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World Music Features

Ely Guerra

By David Oancia Prieto
Published October 4, 2005

Mexico's Ely Guerra is burning the rulebooks. Lotofire, her first international release, had bucked against her country’s prevailing trade winds.

In 2001, Ely Guerra hit New York’s Bowery Ballroom stage bathed in an eerily moody light. As the set progressed, she slowly gave reign to her inner world and took flight. The deeper into the music she took herself, the more she unwittingly imitated Brazilian soccer star Catanha’s seagull strut. Each time the band explored the parameters, furthering its outright psychedelic touches, she bent over, flapping her arms slowly and sensually as if the wind and vibrations surrounding her were lifting her into another place and time—another realm left to discover.

But few knew of the inner turmoil and pressure the young Mexican artist was living through. Her record company at home had effectively dropped her and she was fighting to keep her career afloat. In a last-ditch effort to attract attention, her manager, Juan de Dios Balbí, set up an American tour, the jewel in the crown being the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) showcase in Manhattan.

The result exceeded all expectations; it was a critical splash. As Guerra herself put it, “We went to New York to present the disc, then we hit Chicago and L.A. It was amazing to see the Latinos in the U.S., as well as the gabachos, accepting and liking the music we had created. More than a rebirth, my music gained in strength; it turned into a triumph. We had spent so much time and energy fighting for the record, but on that tour we reaped what we had sown.”

Her greatest commercial sin also happened to be her supreme artistic virtue: The music she had composed for Lotofire, which has since become her first international release, had bucked against her country’s prevailing trade winds.

Back in 1999, also in New York, Guerra started recording what would be her third record with hot-shot producer Andrés Levin and a bevy of the Big Apple’s finest, including drummer Larry Mullins; Arto Lindsay, who didn’t play insomuch as suggest and prod her into new directions; and guitarist Marc Ribot. As the project took shape, the music changed, the black-and-white emotional snapshots of her previous output now taking on multi-hued tones and textures. Whereas the previous material had been starkly dense and organic, Lotofire was becoming an artistic rebirth in every sense.

“Andrés is a person who really works the studio,” Guerra says, distancing and embracing the process at the same time. “We dedicated six months of production work, so there was time to confect the disc. It may be elaborate, but I don’t find it excessively so. The work was very spontaneous and we weren’t looking to create a very produced disc. There are some sounds that make the music instantly identifiable, but it isn’t exceptionally complicated. We had Pro Tools [digital audio recording software], so we were able to play with the arrangements with the drum tracks and other things, but I never wan