When Lance Canales walked in for our interview, I hardly recognized him. He had shed a bunch of pounds and his trademark long hair was shorn into a handsome short-and-wavy style. As we talked, though, it was clear that this was not a Madonna-like repackaging for the sake of surprise and publicity.
Everything about Lance, from his appearance to the music he writes and performs, is about expressing the complex elements of his constitution and experience. The change in appearance is a response to a sensed inner shift—one, Lance says, he feels but doesn’t yet understand. Who he is, what he represents, what his music will become are all unknown.
But his insistence that his public performances “speak” as well as entertain is why I write about him as an activist. He is impelled to project a presence that, as he says, “educates without instructing,” that counters expectations and stereotypes, that embraces new ways that young people with Indian ancestry can see themselves.
Lance’s music and onstage persona represent an amalgam of different influences. He began singing in the choir of his mother’s church, where he sang gospel-inflected music in an astonishing bass voice from the age of 7. (“My voice has never changed,” he says. “It was the same then as now.”) But coming from a long line of horse trainers, he grew up on and around horses—one of those proverbial kids who ride before they walk. “By the time I was a teenager, I realized that being out on my horse in the foothills was my true way of going to church.”
As a youngster, he had gotten a recorder to try to reproduce sounds that came to mind, and he began playing at family events. The led to learning the native flute and beginning to play traditional music at powwows.
In his late teens, he came to realize that most of the music from his forbearers had been eradicated, but he found that if he prepared himself properly, he could tune in to the ancient songs. “The old folks say it takes four days of fasting on the mountain, and I’ve done that. But other forms of meditation and purification can also help get me tuned in. Even now, when all the stuff around gets me anxious and confused, I’ll go to the sweat lodge to get straight.”
As a young man growing up in America, Lance was also infused with the music of blues musicians and rock artists like Jimi Hendrix. “I began playing in rock bands, but I wanted to create a fusion of that music with native sounds.” He and fellow musician Benjamin Klein performed as Inyana to try this out. “I wanted to share what was going on inside, I had to negotiate with music to get the right sound.”
His current band is called Lance Canales and the Flood and includes comrades Adan Infante and Jason Williams. The name, he says, refers to the disappearance of the once vast Tulare Lake, its water diverted by the cotton barons, and the inevitable return of nature to its basic configuration when the man-made dams prove not to be eternal.
As for local influences and allies, Lance says, “I rely on those people who won’t lie to me—they know who they are. Musically, there are people I watch—maybe not to copy but to learn from. Jemmy Bluestein is one, Glen Delpit another—a real purist.”
As staunch supporters of his work, he cites the good folks at KFCF (“they gave me air time and an audience when no one knew who I was”) and George “Elfie” Ballis. “One of the last things George did before he died was produce the Ancient Roots DVD using my sounds and his pictures. It’s an incredible honor to be linked with a maker of iconic images like George.” [Ed. note: Lance gave a moving tribute to Elfie at his “Endgame Party” a year before Ballis died.]
As a small-town boy from the Central Valley—who views Fresno as the Big City—Lance is still a little puzzled about who he is and where he’s going. “My biggest obstacle is me—my fear of the unknown. A few years ago, I blew a chance to go to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. I’d never even been on a plane, or out of state, and I was intimidated. But after kicking myself, I swore it wouldn’t happen again.”
So when another chance came, this time to go to Ireland, he made it happen—even though he had only a few weeks to get a passport and prepare. “I was invited to make a cultural presentation at a conference. But, coincidentally, the Belfast Blues Festival was on, and I got to sit in on sessions all over town”—certainly a reward for stepping into the unknown.
It will be a surprise and revelation what the new-model Lance produces as he takes, as Elfie used to say, another leap into the void.
Name: Lance Canales
Hometown: Orosi, California
Ethnic identity: Mexican/indigenous/Tejano/Spanish
Spiritual identity: with the earth and the sky
Political identity: the anti-political party
Fresno hangout: the Tower
Inspirations: the 1968 Black Olympians who held their gloved fists in the air—one I know was Tommy Smith from Lemoore
Motto: never give in to fear, never give up
Non-political involvements: my day job as a janitor, where I get to know a lot of kids
Unexpected pleasure: football