Gaby Gaby Hey

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 8, 2018
Gaby Moreno makes the rounds from Isla Vista to the Marjorie Luke

Gaby Moreno moved from Guatemala to Los Angeles at 18 to pursue a career in music, and really never looked back. Not even musically, at least not for almost a decade. The singer-songwriter who blends blues, jazz, ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, and Latin American influences into something she calls “Spanish folk-soul” fell in love with American music – Broadway musicals actually – even before visiting New York at age 13. But things changed on that fateful trip.

“When I first heard blues and jazz, those sounds, I knew I wanted to delve into that world,” Moreno recalled on Monday afternoon, four days before she begins a series of three free area concerts under the aegis of ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! (Friday, March 9, in Isla Vista, Saturday in Guadalupe, Sunday at the Marjorie Luke). “I made my mom take me to a record store and bought a bunch of compilation CDs. When we got home, I locked myself in my room and listened to all of them – Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King. I couldn’t get enough.”

Five years later, she left home for the U.S., both signing a record deal with Warner Brothers and enrolling in the Musicians Institute in Hollywood so she could get a student visa. Records sung in English followed for at least another six years before she gave a thought to tackling songs from back home in Guatemala.

“I had no desire to do anything in Spanish because I was so in love with the American styles,” she recalled. “I was young and didn’t know any better. I still had yet to come to fully appreciate the richness of Latin music.”

It was David Pilch – longtime bassist for k.d. lang and others – who lives in Santa Barbara and invited Moreno to bring some Spanish songs to sit in on one of his gigs at Largo in L.A. that turned things around.

“Little by little, I started rediscovering all this music I grew up with, which as a kid I thought was just ‘old people’s music’,” she said. “You can’t deny your roots, and it’s special for me to be able to mix these two genres together, even though record companies always told me I couldn’t.”

Moreno’s latest album, 2016’s Ilusión, bridges both worlds and crosses styles more rapidly than an anxious driver changes lanes on the 101, though she still creates a cohesive sound. “My voice is the common denominator,” she explained. “And I like to stick to organic real instruments, not synths or loops.”

Which is why she insisted on recording the album on analog tape, doing no more than three takes on any song, and capturing her voice and guitar simultaneously with no overdubs. “I wanted to go back to what those artists who influenced me did back in the day, without the luxury of using computers. They didn’t need the technicality back then. It was about the emotions.”

The song “Fronteras” certainly meets that test, as it touches on immigration in a positive if determined manner. As with many of her songs, audience noise drops to dead quiet whenever she plays it in concert.

“It’s a message of hope to all the people who left their home countries and are struggling, the honest, hard-working people who are making a big change in this country. It’s coming from a place of love and hope, so it’s got a happy, upbeat rhythm, saying ‘I’m one of you. I’m an immigrant.’ I want to be a voice for all them.”

Last year marked another left turn for Moreno, as she joined the original lineup for the Celebrating David Bowie world tour, organized not long after his death. She has covered some of Bowie’s early material, alongside such artists as Sting, Gary Oldman, Adrian Belew, Seal, Ewan McGregor, and others. There’s another curve coming later this year, as Moreno releases a new collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, the producer-songwriter behind Brian Wilson’s Smile album and many more classics, with guest appearances by Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and others.

“It’s a Pan-American project where we are sharing songs Latin America and the states, all arranged by Van Dyke,” she said. “It’s the most ambitious project I’ve done to date, and I’m so excited for it to come out.”

All the World’s a Stage(d) Reading

Santa Barbara PlayFest’s Sixth Annual Festival of New Plays is something of a misnomer, at least as regards the final “s”, since there’s only a single production on the schedule that was significantly scaled back due to financial constraints exacerbated by the aftermath of the recent fire and debris flow. Still, playwright Steve Karp will be on hand at 7 pm Saturday, March 10, for the staged reading of Reunion, with E. Bonnie Lewis and Ken Gilbert of DramaDogs in the roles of He and She, and Speaking of Stories’s Maggie Mixsell narrating. The play tells the tale of a pair of septuagenarians who discover that their teenage romance – which ended over a “Dear John” letter – has come full-circle, with the couple’s unplanned reunion suggesting that the closest they may ever come to finding love is with each other. 

Anna Jensen, former Ensemble Theatre dramaturg and current co-host of the Theatrixsb podcast, will moderate a post-reading talk back with Karp at the free event in the Santa Barbara Central Library Fireplace Room. Santa Barbara playwright Ellen Anderson, the artistic director of Dramatic Women and the director of Isla Vista Arts at UCSB, leads a free playwriting workshop that same morning at the library. Details online at

Speaking of Ensemble, the company’s former home at the Alhecama Theatre will host the debut staged reading of Santa Barbara author Claudia H. McGarry‘s second play, which also takes place at 7 pm Saturday. Modotti and Weston began life 20 years ago as a screenplay about the relationship between Tina Modotti, a rebel artist and a model and actress who was also a humanitarian, and the famed photographer Edward Weston. Several attempts to capture the essence of the story of the politically passionate pair of artists who were often liberal in their sexual pursuits never quite got off the ground in Hollywood, so McGarry adapted it into a 60-page play. Modotti and Weston follows McGarry’s first theatrical work, the autobiographical Kiddo and Patty Hearst, which played at Center Stage and the Alcazar in Carpinteria. Admission is $15. Visit

Focus on Film

The Evolution of Organic, the story of organic agriculture as told by those in California who built the movement – including farmers in Ojai and Santa Barbara – traces the journey of change from a small band of rebels, a self-described “motley crew of back-to-the-landers, spiritual seekers and farmers’ sons and daughters who launched organic farming stateside, to a cultural revolution in the way we grow and eat food that has gone mainstream. Filmmaker Mark Kitchell – whose Berkeley in the Sixties was nominated for an Academy Award – will participate in a panel featuring local farmers following the 7 pm screening at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Thursday, March 8, while Gary Malkin, who scored the film, is interviewed in this week’s Spirituality Matters column.

On the same date, director Anne Galisky joins UCSB classics professor Helen Morales for a moderated discussion following a 7 pm screening at UCSB Pollock Theater of 14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez, which traces the struggle for citizenship from its roots in the slavery era through the fight against the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century to current anti-immigrant agitation.

SBCC’s Atkinson Gallery’s exhibit “Herself, Girlhood in Stop Motion Film” dives into the complexities associated with girlhood and growing up via five short stop-motion films running 3 to 11 minutes each. The films by Rita Basulto, Laura Krifka, Heidi Kumao, Kirsten Lepore, and Suraya Raja are accompanied by production shots, figurines, and drawings, completing an exhibit that explore issues of grief, social norms, coming-of-age, and more via girlhood as its central theme. “Herself, Girlhood in Stop Motion Film” has five different TV stations, each with two pairs of headphones and a bench big enough for two. On display through Friday, March 23.


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