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Watching a Mexican diva unfold, lotuslike


What's on my mind

From across the plaza she waves, arm extended in the air. It’s a pleasant December afternoon in Mexico City, and I’m waiting to interview Mexican rock star Ely Guerra. She lives just blocks away from the central plaza in Coyoacan, the “place of the coyotes” long favored by artists, intellectuals and writers.

Ely approaches, dressed in a white blouse, low-rise slacks and sneakers. She takes off her dark glasses as we greet each other with a Mexican abrazo. She is justifiably proud of her neighborhood. As we walk, she points to the Plaza Hidalgo, the Church of San Juan Bautista built in 1589. The area is alive with street vendors, an organ grinder, balloons and children playing.

We first met two months earlier in Los Angeles, where Ely gave two concerts. I have been following her career since 1995, and to see her perform was revealing. Though backed by four young men on keyboards, drums, bass and guitar, Ely was virtually alone, switching between her two guitars and singing without any vocal backup. The two guitars — both pink in color — are major statements in a culture where the guitar and the guitarist are central to male-dominated musical traditions.

Ely has long done things her way — feminine and sensual — with intelligence, strength and passion, taking Mexican music in new, daring cultural directions. Like no other Mexican female poet or composer, we find in her music poetic elements of physical and spiritual passion — impressive for someone who has no formal training in music. Literature, especially poetry, with its passionate and corporeal elements, interests Ely, as is evident in the themes of all her CDs.

“Lotofire,” her third CD (1999) is a classic of rock fused with poetry, New Wave, Latin and Brazilian rhythms, and Eastern chant-like vocalizations. The title alludes to the lotus flower, native to Asia but not foreign to Latin American poetic traditions. In his Eastern-inspired poems, Octavio Paz writes that the lotus blossoms out of murky waters to reveal itself white and pure, symbolizing the spiritual union of physical opposites, male and female.

For Ely, in her fin-de-siècle feminism, the lotus is the female soul at the point of transformation to what is pure, transcendent, illuminated. “Lotofire” captures, according to Ely, the spiritual journey of a woman who has looked at her world and risen to self-awareness. The album’s 10 songs are personal and worldly observations on the status of women and Mexico at the end of the 20th century. All of Ely’s songs are delivered through the language of poetry — not easily accessible, but once understood, revealing a woman in dialogue with her audience.

It’s as if Ely Guerra has reached the point of transformation, finally receiving the attention she has long deserved. After our interview, she walks me to her home, decorated with Asian art and wall prints. She would like to travel to Asia, she tells me. In her living room is a very large flower vase containing the largest and most beautiful calla lilies I have seen, like the ones in Diego Rivera’s famous paintings. As I ponder the beautiful ambiance, she offers, “Aqui tienes tu casa (This is your home).”

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