Diana Gameros Can’t Say No
Pluck and good luck are trademark traits of the Berkeley-based singer-songwriter with a gift for innovation and collaboration.
Diana Gameros usually says yes, an attitude that has opened up many opportunities for her.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
When the fire alarm went off and the emergency lights started flashing, everyone backstage figured that some musician had gotten careless with a joint. Considering the pungent aroma permeating the green room at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the assumption wasn’t unfair. But it turned out that a rabbi wielding a blowtorch while making the JCC kitchen kosher for Passover triggered the false alarm that interrupted last year’s sold-out show UnderCover Presents Paul Simon’s Graceland.
With about 100 musicians and a restless audience milling around on a cold April evening outside the center and only two songs left on the program, UnderCover producer and impresario Lyz Luke despaired that the event she’d so painstakingly designed was about to disperse with a whimper rather than a rousing finale. Then she spotted singer-songwriter Diana Gameros, who had already delivered her lilting version of “Gumboots.” She had the presence of mind to grab her canary-yellow guitar as she evacuated the building, and Luke quickly commanded, “I need you to start playing now!” she recalled. “Diana kicked off the jam session on the street, and as we slowly gathered other instruments, it turned into one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever had in San Francisco. Diana started singing in French, and we wound up with a New Orleans jam.”
Once again, the Berkeley-based Gameros was in the right place at the right time, brandishing her preternatural gift for intuiting just the right song for an unusual situation. Since arriving in the Bay Area in 2008, the Mexican-born artist has become an invaluable catalyst on the local scene, intersecting with a disparate collection of musicians associated with Latin American nueva trova, jazz, bossa nova, chamber, and symphonic music. In a state where Mexican culture is both ubiquitous and largely segregated to Spanish-speaking communities, she serves as a multilingual bridge via an array of creative connections with musicians here and abroad.
“Some people don’t even know I’m Mexican and like my voice and my playing,” Gameros, 33, said. “I’ll inject a little Mexican flavor, and all of a sudden, they’re in this other world. I want to be a bridge. I’m Latina and most of my songs are in Spanish. A lot of people following my work and coming to my concerts are getting exposed to music from artists they may not otherwise get to hear. As I keep going, meeting artistic directors and producers, part of me wants to keep shooting big. My art is still me, my message, my music, the stuff I want to talk about. But I can reach a greater audience.”
Describing herself almost ruefully as a “yes person,” Gameros radiates an infectious openness that seems to draw in listeners close, whether they understand her lyrics or not (“At the Graceland show, she completely captivated the audience and sold 10 times more merchandise than any artist we’ve ever had,” Luke said). An intriguing mélange of sincerity and ambition, she is a confident artist who is still very much in the process of inventing herself. With her girlish bangs and striking voice, soft edged but crystalline, alternately ringing and purring, Gameros possesses a protean quality and a knack for collaboration that enable her to appear in just about any setting and put her stamp on the musical moment.
When Magik*Magik Orchestra celebrated its fifth anniversary with a major production at the Fox Theater in January 2014, conductor Minna Choi made sure Gameros was on the bill (with the likes of Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, The Dodos, Zoe Keating, and The Pacific Boychoir). In March, she was at the Paramount Theatre, belting out classic rancheras with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. In May, she played a series of gigs around the Bay Area as a guest artist with the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco on the string quartet’s program Honoring Our Mothers—Music of Women Composers Past and Present. And in July, she joined Mexican pop star and three-time Latin Grammy Award-winner Natalia Lafourcade at the SFJAZZ Center on the classic masochistic bolero “Piensa En Mí” by María Teresa Lara.
In typical Gameros style, she first connected with Lafourcade last year when they both performed at Mex I Am, a four-day cultural festival at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts sponsored by the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco. After a brief encounter in the green room “we clicked and we became friends,” Gameros said. “We did some sightseeing while she was in town, and I took her to Stern Grove to see Andrew Bird. She’s such a sweet girl. When she found she was coming to SFJAZZ Center, she asked if I wanted to do a song. I was extremely honored and humbled. It was a big thing for me.”
One reason Gameros found her creative footing so quickly in the Bay Area is that it wasn’t her first sojourn in the United States. Born and raised in Ciudad Juarez, she was drawn to music early on, starting piano lessons around the age of 6. Writing songs became a refuge in bleak times for a sensitive child who felt like her artistic temperament made her the black sheep of the family. On a visit to an aunt, who lived in the town of Holland near Grand Rapids, Mich., Gameros fell in love with the lakeside landscape and at 13 moved to Michigan, a bid for independence that changed the course of her life.
“I wrote my first song at 11 when my parents got divorced,” Gameros said. “A few years later, a friend got killed in an accident, and I wrote another song. I was always writing things. I have a ton of journals. I’d write songs when something big happened. I think that’s why I became a musician. That’s how I could express myself.”
Gameros spent two years in Michigan, playing piano for the Latino mass in a Catholic church but otherwise focused on the usual teenage drama.
When she returned to Mexico at 15, she plunged back into music, enrolling in an academy in Guanajuato where she studied everything from music theory to Gregorian chants. Michigan called again when she started thinking about college, and this time Gameros took advantage of the region’s musical resources. While earning associate arts degrees in music and recording technology at Grand Rapids Community College, she attended numerous concerts by the Grand Rapids Symphony. But as her musical life came to focus on the guitar, her undocumented status made pursuing her creative and educational ambitions increasingly difficult.
“I had very limited opportunities, and it was time for me to know what I was going to do,” Gameros said. “I couldn’t handle the whole identity issue. I knew I had all this potential, but all these doors were closed. It was too hard to be in a country without a legal identity. I wanted to keep doing music in the U.S., but decided to move back to Mexico.”
Before returning to her homeland, she joined her mother for a vacation that brought them to San Francisco, where a new friend convinced her to take a stab at pursuing her music professionally. She took the leap in the trough of the Great Recession, 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 historical Roosevelt Tamale Parlor.
“It was like an ad saying, ‘Diana Gameros, we want you,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘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, OK, when can you start?”
Playing at Roosevelt every weekend for five years (she still performs there occasionally), 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 home base for an ever-increasing network of musical alliances. Her strategy for integrating into her new setting was simple.
“I was a yes person,” Gameros said with a laugh. “I was saying yes to flamenco, cumbia, rhumba, things completely different than mine. 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 has worked in support of organizations like Biosafety Alliance, Urban Sprouts.org, SF Living Wage Coalition, and 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, and he started booking her as an opening act for high-profile artists at Brava Theater Center 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 has encountered along the way, like jazz saxophonist Patrick Wolff, who’s performed widely with Gameros in a variety of musical contexts.
“I think she’s the real deal,” Wolff said, echoing many of her peers. “She’s a great performer, and while she might not admit it, a great guitar player too. Her music is honest. I feel it when I play it.”
Gameros, who attained legal residency in 2014, has parlayed her sterling reputation into access for other artists, such as the powerhouse Mexican vocalist Edna Vazquez and the sumptuously gifted Peruvian duo Alejandro y Maria Laura (“I’m the little fairy godmother, helping them and connecting them, taking them to places and rehearsing,” she said). Gameros continues to say yes to new projects, like Intersection for the Arts 50th anniversary celebration concert at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco on Sept. 12, another eclectic Lyz Luke production. This time she’s collaborating with David Möschler’s Awesöme Orchestra Collective.
She had planned to start saying no more often, but that’s proved more difficult than she expected. Cutting back on her own gigs to concentrate on honing songs for her second album left Gameros with an empty calendar, a vacuum inexorably filled by artists and producers seeking her creative energy for their projects. By not booking her own events “there’s room for me to say yes,” she said. “I get excited too quickly. Now I’m really trying to cut back and only do something if it’s extremely special and enriching. I have a lot of ideas for projects that I want to develop with the visual arts, like a multimedia performance around the concept of home and identity. I’m committed to spreading the joy of making music. Art needs to heal, to spread a message of love.”
Bandstand or street corner, Art Deco theater or tamale parlor, Gameros is an artist who turns every musical encounter into an emotionally charged communion, whether she is singing her own songs or helping fellow artists realize their creative vision.