Calexico’s Thread That Keeps Us: Music Without Borders

Aarik Danielsen

For more than 20 years, the pride of Tucson, Ariz., has sung of pure hearts fleeing persecution, of refugees desperate to leave desperate places, of lovers turning their backs to loneliness and racing into each other’s arms. The people in the songs of Calexico live along the border of fear and courage.

The band’s latest, The Thread That Keeps Us, continues its commitment to these sojourners, to those among us who are drifting with purpose. The Calexico sound, established by core members Joey Burns and John Convertino, has been labeled "desert noir." It can also sound like the soundtrack for the most epic Western never filmed. Hot winds blow through a vast musical landscape, stirring up rock, country, jazz, and Latin-American forms.

While The Thread That Keeps Us taps into the existential dread many feel in our cultural moment—consider the lead track, “End of the World with You”—it retains a documentary feel. The band recognizes the imago dei, or image of God, in the strangers among us, and tells their stories. In an NPR interview, Burns said the song “Voices in the Field” is a testament to “people who are uprooted and have to leave their homes, basically, have to run for their lives.”

The song, like many Calexico tunes, is profoundly shaped by Convertino’s drumming. He plays both with the sweet swing of a jazz drummer and the rough hands of a farmer turning over soil. Here the percussion crackles and booms, propelling the song forward, as if Convertino is urging the characters within to keep running until they reach their destination. Squalling guitars and Burns’ gentle voice, which swells and grows more serious, combine to approximate the clamor of thoughts and emotions which must swirl within those on the run.

The people in the songs of Calexico live along the border of fear and courage.

Calexico’s music is in league with artists who acknowledge the imago dei by granting agency to those whose stories often are reduced or taken as a given. Each of us wants to believe we are born from and living in complex narratives. Yet so often we reduce others’ experiences and motivations to a sentence or stereotype. Calexico’s songs faithfully do for immigrants and refugees what poet Molly McCully Brown does for the institutionalized or novelist Willy Vlautin does for the working poor. They imagine what their lives must be like, and toil to express every bit of that complexity.

The Bible describes a rather thorny relationship between God’s people and other nations. But God’s heart for the immigrant comes through loud and clear. We hear a call to love these new neighbors as if they’ve always been in the neighborhood. God’s people are to do justly by the foreigners among them. God’s love for the immigrant is expressed in the simplest yet most profound way: he sees them. What’s more, God instructs his people to remember how recently they were wanderers and outcasts. This idea should still ring true in North America, a land comprised of immigrants and the dispossessed. It rings through the songs of Calexico.

As white musicians, Burns and Convertino nimbly toe the finest of lines. They could easily resort to caricature or paint themselves as progressive saviors. Instead, each element is carefully considered and born of loving study, not easy stereotype. Rather than lean only on their own understanding, the duo has created space for Latino and Spanish-speaking musicians to shape their sound. Sergio Mendoza has grown into his role as trusted collaborator, bringing authentic, dime-store keyboard sounds to the mix. Trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela threads the needle between mariachi fanfares and jazz meandering. Guitarist Jairo Zavala adds both a rock edge and the fluidity of Spanish classical guitar. It’s the difference between frequenting an ethnic restaurant and inviting a diverse group of friends to help make a meal in your kitchen.

On The Thread That Keeps Us, Mendoza’s verve can be heard most explicitly on the spirited “Under the Wheels.” Zavala takes lead vocal on “Flores y Tamales,” a song Burns said imagines “coming together despite being separated either by border or by distance or by ideas.” Such reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel and Calexico’s music. The thread that keeps us, these songs suggest, is that we all want to belong, to call something our own, to settle into a life of simple graces with the ones we love.

Calexico’s music doesn't make heroes of the people who take drastic measures to get to such a place. It just makes humans out of them.

Topics: Music