The Kennedy Center

Agustin Lira and Alma


In the 1960s while the folk sounds of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs in Greenwich Village provided an entrance for many young Americans to the Civil Rights movement, people from “way, way below” in California were drawing attention to a cause that utilized music, theater, and protest to illuminate the horrid conditions in which they were working and living. The Farmworkers Movement that gained vast attention with the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 gave birth not only to a political bloc but also to a phenomenon of expressive culture. Agustín Lira, a field worker and later a founder of El Teatro Campesino, witnessed and contributed immensely to this movement.

La Causa was characterized by political rallies, protests, and marches from the mid-1960s throughout the 1970s. From these events emerged the powerful political voices of Reies López Tijerina, Rodolfo “Corky” González, Dolores Huerta, and Cesar Chavez. Vibrant soundscapes of chants, gritos (yells), prayers, poetry, and music also transpired from these gatherings. Groups such as El Teatro Campesino, Flor del Pueblo, and Los Alacranes Mojados produced songs for these congregations, which were direct testimonies of the movement. The compositions functioned as narratives, which challenged the dominant powers that marginalized community members into the military, low-income housing and schools, racist healthcare institutions, and a second-class citizenship in general. Hence, the music illuminated the resilience of these aggrieved communities and demonstrated how they maintained culture, promoted consciousness, celebrated, and preserved dignity.    

Agustín Lira is undoubtedly one of the cultural pioneers of the Chicano movement music style. He worked assiduously not only as a musician but also as an actor, writer, composer, and activist, who continuously offered his guitar, voice, and mind to the trials that confronted his community. Today, with his longtime partner Patricia Wells Solórzano and bassist Ravi Knypstra they form the ensemble Alma. Founded in 1979 by Lira and Wells Solórzano, the goal of Alma was to make evident, through expressive culture, the hidden stories of Chicana/os and Mexicana/os, who contributed to our history. After attending university, Wells Solórzano decided to develop her skills as a singer and lead guitarist, which highly complemented Lira’s musical direction as a singer-songwriter. Knypstra, a much sought after player in Los Angeles rounded out the group, offering an array of experience in styles such as blues, country, rock, and jazz. Even as a trio Alma produces a big sound with tight arrangements, dynamic vocals, and evocative songwriting.

As is common in the tradition of Chicano music, Agustín Lira and Alma includes a variety of genres and forms influenced from Mexico, Latin America, and the United States. The ensemble falls in a lineage of creative musical development that traces back to musicians such as Don Tosti, Eddie Cano, and Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero, who sang in English, Spanish, and Caló (a street jargon combining Spanish and English slang). In addition to mixing languages these musicians mixed musical forms of jazz and blues with rancheras, huapangos, and Latin dance music. Of the more popular people of this lineage in California is Ritchie Valens whose 1958 version of La Bamba made this song an international hit. Los Lobos’ 1987 version of the same song became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and UK pop charts keeping the Chicano lineage vivid, creating a path for new groups in the 1990s.

Watch Past Performances

Video 9/14/2011: Agustin Lira & Alma / Quetzal

A performance showcasing the blend of Mexican, Latin American, American Folk, and Afro-Cuban styles that form Chicano music. Part of Homegrown: The Music of America series.

Agustin Lira Trio