Election Section

Multi-cultural singer reaches many with music

By Mary BarrettSpecial to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 12, 2001

José-Luis Orozco, a long time Berkeley musician, is an expert in bilingual education through music and song.  

Ever since he was a child in Mexico City, he’s been singing for multi-cultural audiences. The second of eleven children, Jose-Luis learned old songs from his grandmother. His mother taught him to interpret the spirit of the song. 

“My mother, though not a professional, was very good at singing the feeling of the music, from a slow Bolero (love song) to Mexican polkas,” Orozco said. “I picked up the energy of the music from her, the feeling.” 

Last week, Orozco brought that musical tradition to Washington School. People in the audience were awed by the performance. 

“He had the whole audience, whole families, up dancing to children’s songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider in Spanish and English. Nobody just sat. It was amazing!” said Pat Ungern, a teacher at the school.  

At 7, he and a brother were chosen to travel with the Mexico City Children’s Choir throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. They stayed with families – both rich and poor – and performed for heads of state and a diverse range of audiences.  

Traveling gave him opportunities that he could never have had at home. He learned church music in Latin, Mexican folk music, and sang world music including American folk songs like, “Home on the Range.” While in Spain, he was given a guitar as a gift and his father taught him to play once he arrived home.  

While touring, he also learned about politics. In Venezuela, the choir was turned back because of a coup. During the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was staying with Basque families in Spain.  

The families were progressive and sat up late at night listening for news about Cuba.  

The Cuban revolution was a very big thing, Orozco said, to people who lived whole lives under dictatorships.  

When his voice changed at 13, and he could no longer be part of the children’s choir, he formed a musical group with neighbors and played at various barrio gatherings. He attended evening music classes, but also worked to help his mother support the family. Life was not easy. 

In 1968, there was a student rebellion in Mexico City similar to rebellions around the world including the civil-rights movement and the anti-war movement in the United States. It ended in the massacre of many students, some of whom he knew, three blocks from his mother’s home.  

Jose-Luis’ father called him at work and told him not to go home because the army was searching for students and taking them from the neighborhood, even if they had not been part of the rebellion. He stayed away for three days. 

The sadness of that event coincided with a friend’s urging him to come to the United States. He and his mother decided it was something he should try. He moved to San Jose and mopped floors.  

After six months, lonely for music, he bought a cheap guitar and started singing at schools in the Bay Area. 

Quickly he discovered Berkeley. He went to Laney College and transferred to UC Berkeley to complete his Bachelor of Arts.  

Oscar Lewis’s book, “The Children of Sanchez,” was written about the barrio where his parents were born and raised and inspired Orozco’s strong interest in sociology.  

The University of San Francisco offered him a scholarship and he earned an Master of Arts in multi-cultural education. 

For several years in the 70s, he worked as a community liasion in Berkeley. He married and fathered three children – Jose-Luis, Maya, and Gabriel. He also co-founded a national Hispanic university and ran summer programs for the University in Gudalajara. 

In all of this mix, his interest in music became foremost and his ability to support himself through music was accomplished by the mid-80s. His politics, he said, is connected to his daily life education. He wrote a corrido, or ballad, for Cesar Chavez and for Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Worker’s Union. He will be performing them at La Peña Cultural Center on June 9.  

Orozco loves to sing to any age group, but the demand to sing to children is always the highest.  

“The most important thing about my music is the effect it has on the education of children,” Orozco said.  

“Seeing the joy in the children and then the joy in the teachers noticing the music’s impact on the children keeps me motivated. 

“Music brings down barriers between people, barriers of prejudice and racism. Music is a non-threatening tool. It brings people together, it makes people happy. All along, since I was very young, I’ve seen that music is magic,” he said. 

When Jose-Luis Orozco sings to children he is warm, engaging, and upbeat. He presents his music in a way that values children. He makes them feel important. They know, during his time with them, that they matter. He can take a dull classroom and fill it with color and light.  

He has been recording for years. The recordings for children are done simply with just his guitar and voice – a soothing combination, he’s been told.  

“They use my music to calm fussy babies, “ he said, laughing.  

One compact disc, “De Colores,” has sold over thirty thousand copies. There is a companion book with songs in Spanish with English translations. The illustrations by Elsia Kleven are richly conceived and whimsical. One song from this collection, “Paz y libertad,” has a life of its own. People have been dancing to it at circle dance gatherings for years never knowing that José-Luis Orozco wrote it. 

His oldest son, Luis, has been managing his business for him.  

“Luis is an excellent organizer,” Orozco said, bragging. “And he has great people skills. Even when he was twelve people would ask him questions and he would explain everything to them.” 

Dual immersion programs, the best model for dual language acquisiton, are flowering in schools throughout the United States. Three of Berkeley’s schools have programs; Orozco’s youngest son, Pablo, is at Cragmont’s. And because Orozco is emerging as the foremost educator in Spanish-English music for children, he is highly sought after. He has song recently in New York City, Houston, and Miami, and, unpredictably, a dual immersion school in Anchorage, Alaska. 

At 52, Orozco is realizing that the possibilites for his music are limitless. He wants to keep on creating and letting his music provide continuity across generations.  

He feels he’s reached two generations already, his and that of his children. He’s working on his third. His daughter’s new born son is one baby he’s singing to already. 

You can hear José-Luis Orozco in a Benefit Concert for Centro Vida-Bahai, a child care, at the Freight and Salvage, 1111 Addison Street on June 2 at 11:00a.m. Call 524-7300 information.