An explosive fusion of cultures
Rock-rapper Zack de la Rocha pairs with the Mexican folk band Son de Madera. The result is searing and liberating.

By Agustin Gurza, Times Staff Writer

Little has been heard from outspoken lead singer Zack de la Rocha since he split five years ago from L.A.'s fierce rock-rap band Rage Against the Machine, one of the most powerful, politically charged acts in rock history. The once-electrifying performer has shunned the stage, avoided the press and delayed completion of his long-awaited solo album.

On Friday, De la Rocha reemerged in a surprisingly self-effacing way. He was billed as a guest artist with Mexico's Son de Madera, an excellent but little-known ensemble that plays the traditional folk music of Veracruz called son jarocho. Their performance was part of a lecture/entertainment series called First Fridays at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, sponsored by the institution in Exposition Park.

This must rank as one of the most understated rock star comebacks of all time. De la Rocha — his dreadlocks replaced by a frizzy Afro, his electric guitar by a small Mexican jarana — walked casually onstage in the sweltering Hall of North American Mammals to the cheers of fans crammed between diorama exhibits of wildlife along each side. He took his place inconspicuously in a lineup with four fellow guitarists, standing to the left and rear of the platform between the musk oxen and the stellar sea lions.

His low-key entrance signaled that this night was not about stardom or recapturing the glory days. It was, trite as it sounds, about the music, which lived up to the theme of the event, "The Shape of Things to Come."

Injecting De la Rocha into Son de Madera was like getting Aztec dancers to break dance. The marriage of his angry punk-rap ethos with son jarocho's lyrical, joyful spirit seemed incongruous at first — until you heard the startling results.

It was like liberating a beloved tradition. The essence of the earthy, acoustic sound was preserved while being transformed, even radicalized. The performance left the exciting impression that something totally new was being created.

The laboratory for this musical experiment has been the Highland Park garage of Chicano musicians Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez, who also performed Friday with Quetzal, their own band, and sat in with Son de Madera.

While the De la Rocha encounter may seem unexpected, it's actually part of a deliberate effort to bring Chicano and Mexican musicians together through a network of collaborations called Fandango Sin Fronteras, with adherents from San Jose to Santa Ana. De la Rocha, a second-generation Chicano, started studying the jarana guitar two years ago and traveled this year to Veracruz for the annual son jarocho festival.

On Friday, he sometimes played along with the syncopated, counterpoint rhythms of the music, closing his eyes and singing the Spanish chorus with a blissful smile. At other times, he sang lead vocals on his own songs, making the English lyrics fit naturally by forcing the jarocho rhythms — carried on cajon (a percussive box), conga and upright bass — to adapt to his rock-rap phrasing.

De la Rocha proved his angry punk persona has not mellowed, turning dance beats into war chants while denouncing the Bush administration's "criminal negligence" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In a searing rap called "On Soto," inspired by troubles at Self-Help Graphics & Art, an East L.A. arts center, he compared Los Angeles to Baghdad and Chicanos to Iraqi insurgents. In the chorus, he encapsulated the power unleashed by the night's explosive fusion of cross-border cultures: Two histories clash in this mash of hip-hop slash son jarocho.

Zach de la Rocha & Son de Madera

First Fridays at The Natural History Museum: with Zack de la Rocha (Rage against the Machine), Son De Madera and Quetzal.

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