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A Well-Connected Trio From Mexico : * Folk music: Befriended by an L.A. couple, Quetzalcoatl seeks to entertain and educate listeners about rarely heard sounds.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barely a year ago, the trio called Quetzalcoatl was exploring the Mexican countryside to learn traditional folk music at its roots. The musicians played regularly with modest success at street festivals and at El Sol y La Luna, a Oaxaca restaurant created out of an enclosed courtyard with a palm tree growing in the middle. Like some counterparts in the United States, they lamented what they saw as Mexican music of substance--theirs--crowded from the airwaves by Mexican music produced for mass sales.

Then came a couple of U.S. fans with connections galore. Invitations for the group to visit Santa Fe and Los Angeles snowballed into a list of appearances pages long and performances for the spring TV series “The Antagonists,” the upcoming movie “American Me” and Kathleen Turner’s latest movie, “V.I. Warshawski.”

“We had no idea. We thought we were just inviting them to pass through,” says Lauren Rickey Greene of Santa Monica, a visual artist who now is the group’s co-manager.

It could be a rags-to-riches tale, although the musicians note they haven’t reached the riches part yet. They don’t aspire to own expensive sports cars, but they would at least like apartments. (Their temporary home is in a restored 1910 house overlooking the ocean with Rickey Greene and her husband, David Greene, an Emmy-winning TV director.)

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But the trio’s primary aim is to preserve the traditional music. “I think the most important message for people is that our music is not dead,” said Alfredo Lopez, who also writes some contemporary music for the group.

They also seek to educate. North Americans imagining Mexican music “always think about mariachis . . . but that is not true. That is (only) one part of Mexico,” says Fernando Nataren, a former anesthesiologist who abandoned financial security for the mental security he finds in music. “When we say we are Mexican, we don’t want people to imagine we have a really big hat.”

Abel Rocha, the third member of the group, began his career by studying anthropology and ethnomusicology. “I felt it was not enough for me to just study theory,” he said, so he is combining the two fields in sound.

Their performances showcase traditional folk music from five regions of Mexico--Guerrero, La Huasteca, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Michoacan--and Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela.

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During their shows, they explain which of the 17 instruments they are about to play (12 are variations of guitars, including the jarana, guitarra quinta and cuatro ), which area of Mexico the music is from, and the political or historical or romantic message of the songs (sung in Spanish).

David Greene, who helped the group with their formerly “very academic” performance style, calls them educators and entertainers both.

The musicians are faithful to traditional musical techniques, using the right instruments and correct singing styles, according to Timothy Harding, professor of Latin American history and instructor of Latin American music at Cal State Los Angeles and former ethnomusicology instructor at UCLA. Few such groups exist in Mexico and none he knows of in the United States, he says. In addition, “They have a way of interacting with each other--they give it a life,” Harding said. “It doesn’t sound like a reproduction of something studied. It’s something that really is creative.”

The musicians are surprised to be getting this sort of welcome; their managers, familiar with the North American music business, are even more so. “It’s really extraordinary for a group to come this far in such a short period of time,” Rickey Greene says.

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Billy James, the other co-manager and longtime friend of Rickey Greene, says the group would “probably not” have had this much exposure if it weren’t for the Greenes’ connections. Friends of the Greenes and other new fans have helped with free or discounted medical and legal help and other professional advice.

“People like to help,” Rocha said. “It’s a very good means to open up hearts.” In addition, he says, “I think this is a time that the United States is opening their taste and their minds to other cultures and to music from all over the world.”

* Quetzalcoatl will open a show at the Santa Monica College Amphitheatre on Saturday.


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