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Inland Empire: The rhythms of her native South America can be heard in all of Claudia Gómez's songs.

Palo Alto's Claudia Gómez taps into her Latin American roots on her new album, 'Tierradentro'

By Nicky Baxter

Sometimes home, and all it has to offer, can best be appreciated only after spending time abroad. In the case of Colombian singer, songwriter and guitarist Claudia Gómez, it was an early-'70s stay in England with her musician brother that prompted a reappraisal of her rich Latin American musical heritage.

The siblings--just kids, really--earned a living busking around London's perennially hip street scene, playing Beatles tunes and other pop ditties in restaurants and cafes.

It was, Gómez, recalls, quite an experience, singing songs in English rather than her native Spanish. The return flight to Medellín was a smooth one, but the process of reacclimation was a bit rockier. Music provided the figurative way back home.

"The transition was not easy," Gómez concedes. "But I was always aware of my roots. But [then] I started to research music, going out to folk festivals."

Gómez and I are seated inside a cafe in Palo Alto's aggressively upscale downtown area. It's the kind of warm afternoon that intimates that spring is just around the corner. Gómez, a youthful looking 42-year-old, is casually outfitted in a tan blouse and pants. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

"After my return [in 1976]," she says, continuing the chronology, "I started to learn more about Colombian and other Latin American musics--which were totally different than the music I was doing in London." Not that she had to start from scratch. The Gómez household was steeped in music.

Claudia's mother was a recording artist whose musical tastes were catholic, embracing everything from homegrown cumbia to Cuban mambo and salsa to Mexican cha-chas. Claudia absorbed them by sheer osmosis. "I would say every family had someone who played guitar," she declares. At age 12, she picked up her first guitar, a Spanish model made in Mexico. Her mother's guitar instructor became her own. Musical prejudices were few; if one could sing or dance to it, it was all good.

Gómez fondly remembers growing up "dancing to calypso, salsa and cumbia," idioms whose roots originate in the fertile cultural soil of Trinidad, Cuba and Colombia, respectively. Gómez recalls trekking as a youth to the north coast of Colombia, where Africa's diasporan heart beat loudest.

"I was attracted to the singing," she says, referring specifically to calypso and salsa. "There was something very magical about it. [And] Catholic school nuns brought in black spirituals [and] flamenco music."

As is the case in most of Latin America, Colombian music, particularly cumbia, is a mestizo form, a beguilingly piquant stew of African, Native American and European (in this case, Spanish) elements.

"You can hear it in the music," Gómez asserts. "Cumbia, for example, is a perfect blend of the Indian flute with the African drums and the Spanish melodies."

You can also hear it in Gómez's own music. Her new album, Tierradentro (Green Linnett-Xenophile), is a fetching tapestry of Latin American styles, ranging from flamenco's stately grace to cumbia's torrid rhythms to the airy middle ground of samba. Also subtly evident is Gómez's enduring love of jazz. She composed half the album's tracks; she also served as its co-arranger. All the songs were recorded in Spanish.

Produced by John Santos, one of the area's most respected artists, the album's exotic textures are brought to the fore with a minimum of studio tricks. The musicians--Carlos Oliveira and Jeff Buenz (guitars); Wayne Wallace and Marcos Silva (synthesizers); David Belove (acoustic bass); and Santos (percussion)--all sport impeccable credentials in African/Latin music.

Literally translated, the album's title means "inland," but for the song's composer, the word connotes much more. "Tierradentro is the name of an indigenous place in Colombia--a very beautiful place in the Andean mountains," she explains. "It is also the name of a very old [Native American] culture. It's a place where ceremonial and burial rituals [once] occurred. I went there and I saw the caves and had a marvelous, magical experience." The song was based on that pilgrimage. Accompanying a team of archeologists, Gómez, had a rare opportunity to examine their art and observe the Andeans play music.

Interestingly enough, the album's musical origin can also be traced back to Spain, laden as it is with trilling guitar and rhythmic hand claps. Gómez's vocal performance and fretwork are flawless throughout.

Rich and brimming with subtle, nuanced passion, her singing encompasses the spectrum of human emotions, flitting from the carefree "Soltarlo" (a vocal tour de force) to the brooding "Música Das Nuvens E Do Chão" to the exuberant "La Guayabita." With its call-and-response vocals and flotilla of percussion, the last tune is straight out of Africa by way of Colombia's native culture.

Tierradentro also boasts its fair share of romantic ballads. "No Te Importe Saber" and "Nuestro Amor" feature just Gómez cooing reassurances to an uncertain soulmate. "Debí Llorar" is a flippant fare-thee-well to a thoughtless lover set to a winsome samba beat.

Other highlights include the bolero-styled "Recuerdos de Medellín," a wistful hymn to Gómez's birthplace. The lushly verdant "Aguacerito Llové" is utterly enchanting and distinguished by its heavenly one-woman chorale (Gómez overdubbed ad infinitum). "Todo Cambiará" again showcases a multitracked Gómez vocal, this time accentuated by Santos' sweltering percussion work.

A Bay Area resident since the early 1980s who now makes her home in Palo Alto, Gómez is recognized as a pioneer in the importation of South American styles to the United States. Ironically, Gómez has been an excellent point-woman in the area's resurgent interest in Brazilian music while keeping her Colombian roots relatively muted. That reticence is about to change. Gómez plans to return to the studio sometime next year to record an album immersed exclusively in the musical wellspring of her native land. Until then, Tierradentro's multifaceted beauty makes the wait a real pleasure.

Claudia Gómez performs Friday (April 5) at 8:30pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-B Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $6 at the door only. Call 408/427-2227 for information.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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