Steelstacks in Your Living Room With Gina Chavez in Concert

On June 25th, Artsquest and Steelstacks hosted another “Levitt in Your Living Room” free concert to share the “sultry sound, clear tone, [and] funky groove” of Gina Chavez. The concert, shared on a live stream from Gina Chavez’s living room, featured Chavez playing as a one-woman band, and interacting with listeners through chat on Facebook. Chavez normally plays with a five-piece band, but due to the pandemic has found creative ways to create the effect of playing collaboratively, including using loop pedals and mimicking the effect of a trumpet through “vocal horn”—literally making the sounds of a trumpet with her mouth. The refreshing combination of Chavez’s energy, bilingual lyrics, and creative instrumentation proved to be just the infusion of artistry my quarantine-evening needed.

Chavez’s digital concert featured music from old and new albums, including songs like “Ciago,” “It’s Hard to Love a Woman,” and “Miles de Millas.” Much of her music is upbeat, making the listener want to get out of her seat and dance. Her music also serves to uplift listeners who have experienced oppression. Songs like “She Persisted” are undeniably feminist anthems. The song focuses first on the ways in which women are silenced, addressing how women are told “to sit down” or “work hard” and “stop and wait” their turn. The refrain champions women who refuse to follow such directives, and emphasizes Chavez’s defiance in the face of sexism. The refrain, “nevertheless, SHE PERSISTED!” emphasizes that in Chavez’s understanding of the world, to continue on determined to succeed, despite the sexist obstacles she faces, is an act of rebellion against constraints placed on women. Later in the song, she introduces the refrain “nasty women, rock the resistance.” Clearly, she is celebrating and reclaiming the ways our society labels women who persist as “hardhearted” by linking “nasty” with revolution and resistance. In fact, she may be directly referencing the moment when Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in a televised debate before the 2016 election. Some of her most recent music, such as “La Que Manda [Who’s the Boss?]” plays with these same themes of power, persistence, and confidence in who she is and her own strength. For example, in “La Que Manda,” Chavez sings: “Solía compararme con otros/Solía temer las consecuencias/Solía no creer en mi misma/Ahora soy un fuego abrasador [I used to compare myself to others/I used to fear the consequences/I used to not believe in myself/Now, I am a scorching fire].” The image of scorching fire contrasts sharply with the fear and self-doubt that she attributes to an earlier self.

Chavez’s somewhat slower music allowed the concert to move from anthems of resistance to ballads about love and loss. In these more romantic pieces, her voice is clear as water, reminding me of the peaceful ripple formed by wading into a glassy lake at dawn. The theme of loneliness, longing, and haunting pervade many of her love songs, as she sings about the distance between herself and her lover in “Miles de Millas/ 2,000 Miles” and the all-encompassing nature of her love in “Ciago/I Fall.” In “Ciago/I Fall,” Chavez explores longing through two motifs: images of thirst and satiety, and the feeling of being lost without a sense of purpose. Chavez uses thirst and satiety to indicate the deep necessity of her lover’s presence in her life: “Una marea probar tus labios/ Me sumerjo en ti/Una sequía cuando te escondes [It’s a tide to taste your lips/I submerge myself in you/It’s a drought when you hide].”  Through these images of water, Chavez suggests that her lover is as essential as water. But not only is the water, and her partner’s love, something she wants to consume, but it is also something she wants to be enveloped and immersed in. It is not a possessive love but a romance centered on reciprocity as each beloved is overwhelmed by the other, each giving and taking.

In “Ciago [I Fall],” Chavez also explores the feeling of falling from steady ground, of being lost, through images of nature losing its guiding purpose. For example, Chavez sings, “No sentirte aqui/Junto a mi lado…. Como un pájaro sin canto [I awake with a sickness/Not to feel you near/Right by my side…. Like a bird without a song].” Chavez is leaning on the ubiquitous association of birds with birdsong to demonstrate that without her love, she is purposeless and lost, something unnatural. She reiterates this emphasis in the following image, but acknowledges also her own selfishness and how it can make her feel as if she is far from her love, even when she is not physically far: “Aveces soy ciega/Y no te veo a ti/Como el mar sin ver la luna [Sometimes I’m blind/And I don’t see you there/Like the ocean that can’t see the moon].” Without the moon, the ocean cannot have its tides, and with this image Chavez again impresses on her listener the strength of how her world is purposeful when she is with her love. I interpreted the “falling” motif in the music to be both about falling into despair without one’s love, but also falling into love with your loved one. The one resolves the other in the world of this song.

Because of the intimacy of the dual live stream and chat format, Chavez was allowed to interact with the crowd in a more precise way than in a large venue. Though she couldn’t build momentum off the energy of the crowd, as she could in a live venue, Chavez was excited about this format given the context, since “it gets really boring performing to her own face” and she really values interacting with her listeners. Between songs, Chavez was chatty and funny, at one point noting how her new album, “La Que Manda” with lyrics all in Spanish, could be a useful way for her English-only listeners to learn Spanish. In another moment, Chavez highlighted the lights and rainbow pride flags in the background; she wanted her listeners to join in celebrating Pride month with her and her wife. For Chavez, Pride month is about “living your truth and living your reality” without shame. Pride month is symbolic of representation and celebration of LGBTQ lives. Chavez was also excited to share her collaboration with Carrie Rodriquez on Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us. Rodriquez and Chavez wrote the theme music for the podcast, and recently recorded a podcast episode for Unlocking Us about the process of making music together, called “Brene with Gina Chavez and Carrie Rodriguez on the Heart and Soul of Music.”

Chavez ended her concert thanking her listeners for “keeping the music alive” in these times when traditional ways of sharing music in community are limited. I couldn’t help but agree with Chavez—being able to share in her music fulfilled my own longing for something dynamic that pulled at my senses and made me feel more immediately in the moment. So much of the quarantine experience is dull and tedious, and Chavez’s concert was a much needed antidote. The lyrics of Chavez’s song “Miles de Millas” reflects that same longing I have for art, music, and creative community: “It’s colder without your embrace over me/I’m frozen to the bones…. But you my love are hard to find.” The music that Chavez shared with us thawed my bones and made creativity and lively poignant experiences of art not so hard to find after all.

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