Ersi Arvizu is best-known for her stint with El Chicano, a jazz-inflected East Los Angeles rock band of the early 1970s, but she sang in several other Chicano soul groups both before and after that, and also worked as a boxing trainer who herself went 4-0 in the ring. She’d been out of music for more than three decades when Ry Cooder enlisted her for his 2005 album Chavez Ravine; Cooder also produced this rich, compelling album of autobiographical songs in Spanish and English.
Arvizu’s voice is hot and smoky like dry ice, seasoned by a lifetime of having learned by doing. At the same time, it is utterly, guilelessly romantic, as if her undeniable toughness exists mainly to protect her tenderness. Every word she sings rings real and true – and that’s not necessarily easy. The title song, for example, written for Cooder for talking her into returning to music, uses the cliches “long and winding road” (to describe life), “walk a straight and narrow path,” and “take it day by day” all in the first four lines, yet I dare you doubt one syllable of it. With its expansive vocals and spare backing – the music is a sort of repetitive, laid-back, Afro-beat motif – the whole song should have come off as schmaltzy; instead, she sings it like scripture, creating an anthem I couldn’t get out of my head if I wanted to.
Rockers such as “Cruisin’ To The Hop” are propelled by groove, while ballads such as “Mi India” and “Sin Tu Querer” are impossibly melodic – yet the former have more than their share of melody, and ditto the latter for groove. The songs all begin with a nifty little rhythmic figure – no two alike – that the band rides and builds on with such grace and glee that you can’t help but be carried along, whether or not you understand the language of the lyrics.
Arvizu wrote nearly all of the songs, too, usually with keyboardist Joey Navarro, which ain’t bad for someone who’d never written a song before this. At one point, on “En El Tambo”, she even rhymes “responsibility” with “correctional facilities” and makes the two lines sizzle. No matter how you look at it, she’s got the beat.