Mexico's Escamilla sings message of social justice

Quique Escamilla

When: Tonight, 8 p.m. (doors at 6)

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Where: Hermann’s Jazz Club, 753 View St.

Tickets: $16


Quique Escamilla has never viewed music as the simple assembly of notes and lyrics. He sees it as a vehicle with which he can inspire change.

“Music is the greatest means to convey something and make it more than just fun and entertainment,” Escamilla said. “It can also be very powerful to plant seeds. I hope those might turn into a beautiful tree in the future.”

Escamilla was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital city of the state of Chiapas, Mexico. He has been making music in an organized capacity for 20 years, though it wasn’t until 2012 that he came to the attention of Canadian audiences via his self-titled debut. In the years since, he has expanded his fan base outside of his current hometown of Toronto (where he landed in 2007) with whispered-about performances and strong notices for his most recent recording, 500 Years of Night.

The album — sung primarily in Spanish — is deeply concerned with Latin American culture, which means it was bound to include topics of a distinctly political bent.

Escamilla wrote Mascara de Esperanza about the indigenous people from his hometown. For live performances of the song (which translates to Mask of Hope in English), Escamilla wears a black balaclava in support of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a Chiapas-based organization that fights what it sees as oppression from the Mexican state government. He will do the same tonight when he makes his Victoria debut at Hermann’s Jazz Club, just as he did during the weekend while performing in Courtenay at the sold-out Vancouver Island Music Festival.

“I commit myself to supporting them by wearing the mask,” Escamilla said. “It’s a very serious item to put on the stage, but that is the whole point. I don’t see myself playing the song without it, because it wouldn’t make any sense. For the audiences who don’t know the movement, or why Zapatistas have been wearing the mask for over 20 years, maybe they can learn more about it.”

Escamilla was born a “mestizo” — a non-indigenous Mexican — so he was largely free of discrimination forced upon the indigenous people of Mexico. But he has deep compassion with their plight.

Tuxtla Gutiérrez is 90 minutes from San Cristóbal de las Casas, the centre of an uprising in 1994. After a war erupted between the Mexican federal government and the Zapatistas, Escamilla was kept safe.

The impact of the events, however, made a serious impression on him as a young musician.

“I was never affected like an indigenous person. I was born middle-class, so my parents gave me food, shelter and education. Can I move on and turn the page? No. I think it is time for people to communicate and spread the word, faster than the government does.”

Los Angeles rockers Rage Against the Machine took up the Zapatista cause in the mid-’90s, and wrote the songs Zapata’s Blood and People of the Sun after visiting Chiapas. The rock band was especially blunt in its musical delivery, but Escamilla prefers a more sophisticated approach, one that mixes ranchera and huapango and other Latin American styles.

His parents, who still live in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, visited Escamilla this year, their first trip to Toronto. It was a special time for Escamilla. Though he began singing at an early age, his passion for music was always a source of strife in the Escamilla homestead. His parents frowned upon music as a career, echoing the sentiments of many parents of his peers.

“There was a long struggle between me and them over the years. Parents will always want something for their children that is more common, less uncertain.”

Being a professional musician is not generally a well-regarded profession in Mexico, he added.

“Where I grew up, kids were always hiding and going behind their parents just to play guitar at a friend’s house. [Parents] don’t want you to get distracted for a moment. There are not many opportunities, so they want you to succeed in school. You have to be ambitious. My parents thought I would grow out of it. They thought, ‘That’s fine, he’ll change.’ But I didn’t really change.”

When they saw him perform in Toronto, it was with a new set of eyes, Escamilla said. They saw how much he loved the music, and how his fans related to both him and the message he is spreading.

His parents no longer disagree with his chosen profession, Escamilla said with a laugh.

“It felt like a whole circle came to a close. I’m 33. I started when I was 13. So it was nice for them to finally see me play.”

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