In 1985, English teacher Hugo Pedroza got a phone call from pop singer Jackson Browne, who asked if Pedroza and his band, Sangre Machehual, could appear on his next album.
"I thought it was a crank call," Pedroza said.
After all, then as now, Sangre Machehual was a Los Angeles-based band that numbered among its eight members only four professional musicians. Pedroza and Rodolfo Bernal worked as teachers, as they still do, and a couple had labored as janitors and busboys.
But, a year later, Sangre Machehual (which means "blood of the poor") had formed the distinctive Latin sound on the title track of Browne's album, "Lives in the Balance."
Now, five years after Browne first heard the group at a Nueva Cancion (New Song) festival at UCLA, he and Sangre Machehual are about to embark on a national tour, featuring the music of both in an acoustic format.
The last in a series of benefit shows preceding the tour is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday at Copley Symphony Hall. Proceeds will go to the San Diego Interfaith Task Force on Central America and to El Refugio, its shelter for the refugees of war-torn countries.
The group defines the music as mixing "strong Latin roots with a perspective on Latin American affairs that is defined through the hopes and fears of the resident refugee population."
Of all the group's members, only Pedroza, 32, is American-born, and, for him, Saturday night's concert is something of a homecoming. He was born in San Diego and grew up in National City. The Sweetwater High School graduate--who earned a master's degree in education from UCLA and is now pursuing a Ph.D--was one of 16 children (10 brothers, six sisters).
Pedroza's family once lived in San Ysidro in the shadow of the international border. He remembers looking out the window at night and seeing undocumented migrants by the dozen crossing to a better life. His dream was to move beyond San Diego, to get a degree while also pursuing a lifelong passion for music.
In 1978, Sangre Machehual was founded when Pedroza and three other undergraduates got up to play during a protest rally at UCLA. Issues surrounding Nicaragua and El Salvador emboldened the band, and, by 1984, after Costa Rican guitarist Jorge Strunz joined, Sangre Machehual had what Pedroza calls its core.
Browne came along in 1985, and Pedroza hopes the 1990 tour and their album being produced by Browne will be the turning point that makes every band member a professional musician.
Guitarists Strunz, 46, and Ardeshir Farah, 35, from Iran, are professional musicians who have a separate band of their own. Their fifth album is about to be released on Mesa/Blue Moon Records.
Pedroza and Bernal work all day as teachers for the Los Angeles Unified School District and then go to rehearsal. (They teach English as a second language in adult education programs.) Osmin Aparicio from El Salvador works as a custodian for the school district, and Quique Cruz from Chile recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Latin American studies. Long John Oliva from Cuba and Guillermo Guzman from Colombia also work as full-time musicians.
Bernal has a family, as does Aparicio--whose earliest nights in Los Angeles were spent sleeping in the back of a truck, terrified he might get caught. He had come to the United States illegally, leaving behind in El Salvador what he called a nightmare of terror and pain.
"Osmin lost friends and family members because of the social and political upheaval in that country," Browne said. "He came here to live a good life, a life of safety. That experience lends a weight--and a validity--to his singing."
Aparicio said the struggle any artist faces in "making it" was, for most of Sangre Machehual, complicated by a far more challenging ordeal: immigrating and then obtaining either resident status or citizenship (which all have done). Bernal, 44, who came from Mexico City, worked 18 hours a day as a janitor and restaurant cleanup man to put himself through school. So, for him, he said, standing on a stage in New York City, which he will do later this summer, really is a dream come true.
Bernal said Nueva Cancion, or the New Song movement, is important because it links Latinos to the roots many have left behind. He said it's essential for the same reason that Vietnamese music is vital for that population of Asian-Americans--it places them in a culture that's gone and won't be recovered unless they make the effort.
"Many of the younger ones don't feel a part of Latino or American culture," he said. "So, many of them turn to drugs or gangs. They lack a sense of identity. This music restores pride, plus, it just sounds so good."
Browne said much of Nueva Cancion, and particularly the music of Sangre Machehual, is very emotional.
"The thing people are amazed by," he said, "is this beautiful, melodic music coming out of these bamboo-like instruments. It's an emotional thing. It's hard to describe, but people react to it in a very emotional way. It's a passionate sound, and when I heard it, I said, that's the sound for 'Lives in the Balance.' "
Browne compares Nueva Cancion to the folk-flavored music made famous by Bob Dylan in the '60s. He called it an effort by songwriters to write about issues central to their own lives, whether it's love or political revolution.
"Popular music in the United States before (Dylan's) time was mostly made up by professional songwriters and produced by producers, and suddenly, you had all these people running around who were writing about their own experience, and that really revolutionized rock 'n' roll," said Browne, who himself began as a folk singer whose first album appeared in 1972. "And now, the same thing is happening in Latin America."
Pedroza traces the beginnings of Nueva Cancion to Chile and the aftermath of Salvador Allende's assassination. Browne said Victor Jara, a Chilean songwriter, is to Nueva Cancion what Dylan was to American music in the '60s.
He called Sangre Machehual one of the more appealing practitioners of the form.
"When I first heard them, I was just knocked out," Browne said. "I went to UCLA to hear a band from Nicaragua, and out of everybody that played that day, this band just burned down the house."
Browne liked Strunz's guitar playing and the sound of the zampona , Andean pan pipes made from a thin, reedy material that looks like pieces of a bamboo fishing pole strung together by twine. It's the zampona , played by Chilean Quique Cruz, that gives "Lives in the Balance" its flute-like resonance.
Pedroza also appears on "Lives," playing the charango , a small, 10-string guitar carved from the shell of an armadillo. The cut is noteworthy in that Strunz, Pedroza and Cruz hold their own with Browne, as well as noted session musicians Bob Glaub on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums. A video of "Lives in the Balance" was later used on a public broadcasting special about Contragate, with Bill Moyers as host.
Browne said his effort with the band is "to make the best record possible," not to serve as some sort of career guidance counselor. His motive was the same, he said, in producing debut albums for Warren Zevon and David Lindley, both of whom launched recording careers.
"That's of much more interest to me than whether or not they become hugely successful," Browne said. "To me, it doesn't matter, because their lives and the way they've lived them already have borne such excellent results. I'm not interested in changing them into something else, but at the same time, I understand such dreams."