Group Returns to La Peña

Tuesday April 08, 2003

In 1979 a group of local Chilean refugees came together as Grupo Raiz (Roots Group). They played as house band for Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, home away from home for the Bay Area’s Latin American diaspora. 

Twenty years after achieving local renown with the band, Rafael Manriquez, Quique Cruz, Lichi Fuentes, Hector Salgado, Fernando Torres and Ellen Moore have reunited and will play at La Peña on Friday. Following their sold-out performance in September at the Berkeley club, the band is planning this week’s show as a protest against the war in Iraq. 

For five years and three albums in the early 1980s Grupo Raiz was the music for supporters of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) and their ilk. Playing in a style that came to be called nueva canción (new music), Grupo Raiz incorporated traditional instruments and melodies with modern instruments and song forms. They also toured the United States and Europe both on their own and with such musicians as Pete Seeger and Holly Near.  

When the band dissolved in the late 1980s, its members went their separate ways hoping to make it big, or at least to make enough to pay the rent and not be displaced again. Of the band’s six members only Rafael Manriquez managed to grab a modest ride on the music-making machine, releasing albums, touring, teaching and scoring films. The other band members sought sustenance from non-music jobs, according to founding member Fernando Torres. But when asked in December 2001 to reunite and perform for the 20th anniversary of Encuentro del Canto Popular, they did so enthusiastically. 

“It felt great!” said Ellen Moore, now a Berkeley High School mental health social worker. “We were singing for peace and justice and working toward social change again. All of us in Grupo Raiz believe politics has a place in the musical context, as well as esthetics. We feel there’s a need for music with a social content — not that Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam aren’t doing that, but we believe we have something to offer.” 

Moore said she was excited to revive the group for old fans and to bring the music to a new generation. 

“When we played at La Peña last September there were a lot of people who had never seen us,” she said. “Including the children, now in their 20s, of our fans from when we were sort of the house band at La Peña.”  

Last year La Peña Cultural Center, where Fernando Torres works as publicity coordinator and music programmer, helped produce “Grupo Raiz: Anthology 1980-1984,” a double CD release featuring all the band’s now long-out-of-print recordings. 

These discs feature over two hours of upbeat, Latin-style protest music. The sound is similar to the early sixties acoustic folk music of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio, but with a distinctive “Andes” instrumentation and Spanish lyrics. 

On Friday, April 11, Grupo Raiz plays at La Peña Cultural Center at 3105 Shattuck Ave. For ticket information call 510-849-2568 or visit La Peña on the web at www.lapena.org.