McALLEN — Most school projects result in essays, presentations or demonstrations of specific skills mastered in a course.
But through the Stanford University’s Creativity in Research Scholars initiative, McAllen native Jonathan Leal has produced a compilation album of nine original tracks recorded by Rio Grande Valley artists of various genres.
“Wild Tongue” was released June 1 via Bandcamp with the title referencing Valley native and iconoclast Gloria Anzaldúa (“Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”).
As a percussionist, Leal started his undergrad work at the University of North Texas studying music thinking he’d pursue performance and education. After six years, Leal left with a bachelor’s and master’s in English, but he still had a love for music.
Leal said the selling point for the Modern Thought and Literature graduate program at Stanford University was “the model (is) that you’d come in having training in two different disciplines and you’d try to bridge the gap between them.”
That, and he said he was drawn to a pair of Brownsville-native literature professors, José David Saldívar and Ramón Saldívar, so it’s not surprising that his research would bring him back home.
“It dawned on me: when is the next time there is going to be somebody from the Rio Grande Valley in this particular situation?” he said. “Why not try to do something to celebrate that fact and celebrate people who are still working in [the] Valley and doing important things?”
Ph.D. students like Leal “(apply) design thinking to push the boundaries of their work and create entirely new applications and approaches,” according to program materials. The program underwrote recording time and mixing fees so it was free to participating artists.
Leal didn’t know music producer and filmmaker Charlie Vela when he reached out, but had only heard of him from his documentary “As I Walk Through the Valley,” which premiered at South By Southwest 2017.
It delves into a lost, Valley music history — “from ‘60s garage rockers and Chicano funksters to early Tejano and Mexican-Country bands in the ‘70s to the first stirrings of ‘80s punk and hardcore and beyond,” Vela and fellow co-director Ronnie Garza said in March of 2017. (“AIWTTV” screened on the Stanford campus last week before the release of the new music.)
Vela, who also runs Sound of Rain Studios, was immediately on board when Leal pitched the idea of prompting local musicians to create songs responding to their personal experiences.
“This is the thing I’d want to do all the time anyway,” Vela said. “Having a major university foot the bill for it was kind of incredible.
“It’s validating in a way that I’ve always believed that the stuff people do here is of value and is of interest from people outside of here.”
There is a tendency to see art in the Valley as somehow inherently inferior, he said, adding that it isn’t true.
“I feel like the more examples that can demonstrate that to be untrue is very positive and it expands the breadth of what’s possible,” Vela said. “Maybe people start to see that the work that people do has the same value as somewhere else.
“All art is local to somewhere.”
The team prioritized musicians who made an “investment in the Valley, in some way,” Leal said, and “bands that are fronted by women of color.” They also attempted to have diversity in the types of genres.
Artists were told to reflect and respond to a formative experience which took place here. Some were introspective, focusing on heartbreak or loss, while others took on larger, external forces like injustice and political action, Leal said.
Some of the artists had never written about the Valley or thought about their home in this context before, Leal said.
Jesika’s “Party is Over” starts with the epic, memorable line “barefoot on 17th St.,” while Arcanedisplay’s “Split in Two” is a bilingual journey of exploration, and Matt and the Herdsmen’s country cut “Bordertown” addresses wanting to leave but the Valley growing into home.
Diana Tovar, of Arcanedisplay, said the project changed the direction of her songwriting. She now wants to incorporate more Latin elements, both lyrically and musically.
Leal called Arcanedisplay’s song “beautiful and complicated lyrically and musically.”
“I’ve always written about leaving the Valley and escaping it,” she said. “Since I moved back last year, I’ve had a total change of heart and have a whole new sense of appreciation for my home and our border culture.”
Leal referenced Tovar’s post on social media about appreciating the timing of “Wild Tongue” and how it helped organize her sentiments. This was a point of pride for him.
“That made me excited, because what more could you ask for?,” said Leal.
“Wild Tongue” is available free for stream or download at wildtongue.bandcamp.com.