By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Nacha Mendez.
She’s on a return journey home from Greece, standing in line for a connecting flight at LaGuardia Airport. In front of her is a gentleman holding what appears to be a set of skis.
Yet there’s something that doesn’t quite add up about the scene. Upon closer inspection, she notices that the shafts poking out of his canvas case are wooden; too thin and too long to be associated with the winter sport.
Curiosity might’ve killed the cat, but for Nacha Mendez, satisfaction brought it back.
“Excuse me sir,” she says, placing a hand on the stranger’s shoulder. “I don’t mean to be intrusive, but what is that you’re putting through luggage?”
He smiles and carefully parts the fabric, revealing a gourd wrapped in calf skin. Two handles run under the resonating chamber–where a long hardwood neck with two divided ranks of strings is notched into a bridge.
It looks like an ancient harp, some musical relic from yesteryear picked up by a time traveler on his way through an airport.
“It’s my kora,” he tells Mendez with a smile. “It’s an African instrument.”
“You’re going to send it through luggage like that?” she asks, incredulous. “You’re not afraid that it’s going to crack and break into pieces?”
This time he laughs.
“I’ve been doing this for years,” he says. “It has still never been broken.”
Both traveling musicians, they swapped contact info and parted ways.
As her plane left the runway, Mendez reflected upon what the strange man told her. He must have a guardian angel, she thought.
Dipping through the clouds, the songwriter dreamt of her own celestial heavens. The traditional images surfaced from old Italian paintings, but the images of beauty were contrasted by feelings of discomfort. Why do angels have to be white with blonde hair playing ivory instruments?
She thought about the Gambian man from the airport, with his dark skin and patchwork clothes. He could be an angel, playing his African harp to the stars.
Mendez looked over the piece of paper with his name written on it.
Foday Musa Suso.
It would take a week or so for Mendez to realize the magnitude of her surprise encounter. As it turns out, Suso is a world-renowned kora player who has collaborated with legends such as Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Ginger Baker, Philip Glass, and Pharoah Sanders, among others. Suso even contributed his music to the Olympic Games in 1984 and 2004.
While Mendez ruminated on the significance of this, her inner songwriting desires started churning.
“From all of these thoughts, a song came to my head,” Mendez tells BTR. “A traditional song from Mexico, close to where I come from.”
The song is “Angelitos Negros,” or “Black Angels.” Mendez took to arranging piano for her rendition, and then sent the tracks to Suso in Seattle, where he plucked the strings of his kora and returned the completed composition. Mendez’s solo piano, Suso’s solo kora, and a duet of the two made the final cut on Mendez’s most recent album of the same name, produced by Steve Peters.
Listening, it’s incredible to hear how seamless the interplay between instruments becomes. Piano chords tiptoe around harp glissandos that spill like diamonds under the warm lull of Mendez’s voice. If the song is an angelic work, there’s clearly more than one angel playing.
The record is another unique milestone in a long line of musical accomplishments and rich diversity of collaborations that Mendez has made possible over the years. She’s created garage rock with her family, played in a salsa band, studied flamenco guitar under the tutelage of Manuel Granados, and traveled with Robert Ashley’s avant-garde Opera Company.
With so much musical variety, it’s hard to believe Mendez began her musical upbringing in the quiet seclusion of a farm in New Mexico. Her little fingers would twist the radio dials until she could tap into a nearby FM station. Joni Mitchell was a personal favorite.
Out of all the genres she plays, however, Latin music continues to be her most revered.
“It’s my favorite because it’s so diverse,” Mendez says. “I’ll really like a song, and then find out it’s from Argentina or Chile or Mexico or Cuba–and that’s not even getting into the rhythms.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret Nacha Mendez by clicking here.