From Sousa to Stevie

The sonic evolution of Rebeca Suarez


On October 19, the Egyptian Theatre filled with people eager to hear the incomparable Mixtec diva, Lila Downs. Rumors of her mahogany voice and hypnotic presence spilled from row to row until a lithe figure stepped into the hot stage lights. Her raven hair was slicked into a tight bun, the cut of her cheekbones just slightly dulled by the darkness of her eyes. She sat on a stool with her guitar and introduced herself as Rebeca Suarez. In those few words, the texture of her voice commanded our silence. It was soft, exceedingly soft, like music even before she sang. But beneath its delicacy was sculpted power, and though Downs' performance was riveting, Suarez' sincerity and simple style struck a deeper chord.

Raised the granddaughter of Venezuelan political refugees in rural Ohio, Suarez struggled with discrimination as a girl. She is now a stately, fine-boned woman with features that are exotic yet somehow classic--manifestations of a lineage not easily guessed. She is beautiful by any standard, but as a child she tried to hide her roots.

"I didn't tell people I was Latin American; I was chicken," Suarez said. "It has taken me a long time to be really comfortable in my own skin. I still kind of stick out--nobody thinks I'm American or Venezuelan--but it doesn't bother me anymore."

As a result of a childhood spent drifting from the Deep South to the Midwest to Meridian, Idaho, Suarez searched for focus earlier than most. Inspired by her grandfather's love of the arts and her stepfather's passion for jazz, she played piano, then oboe, snare drums, timpani and chimes, all of which she taught herself in the midst of trying to be a normal teenager.

"I got into the new wave punk scene, a typical junior high outcast listening to the Smiths and the Sex Pistols. And all those years I was in band, I really wanted to be in choir," she said.

Hearing her perform, you would never guess that Suarez took up singing only four years ago and that she's been playing guitar for less than half that time. Both instruments are trained and limber, mingling deliciously in the rich chords of traditional Latin songs and original fusion pieces.

"I've been doing music mostly as a moneymaking thing, and the Folklorica I play out and about is background--soft and pretty," Suarez said. "But I'm heading into a more creative mode, mixing more modern with traditional." This mix includes a song about poverty that pairs an upbeat sound with dark subject matter and a contemplative tune on the banjo; yet another instrument Suarez is learning by feel.

Borrowing from many genres, Suarez' role models range from Earth Wind & Fire to Stevie Wonder, but her ultimate icon is Elvis Costello.

"He's about as close to the ideal man as possible--so prolific. The way he puts music together and mixes styles is always good, and his lyrics are incredible, profound without being corny," she said, adding that she is quick to admire but not to imitate. "I don't try to be like anybody else, cause that never works out," she laughed. Instead, this dynamic woman with a degree in fine arts and photography has embraced her musical muse and lets inspiration come on its own schedule. "It's frustrating when nothing is happening, but when it is, I have no control over it," she said.

Finding time in her busy schedule of raising three daughters, playing music, performing in the Renegade Circus and putting together her first CD, Suarez dreams of opening an artists' refuge/hostel in Venezuela.

"I want it to be a place friends can come to work and stay. I'll have recording equipment and a dance studio--a resource for artists from the forgotten side of the community," she said. In accomplishing this goal, Suarez hopes not only to foster her own talents but also to support modern artists in Latin America. "All people want to see is Mariachi," she said. "I want to show them contemporary Latin America--that we are real people, not cartoon characters going around in sombreros and low-riders."

As uncertain as this future may seem, Suarez is relaxed and hopeful. She points to a lifetime of affirmations, and whatever the tone of her music, its quality speaks to the possibilities.

"I've always had a lot of goals and done a lot of things I've been criticized for, things other people said were impossible or a dream or crazy. But I'm not worried about the final destination, and I'm not afraid of failure, because so many people told me things weren't going to happen that did," she said. "Even if I do fail, who cares? It always leads to something else."

For more information about Rebeca Suarez and her music, e-mail