Music News

Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta: A Musical Celebration That's Cinematic in Scope

Bandleader Sergio Mendoza was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, but crossed the U.S./Mexico border to the American side of the city (in Arizona) when he was 8 years old. He moved north to Tucson at 18. He formed Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta in 2009, banding together a group of some of Tucson's best musicians, including vocalist Salvador Duran, who has sung with Calexico, Willie Nelson, and Iron and Wine, to pay tribute to Cuban legend Pérez Prado as part of Hotel Congress' "Great Cover Up" concert series.

The band quickly moved beyond being a mere tribute act. Mendoza and his band felt as comfortable playing psychedelic cumbias and Latin-styled indie rock as they felt inhabiting Prado's mambos. Since then, the Orkesta has been on a tear, performing alongside Calexico, releasing its debut, Mambo Mexicano, in 2012, and touring the Southwest and beyond. Crescent Ballroom, a frequent destination, has begun to feel like another "home" to Mendoza and his sprawling band, whose onstage membership can swell to as many as 16 pieces, depending on the night.

"I think Charlie Levy [Crescent Ballroom owner] has done a great job in creating a bigger connection between Tucson and Phoenix bands and audiences," Mendoza says from Mexico City, where he's working with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico on music for that band's upcoming release.

The people look forward to Mendoza and company, too. Their sweeping sound is cinematic in scope, a celebratory party of percussion and rousing vocals from Duran. Though Mambo Mexicano, produced by Calexico's Burns, is an arresting album, the band is at its best in a live setting. National Public Radio's recent "Field Recording" performance, captured at New York's Webster Hall, attests to the fact. The band's set crackles with energy, the brass punctuating bursts of timbale rolls, melodic organ swirls, strummed vihela, and otherworldly calls from the pedal steel. Duran's baritone commands the stage, and Mendoza and his backing vocalists engage in call-and-response chants with the crowd.

Mendoza and company don't aim for historical accuracy. While many of the band's elements come from traditional sources — the sounds of Sonoran mariachi combos and the feverish mambos of Cuba — one of the concert's best moments is a cover of Fleetwood Mac's 1979 epic "Tusk."

"I walked into the Chicago Store in Tucson, and there on the screens was the video of Fleetwood Mac doing 'Tusk' with a huge marching band," Mendoza says. He watched the video in the instrument store, and when it finished, he asked the store's owner to replay it once more. "I loved it so much . . . We had rehearsal that night and we learned it that same day. Of course, we made it our own with a cumbia beat."

Mendoza and company have started work on the follow-up to their debut. The aim this time, the bandleader says, will be to closer capture their raucous live approach. He's not sure what it will be called, but he's leaning toward a title that will reflect the band's rhythmic approach. "It will be percussion-heavy. So the name will have something to do with drums," Mendoza says.

Phoenicians will have another chance to get well acquainted with that percussive power at Crescent Ballroom. The band's friends, dance-punk band Pork Torta, open the night, and Mendoza says they might hop on stage to join the Orkesta's performance. Mendoza seems as excited to return to Phoenix as the town is to host the band again.

"I really like talking to people after the shows and making a connection," Mendoza says. "The crowd is so nice to us that I'd rather talk about them than our favorite food or restaurant in Phoenix. The people are what we look forward to."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.