps on and the way he played and sang all at the same time. I was more impressed with the way he makes everybody feel like they're his best friend. Everybody is Sal's best friend. He makes an instant connection with everyone he meets, young or old.

I remember being in Chicago with Calexico, and Sal went out first and sang in an Aztec dialect. He sounded amazing, like a tenor. He did that for a minute, and he was supposed to end, and he went on for another minute. He loves to improvise on the spot. That was a great moment. We have fun playing the music of Agustín Lara. I enjoy (Sal's) improv and psychedelic sounds more than anything.

Salvador is a positive person. He cares about people, and he's kind of like a fatherly figure to a lot of musicians and artists and fans and reporters. He's the man. Sal will be around for a long time—longer than most of us reading this. Sal is an artist, a musician, and one of my best friends.

There's a philosophy that guides Duran's life, he says.

Some people close to him think he gives too much of himself away—that he should make people pay him more to perform, or pay the full price for his paintings. Duran replies that to change the world, you must live with a generous heart and extend that generosity to every person you meet. This isn't a romantic ideal, and he's not trying to be like a hippie, he insists; it's just a better way of living.

"I believe the generosity is coming back from the places that I've played in the past. My parents taught us to be generous first. It's true that once you become well-liked, you're not always economically compensated with what you are doing, but it is satisfying," Duran says. "You should give something without the thought that you'll receive something back (and) for the pleasure of giving it."

When he stopped working at Zee's Gallery, Duran says, he made a decision to spend most of his time painting and performing. When someone calls to ask him to perform, he doesn't ask about the pay, he says.

"I don't always know what they are going to pay me, although sometimes I do know. On tours and festivals, I know, but in bars, I don't know, but I believe in the generosity of the person who invites me—that they will have the emotion to be generous, too. I also learned that if you ask about the pay before you show up, you can end up losing the venue."

Along the way, Duran says, he's been paid through friendships—with Eye and other local artists, as well as local musicians like Mendoza, Burns, Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jacob Valenzuela. He describes this group as a mosaic of cultures and colors.

"(With them), it doesn't matter when someone was born. It doesn't matter the color of the skin, but what's in your heart. They are all young, much younger than I am. They call me many names—Shaman, Tata (grandfather), Mr. Miyagi; they are very playful.

"The art and music takes us back to our childhoods. It's not a limited thing; it is a family."

Joey Burns, Calexico

I met Salvador through our friend Steven Eye at Solar Culture, who basically said, "You have to meet this guy. He's amazing; he amazes audiences of all genres and ages." So soon thereafter, we invited him to sit in at the Temple of Music and Art for a KXCI benefit show.I improvised a song with him on upright bass; it was as if we'd been playing together for years. Like all shows with him, it was pure magic.

After that night, it was some years later that we introduced Sam Beam of Iron & Wine to Salvador one night when Sal was playing the lobby of the Hotel Congress. Sam invited him to Wavelab Studio the next day to record vocals and percussion. ... This lead to touring with everyone together and recording on a Dylan song with Willie Nelson for the movie soundtrack album (to) I'm Not There. There was a wonderful Sonoran snowball effect.

He loves to lose the sense of time; this he does effortlessly and so graciously, like a best friend from childhood. These tangents are true gifts in the techno-cramped world we are tethered to. His smile or way of greeting people always astounds me, still to this day. Every time we were or are on tour, he is always thanking each and every crew person, band member and person we meet, regardless of who or what they are. We played two nights opening for Los Lobos at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and David Hidalgo says to me, "Where did you find Salvador? He's the real deal." I knew it all along, but it meant so much coming from Hidalgo, another musical hero of mine.

My favorite songs of his are the ones he pulls out of his hat at the spur of the moment and in the hours between 2 and 4 a.m. and when no one is recording, and people are celebrating in a small rehearsal room or backstage dressing room or out on the street in a faraway place. "Corazon Magico" is a cover song, but he plays it like it was born from his soul.

He gives rather than takes, surprises you when you least expect it, and conveys those greater of life's lessons in the most simplest and subtle ways. He may show up late from time to time for a rehearsal or concert, but when he shows up, he brings the goods. He goes deeper than most performers and artists. He is constantly backing and supporting other musicians and inviting them to the sessions in return. He has that true bohemian spirit and at the same time will be reading Nietzsche or Schopenhauer in the backseat of the van while on tour. He always has a pencil and sketch pad to bring some joy to those moments needing a special touch or sentiment.

This reminds me of the time he made a hand-drawn card for our friend (mariachi musician) Ariel Cramer, who had passed away unexpectedly. He hand-delivered it to the family and friends of Mariachi Luz de Luna.

Salvador's birthday party, held at Che's Lounge in May of this year, was a true testament to the diversity of his heart and appreciation of all people regardless of age, background and language. There were so many different kinds of friends that came out that night; I had not realized how deep into the community he has become a beacon of light and inspiration.

Shine on Salvador, Shine on!

Duran's road to Tucson began when he was invited to perform at a festival here, while he visited family. He and his sister went to a gallery with some of his paintings.

"A woman looked over my shoulder and said, 'Those are mine.' After that, she wanted a mural at her house in the foothills. I postponed going to Vancouver, and I started the mural, and then I stayed," Duran says.

Duran had traveled to Vancouver before as part of an exchange program with several universities in Mexico. He was the contact that formalized cultural and academic exchanges between Mexico and the nearby University of Victoria.

"I'd go there and perform at different cultural festivals. I'd even perform with the Chinese community, and the Dakotas at their festivals. They gave me the name Whistle Hawk, because I whistle a lot when I play. The Yaqui I know here call me Hakiwiki; it means 'A Deep Soul,' but it's too big of a name for me," says Duran, smiling broadly.

Duran says that after 10 years in Tucson, he no longer thinks about moving back to Mexico. He's discussed this with his son who remains there.

"He asked me what I'm doing in the U.S.," Duran says.

SB 1070, the Minutemen, the racial division created as a result—it reminds him of the nationalism that grew in Germany during World War II, he says.

"None of these issues can be solved so simply, so easily," he says.

Duran has had his own immigration problems over the years. At first, he could not meet the requirements to qualify for a visa and only received a C-1, which allowed him to travel to the U.S. only if he was on his way somewhere else, like Vancouver.

"When I came to the U.S., they waited for me at the airport, and there was an immigration officer assigned to watch me and make sure I got on my flight back to Mexico," he says.

One time, he saw a Burger King next to the airport. He asked the immigration officer if he could go get a hamburger.

"The woman was very nice and let me go out by myself, and I returned," he recalls.

In 1997, he became eligible for a 10-year work visa that allowed him to come and go.

"I used to like to go from Vancouver to Tijuana. It felt good to be on the road again, like the Willie Nelson song," Duran says, laughing.

Now Duran is a permanent resident and is working with an attorney to apply for citizenship. He is also studying English.

"It is not easy for me. I used to say I didn't want to learn English, and they should learn Spanish. ... Now that I'm older, I know this is a great error."

Gabriel Sullivan

I met Salvador through playing shows around Tucson. Every time I'd see him, I thought for sure he wouldn't remember who I was, but he always greeted me with, "Hey Gabrielito!" It was when we shared a rehearsal space on Toole that I really got to know him. There's a kind of positivity that follows Sal wherever he goes, and anyone around him can't help but be overcome by it. You instantly recognize that he's someone special.

I remember doing a rehearsal with Y la Orkesta a while back at Rialto. We had been playing for four-plus hours, and everyone was running on empty. When I looked across the stage, he was dancing so hard (that) he knocked his mike over, all the while holding his maracas up to his eyes with his tongue out. That's why he's the man.

"Las Calles de Tucson" is my favorite song he wrote. However, he taught me a traditional Peruvian song, "Ojos Azules," that is my favorite one that he plays. I think it's rare to find people, artists especially, who have a genuine love for life, no matter what it throws at them. It's encouraging to be around such a passionate spirit, and we can all learn from him.

Last March at the Fox Tucson Theatre, as part of the Cine Plaza series, Duran performed Agustín Lara songs with Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta to an audience including many older Tucsonans who grew up watching Spanish-language movies at the old Cine Plaza.

"I love it, because I grew up with those songs from that time. We are recycling the old things. At some point, people didn't want that old music, but now that they've heard it, they want this."

If you went to the Fiesta en el Barrio Viejo in April and saw Duran sing Tucson native Lalo Guerrero's "Barrio Viejo," and understood where you were standing, you probably had tears in your eyes.

"When I walk into Barrio Viejo, now I see it differently. I see friends who live there in that neighborhood, and I think of the barrios in France and Mexico. It is the same story, the same emotions," Duran says. "When I sang that day, I was thinking about Lalo Guerrero. A teacher once told me you have to think about the person to integrate them into an idea, a performance. ... For me, it felt like he was there."

Improvisation is also an important part of his work as a musician and a painter. And everything, he says, comes back to emotional memory and mythology, fantasy.

"Without fantasy, the poet cannot write poetry. The mysticism in the Mexican culture is what I discovered I need in order to be a musician and a painter," Duran says.

Brian Lopez, Mostly Bears and Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta

I met Salvador when I started playing guitar with Y la Orkesta. It was my first rehearsal with the group, and I believe it was Sal's as well. I showed up on time; he showed up two hours late. Not much has changed since then.

Sal has an immense amount of charisma. People are immediately drawn to the man. This is an unattainable quality—no amount of rehearsal hours will afford you this. You either have this, or you don't. Salvador definitely does.

Recently, Sergio Mendoza, Salvador and I put together a makeshift cumbia band for a Rialto Theatre party entitled "Quinceañera." We called ourselves the Cumbia Queers, and we totally rocked Tejano attire, including press-on mustaches and cowboy hats. It was hilarious. Salvador didn't even show up to the one rehearsal we had before that gig, so we kicked him out of the band. The day of the gig, he pleaded with Sergio to be let back in, so, of course, we let him back in. He just made words up on the spot during the show with the audience not being the wiser; they were too captivated by our bigotes (mustaches).

Sal refers to me as his son. And many times, after shows, people will ask me whether we are related, so I have just begun telling them that he is my father.

The mochila of worries that Duran tries to avoid has grown lately. Three years ago, his nephew—the son of his brother who disappeared in 1983—also disappeared while traveling between Hermosillo and Nogales.

"Maybe it was an accident, and not that he was the son of the brother that was lost. My father was very sad after this," Duran says.

Just weeks ago, Duran's sister died, while she was on her second honeymoon in Cancun. She had been sick, but everyone thought she was getting better.

And last week, he lost another nephew who drowned in Kino Bay.

"It is a tradition in Cananea: You swim out at Kino Bay. It was dark, though. It was another tragedy. ... It is a very sad time. Now when my sisters fight, I tell them not to fight too much. It's not good for us."

Rather than fight, rather than worry, Duran goes back to his art to interpret everything that's happened. There is always something to say in those drawings and those paintings, he says.

"I am looking for a language of what is happening, what I am living in society, problems of the world, problems with Mexico, what's happening here. Art is a filter. I don't want to say I understand everything that is happening to us, but (art) can be a medicine for somebody, for me, and I also try to communicate this through my art to my sisters and my friends," Duran says.

Duran says he could have easily followed his father into the mines, but he didn't.

"I think because he used to tell us that he didn't want us to be miners. ... He wanted us to prepare ourselves to study. He wanted me to be an engineer. Many of his sons were engineers and worked at the mine, but they didn't do the kind of work he did," Duran says.

"But those times were different. In the old days, the miners could send their children to college. He also was aware of the pulmonary illnesses that came with the job. It was better to become professional. I started to understand this when I was young—the sacrifices of the fathers to send the children to study."

It was art and music which proved to be the best gifts that his parents gave him. His mother and father both sang, and when he performs, he often thinks about their advice.

"You have to sing a song like it's going to be the last time you are going to sing, so the same song isn't going to be boring to you," Duran says.

"'Even if you sing a song 15 times, sing it like it's new to you,' they said. 'Sing it like it's new to you.'"


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