Arts Listings

Martha Toledo Sings at La Peña

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

Singer Martha Toledo from southern Oaxaca, Mexico, aptly described as “radiant” and “dazzling,” will perform songs celebrating her native region with guitarists Jose Roberto and Manuel Constancio, with “un flor, un canto y una poesia” by Nancy and Elizabeth Esteva, at “Pura Fiesta!” at La Peña on Shattuck Avenue, on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m. 

Toledo will also appear at Brava! Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District Thursday at 7 p.m., with a showing of Berkeley filmmaker Maureen Gosling’s Blossoms of Fire, about Toledo’s hometown of Juchitan, and then again on Friday at 8 p.m., as part of “Mexico Norte y Sur,” singing with her accompanists on a bill that includes rare female Nortena conjunto accordionist Rene Pena-Gove and Her Family Band, as well as the Estevas.  

Toledo’s appearances are presented by Accion Latina and Mario A. Munguia, working with Intrepidas Productions, Maureen Gosling’s film production company.  

Gosling, who formerly collaborated with filmmaker Les Blank for 20 years, first met Toledo in 1994 while making Blossoms of Fire with Ellen Osbourne, their celebrated film on the women of Juchitan.  

“Martha was the owner, for more than 17 years, of Bar Jardin, a restaurant we ate at a lot, where we would have a beer with the crew and friends at the end of the day,” Gosling recalled. “Her husband, who ran the ecology center, helped us a lot with arrangements, meeting people ... I really liked Martha, but didn’t know she sang. Then an Italian filmmaker, Claudio Zangarini, was finishing his super low budget feature in San Francisco and, by coincidence, he’d shot it down there—and here was Martha in the film, singing a cappella in the shower and enchanting the main character.” 

Over the years Gosling kept in touch with Juchitan and with Toledo, returning to premiere the film in 2001. (It would premiere in the United States at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.) “There were more opportunities to get to know Martha. And Claudio would bring back news of her and of the community.” 

In 2005, Toledo attended the Congress of Matriarchal Studies at the University of Texas.  

“Not only anthropologists were invited, but also women from the countries studied, to talk about their lives,” Gosling said. “I thought, ‘If she’s in the U.S., I’d love to bring her to the Bay Area.”  

Gosling coordinated Toledo’s visit with screenings of her film, where Toledo answered questions and sang. “I’m not a concert promoter, but I learned a lot through film distribution, and I had my e-mail list.” 

Gosling paired Toledo with a well-known local group, Cascada de Flores, and with guitarist Jose Roberto—a native of Tabasco, who studied guitar in Juchitan and knew Toledo’s repetoire—for successful shows at La Peña and the Mission Cultural Center. Toledo also sang at a folk festival in Fresno and a gallery in Newport, Ore., where a friend belonged to a group of women artists. 

Toledo, who began her singing career late, nevertheless has sung all her life, first accompanying her father at home and casually in neighbors’ homes and at parties, for about 12 years, before moving to her mother’s hometown nearby. “When my father would come home from work, he’d play the guitar,” she said. “He wasn’t really a musician. He’d play by ear. Singing with him was a special relationship between us.” 

After high school, where she had studied with a drama teacher, Toledo wanted to become an actress and study singing. But she married at 17. While she was a restaurateur, she always had strolling musicians, a traditional thing, and sometimes sang informally. A regional record producer, Delfino Ordaz, heard her and offered to record a CD, but Toledo declined. “I wanted to do it,” she said, “but to do it in the right way”—through preparation and voice lessons.  

After the death of her husband, Toledo journeyed back and forth to the city of Oaxaca, where she moved in 2002, studying with an Italian photographer. The two now collaborate on photographic projects, and also have a child together. “She’s a great photograper,” Gosling said. “We hope to have her pictures in the lobby at Brava!”  

Six years ago, after meeting Delfino Ordaz again, “I was ready,” she said. 

Toledo began recording her first CD, “Teca Huiini.” After a long germination, it was released two years ago. It took so long “because I was never happy with it!” Her uncle “gave me a hard time about it, so I decided after two years I had to accept it, like a child with all its defects. If I hadn’t let it go, I’d still be working on it!” 

She now has a second CD and is working on a third, all with Trio Monte Alban, Ordaz’s house band. 

In 2003, Toledo sang for the first time in public, with a slide show she gave in Vera Cruz, pictures for a book she plans to put together on the coming of age and life cycle of women, singing a song about life, “The Last Word,” sung just before burials. Her singing has been featured on two anthologies, “Rain of Dreams” and “Songs of Life and Death,” both of indigenous women singers from around Mexico. She’s playing more shows in Mexico and embarks on a 23-venue tour of Germany in November.  

“Before you do art,” Toledo said, “you have to have something to say. I started with photography, became a singer, and sometimes combine the two. And I like to write, and to experiment with different forms ... to touch the heart of the people. It’s like a gift, something they can keep in their hearts and their spirits, to help them be happier, to light up their day. If I succeed at that, I’m happy.” 

Events info: 


Martha Toledo music video: 

Link for “Blossoms of Fire” video: 

“Pura Fiesta!”  

Martha Toledo and guitarists Jose Roberto and Manuel Constancio, with “un flor, un canto y una poesia” by Nancy and Elizabeth Esteva. La Peña on Shattuck Ave. Sunday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m.