It's not easy being a musician in Nicaragua these days. With the economy struggling, there isn't a lot of money to support the arts. The only recording studio is an old eight-track, there are no record-pressing facilities and radio is dominated by American and English music.

So how did the duo known as Guardabarranco and solo artist Salvador Bustos come up with the polished, professionally packaged albums that were recently released here by the Oakland-based activist label Redwood Records?

Mainly, Jackson Browne.

"Jackson was in Nicaragua last year and we met him at a dinner, in a meeting with other musicians and artists," recounted Katia Cardenal, 22. She and her brother, Salvador, 25, make up Guardabarranco.

"We sang, and it started a relationship very good. Because we were supposed to come to New York last year, he invited us to go to Los Angeles, because he has a studio in his house. He sent us the tickets and we spent one month in his house, recording our albums."

The rock star produced both Guardabarranco's "Si Buscabas" ("If You Were Looking") and Bustos' "Tragaluz" ("Skylight"), capturing the spare, natural quality of the artists' live performances. He also brought in some of his noted sidemen--drummer Russ Kunkel, keyboardist Craig Doerge and bassist Bob Glaub--to assist on some tracks. The Cardenals and Bustos will appear tonight at the First Unitarian Church and Saturday at the Cafe Cultural in East Los Angeles.

According to Katia Cardenal, the aim of this nine-city tour is to convey "a message of peace of our people to the people of the United States." Despite the hostility between the two governments, she said during a phone interview this week from New York, the Nicaraguans had no problem securing visas and permits to perform in the United States.

Guardabarranco (named for Nicaragua's national bird) and Bustos are part of a movement that's been dubbed Volcanto , a combination of the words meaning "volcano" and "to sing." Explained Cardenal: "We are a young movement. There were only a couple of groups that sang before the revolution (in 1979), and most of the songs they played were very folkloric and talked about political things very clear, because we were in a war.

"Now, after the revolution, there are a lot of new musicians who are trying to tell about more than just conflict or things that are just happening in Nicaragua. We are trying to talk about things that happen any time in any place, that are important for any people. We chose the name Volcanto because Nicaragua is a land full of volcanoes and full of musicians, full of fire, spirit and feelings."

The Cardenals are supported by salaries from the Ministry of Culture, but Katia insists that the government exerts no control over their work and says that she would feel free to criticize the revolution in her music.

"We do what we feel. We can write about what we see and what we feel. Of course," she added, "they know that we are trying to tell good things to people."

Like non-mainstream acts in America, Guardabarranco finds itself struggling for radio exposure at home. "It's a problem for us," said Cardenal, "because we try to get to the people from our country, but most of the people only know Madonna and Michael Jackson and Julio Iglesias. . . . The radio stations tell us that the people don't ask for our music. But the people don't ask for our music because they don't hear us on the radio station."

Despite their familiarity with American music, the Cardenals' one-month stay in Los Angeles last year did offer its share of culture shock. "It's so different from our cities," Katia said. "It has a little taste of Mexican in some of the buildings. But I don't know . . . you know, in the streets in the night, all the guys--the punks, all the stores selling records and T-shirts and chains and black clothes to be like a punk. It's very different."

No punks in Nicaragua?

"No, no. Well, some people use two earrings or something like that, but you don't see people with green hair."

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