Diana Gameros doesn’t get to perform blocks from home very often, but that’s not what makes Tuesday’s concert at the UC Theatre so exciting for her. On a West Coast tour opening for Mexican superstar Natalia Lafourcade — who gained her widest audience ever when she performed the Oscar-winning song from Coco, “Remember Me” with Gael Garcia Bernal and Miguel for the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast — Gameros is reenergizing a relationship with an artist who is helping her reconnect with her homeland.
With her strikingly pure voice, welcoming demeanor and gift for collaboration, the Berkeley-based Gameros has become a magnet attracting fellow artists looking for a creative confidante. She’s forged musical connections across the Bay Area and far beyond, performing with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, leading jazz musicians, and the Amaranth String Quartet. A few weeks ago, she kicked off the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on a double bill with New York’s Latin Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Flor de Toloache.
But the relationship with Lafourcade is particularly ripe with possibilities. They first met in 2014 when Lafourcade performed at the inaugural Mex I Am festival at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Looking to connect with Latinx artists in the Bay Area, she ended up hanging out with Gameros, and when Lafourcade played the SFJAZZ Center the following year she invited the Berkeleyan to join her onstage for a song. Lafourcade’s career has skyrocketed since then with a series of critically praised albums that have won a shelf full of awards, including seven Latin Grammys and the 2016 best Latin rock, urban or alternative album Grammy for Hasta la Raíz (RCA).
She started producing an album for Gameros “but that was before she won all those Grammys, and the timing didn’t work out,” says Gameros, who also performs Thursday July 5 as part of the UC Botanical Gardens’ Summer Redwood Grove concert series. “She has been insanely busy, and so have I, and I think on this tour we’ll reopen that conversation.”
Besides Lafourcade’s crazy calendar, the collaboration was complicated by the fact that Gameros can’t return to Mexico until she receives resident alien documentation. She hasn’t been able to visit her family for more a decade, and with her green card due to arrive she checks the mailbox multiple times a day. It’s no coincidence that her recent album Arrullo is an evocative collection of traditional Mexican songs intimately tied to her grandparents.
For the nine-concert tour that includes a stop at Napa’s BottleRock Music Festival, Gameros is serving as both opener and emcee, playing two original songs solo at the beginning of every concert, and then seamlessly introducing Lafourcade without a set break. In the middle of the show she returns to join Lafourcade on “Coco,” a traditional South America song, “and a third one that’s still in the works. At the end she brings me back to do the finale, singing harmony vocals.”
Lafourcade has long sought to champion fellow musicians by sharing the spotlight. She’s also toured widely with Venezuelan artist and poet Gustavo Guerrero, who performs as Augusto Bracho. For Gameros, the West Coast dates provide a thrilling opportunity to reach audiences largely unfamiliar with her music.
“I’m honored and excited and a little bit terrified,” she says. “The first show is in LA and there will be all kind of music business people there. We haven’t even rehearsed. She’s so busy she hasn’t sent me the arrangement yet. But it’ll be fine. That first time I sang with her at the SFJAZZ Center we rehearsed in the green room just before the show.”
Born and raised in Ciudad Juarez, Gameros had spent many of her teen years in Michigan living with an aunt and going to school. She hadn’t planned on moving to the Bay Area in 2008 when a friend convinced the budding musician to give the region a try, despite the rising recession. She took the leap and through pluck and good luck quickly made a name for herself, landing a sustaining gig within weeks by answering a Craigslist ad posted in Spanish by the owner of the Mission District’s historic Roosevelt Tamale Parlor.
“It was like an ad saying ‘Diana Gameros we want you,’” she recalls. “We want someone to play guitar and sing Mexican songs, mellow pop songs in different styles. The owner, Hector Flores, had seen a YouTube video of mine, so when I came to what I thought was an audition he was like, okay, when can you start?”
Playing at the now-shuttered Roosevelt every weekend for five years, Gameros became a neighborhood fixture, singing everything from French chanson and Mexican boleros to bossa novas and her finely wrought originals. The gig served as her homebase for an ever-increasing network of musical alliances that led to collaborations with flamenco, cumbia, rhumba artists.
“I was excited to do anything musical. I was playing so often I had to come up with new songs, new covers. I love rearranging songs. I’d take a Pink Floyd song and do it in a Brazilian style. I get bored easily. I need to innovate and collaborate with different people.”
Committed to fighting for social justice, she’s worked in support of organizations like Biosafety Alliance, Urban Sprouts, SF Living Wage Coalition, and ALIADI (Alianza Latinoamericana por los Derechos de los Inmigrantes). Thinking globally and performing locally, she’s forged ties with artists from around the world. She met La Bohemia Productions director Carlos Disdier through the Mission Arts Performance Project (MAPP), and he started booking her as an opening act for high-profile artists at Brava Theater like Brazil’s Bebel Gilberto, Tijuana-born Cecilia Bastida, and Mexican singer-songwriter Ximena Sariñana.
When Gameros released her eponymous debut album in 2013, a gorgeous session featuring 11 original songs, the project showcased the diverse cast of Bay Area musicians she’s encountered along the way, like jazz saxophonist Patrick Wolff, who’s performed widely with Gameros in a variety of musical contexts. As she’s become of the region’s most acclaimed indie artists, Gameros has contended with uncertainty over her immigration status. Her journey from student visa holder to undocumented artist to increasingly visible voice of immigrants is the subject of a KQED documentary that’s still in production. The hope is that it will culminate with a return visit to Juarez with a new CD.
“That would be my homecoming,” she says.
‘Glass Half Full’ fundraising concert at the Freight Sunday
I’m not sure if Irene Young has had the opportunity to capture Gameros on film, but she’s photographed just about every other musician over the past four decades, with a particular focus on women artists. With more than 600 album covers to her credit, Young has played a central role in shaping musical iconography. And as a breast-cancer survivor, she’s spearheaded the ongoing Glass Half Full fundraising campaign that returns to Freight & Salvage on Sunday with a brimming cast of women, including Holly Near, Terry Garthwaite, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Jennifer Berezan, Tammy Hall, Robin Flower and Libby McLaren, Chris Webster, Shelley Doty, Sheilah Glover and Julie Nicholas, Susanne DiVincenzo, Laura Klein, Ruth Davies, and many others.
For Young, who divides her time between New York City and Richmond, the benefit for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners is part of a series of major events. She’s presenting an exhibition at the Freight in August as part of the venue’s 50th-anniversary celebration. “This means a great deal to me, being a two-time breast cancer survivor,” Young says. “After the August exhibition, my dream and hope is to have a book completed at the end of the year for the holidays. I want to be able to put a period on the women’s music scene, so I can get to all the other musicians I love.”