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Ceci Bastida finally says yes to a solo career

Back in the day, circa 1990, Ceci Bastida was known on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border as the little girl with the big presence.

As a member of the legendary, politically in-your-face ska- punk-rock band Tijuana No!, she was one of several oversize personalities, including the late percussionist-vocalist Luis Güereña and Juileta Venegas, an early-stage collaborator who would go on to become a critics’ darling of the bilingual alt-rock music press.

But Bastida, pounding keyboards and belting out precocious covers of the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” as well as protest anthems like “Sin Tierra,” was by many accounts the one you simply had to watch, a petite dynamo. She was only 15 when she joined the band named for her Baja, Calif., hometown.

Later, as Tijuana No! slowly dissolved, Bastida spent eight years playing keyboards in Venegas’ band, a creatively enriching if somewhat self-effacing assignment considering that many had expected her to embark immediately on a solo career.

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Today, Tijuana No! is officially defunct, Venegas is one of Latin America’s biggest pop stars, and Bastida, at last, is stepping fully into her own spotlight.

Her debut album, “Veo La Marea” (“I See the Tide”), has just been released in the United States after hitting Mexican record stores on the EMI label last summer. At Thursday’s Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, Bastida will be a contender in the best alternative songwriting category for “Cuando Vuelvas a Caer” (When You Fall Again)https://www.latingrammy.com/nominados/7-alternative. It’s a competitive bout this year, including entries from two other genre-undermining acts that lately have crept into mainstream U.S. music-industry consciousness, Mexico City alt-rocker Hello Seahorse! and the Colombian funk-hip-hop trio ChocQuibTown.

For Bastida’s fans, these successes have been as much anticipated as they have been long-awaited. Chatting a few days ago at a Chinatown café, Bastida, 37, suggested that her own fundamentally shy nature and perfectionist tendencies contributed to the deferred arrival of her first full-length record. But she believes that, artistically, the delay has paid off.

“I used to be very like a control freak,” she said. “Like I wanted things to sound a certain way, and if they didn’t I would get kind of upset. And I think I wanted to learn to let go. I had to go with my gut.”

Although she has only good things to say about her years with Tijuana No!, and Venegas remains one of her closest friends, Bastida, who now lives in Montecito Heights with her husband, said she didn’t want to repeat the past on her first solo album. “I really don’t want to sound like I sounded 20 years ago. I think that would be a little depressing, for me at least.”

She first began mapping out the idea for the record around 2006, while still playing with Venegas. At that point she had released an EP, “Front BC,” that was gaining traction and helped her land an in-studio showcase at tastemaker radio station KCRW-FM and other prominent venues.

Two years later, she completed an initial version of the record. But unhappy with the arrangements, Bastida returned to the studio and essentially started over, even though it obviously meant postponing the release. For the 2.0 version she insisted on wrapping her songs in aggressively unconventional arrangements. “One of the things I really wanted to focus on was the beats being interesting,” she said. “I love snares, and I love snare rolls. And that’s one of my favorite things in norteno music or banda music.

“And I also wanted the bass to be very present. I’m not a huge guitar fan. When I write, I’ll come up with the beat in a very rough way, then come up with the bassline, all that stuff. But when I start thinking about guitar I can never really come up with anything.”

On “Veo La Marea,” Bastida blends ‘80s British synth-pop, second-wave ska (think the Specials and the Selecter), hard-edged hip-hop and whimsical dashes of Mexican regional folk music. The quirkily catchy “Cuando Vuelvas a Caer,” addressed to an emotionally pratfall-prone lover, features blasts of banda horns and dark minor chords, terminating in a vaguely sinister carousel waltz that Richard Rodgers might’ve appreciated.

The funky “No Te Digan Que No” opens with an urgently curious drum beat, accompanied by electronic whoops and screeches, that suggests a marching-band soloist traipsing through the Amazon rainforest. Then, its passion momentarily spent, the song races down from its tropical groove into a brief, chimey repose, and almost fades out entirely before jumping back up on its feet.

On another track, Bastida puts a revisionist spin on “This Town,” a cheerleader-y L.A. homage by the quintessential ‘80s SoCal gal group the Go-Go’s, with a guest turn by Tim Armstrong, a veteran of numerous bands including Rancid, which influenced Tijuana No!

As a teenager, Bastida was drawn to boys and “kind of struggled to get along with girls a little bit.”

“Guys would think of other things aside from getting their hair done or whatever. So we would talk about music and lend each other records here and there. So that seemed more fun to me.”

Although she still can dish attitude as well as any bad-boy quartet in ripped jeans and ill-fitting leather jackets, her new album establishes Bastida as someone who’s not averse to having a little un-self-conscious fun. It also exploits the tension between her dulcet voice and spiky songwriting wit.

Venegas thinks that the new record does justice to both dimensions. “It’s hard to describe,” Venegas said, “because it’s not a traditional pop sound, but with the sweetness of her voice it sounds like that.”

Her manager, Rich Egan, said that when he first encountered Bastida, her sugar-and-spice, irrepressible stage persona reminded him of Annabella Lwin, the tough-pixie front girl of the ‘80s British New Wave-post-punk Bow Wow Wow. One bilingual tune on “Veo La Marea,” with its nursery-rhyme refrain, starts off sounding like one of Bow Wow Wow’s shiny baubles.

But, shifting abruptly into a rap, the song denounces Mexico’s vicious narco-trafficking culture and President Felipe Calderon’s faltering war against it. At one point Bastida adopts the first-person point of view of a young aspiring dealer and laments “Dollars green and borders red, why so many gotta end up dead?”

Although he doesn’t speak Spanish and previously had managed mostly guy-centric ensembles such as Barenaked Ladies and Dashboard Confessional, Egan signed on with Bastida as his first female, and first native Spanish-speaking, artist. “Her passion for art comes through so clearly in her songs, it doesn’t matter what language she’s singing in,” he said.

For a follow-up Bastida is pondering a song cycle inspired by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s philosophical novel “Kafka on the Shore.” If it takes her in yet another new direction, this much seems certain: Bastida, who still admittedly likes to take charge, will be the one calling the tunes.

“When you’re in a band you have to kind of give in, compromise things here and there,” she said. “Now I don’t really have to compromise. And it sounds selfish, but I prefer it.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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