Cenzontle is the Aztec word for mockingbird the bird of a hundred voices. Like the cenzontle, Los Cenzontles interpret a variety of regional Mexican styles. Los Cenzontles approach their performances with joyous energy sincerity and depth. Among the styles that they have interpreted are alabanzas, rancheras, pirekuas, son jarocho, Banda Sinaloense, tropical songs and dances of Mexico and the Caribbean and much more.
Since 1990 Los Cenzontles has worked with performed for and received support from numerous celebrities such as Linda Ronstadt Anthony Quinn Los Lobos Cheech Marin Yolanda del Rio Flaco JimÉnez Santiago JimÉnez Jr. Lalo Guerrero Gary Soto and Isabel Allende.
Her story began in Big Indian, a tiny village perched among the Catskill Mountains of New York although she didn’t stay there long. Lhasa’s (full name Lhasa de Sela) idealistic and unconventional parents rejected routine and stability preferring to follow life wherever it might lead them.
For seven years the family would crisscross the United States and Mexico in a converted school bus Lhasa’s first chapter in a long experience of the road. Her father was a writer and teacher who would work in construction or picking fruit when he had to; her mother was a photographer.
Traveling with them and her three sisters it was her early contacts with books fairy tales radio drama and passing landscapes that shaped her imagination. Even at the time she knew how lucky she was to be spending her childhood as she was although the freedom entailed uncertainty as well.
The soundtrack to those years was a medley of the American and Mexican classics loved by her father and the Latin Arab Eastern European and Asian music her mother would listen to.
San Francisco mid 198s. At 13 Lhasa took to the stage of a Greek cafe to sing Billie Holliday ballads and Mexican tunes a cappella. There she gradually discovered the power of her voice to convey thoughts and emotions she was only beginning to experience herself.
Six years later the road led north to Montreal. It was there that she met guitarist and producer Yves Desrosiers. For close to five years they performed together in downtown bars a collaboration that evolved into original material that eventually took form in La Llorona an album that centered on the persona of a tearful siren of Aztec mythology who would bewitch men with her heartrending melodies.
Infused with a certain nostalgia, the album exuded the fragrances of Mexico and the colors of the Romany full of sensuality and striking instrumentation. Released in February 1997 the Spanish-language album was immediately recognized for its sparkling originality. Hundreds of thousands worldwide were transported by the even throaty voice that delivered such mysterious poetry above the rich arrangements heady like incense.
The first influence was in Quebec where Lhasa began to fill halls and ultimately win the “Felix” for Artiste Quebecois – musique de monde in 1997. Then followed the rest of Canada where she went platinum selling 11 albums and winning a Juno for Best Global Artist in 1998. Then came the U.S. and Europe especially France where La Llorona went triple disc d’or, with albums flying off the shelves.
Lhasa and her band toured relentlessly for several years throughout Europe and North America where her concerts were as acclaimed as the album had been. The demand for live appearances steadily increased. On the eve of the 21st Century Lhasa decided to take a break from touring and consider what might be next.
Realizing that she needed to distance herself from her life as a singer she decided to travel to France to fulfill her childhood dream of performing with her three sisters all circus performers. They met up in Bourgogne and created a show together which premiered in the summer of 1999. The contrast between the life of a touring musician who sees the world fly by with never the time to savor the places and people along the way and the circus life traveling in the company of family and friends sharing trailers and assembling and dismantling the big top and bleachers provided a welcome opportunity for the singer to replenish her inner resources.
When the circus tour had ended Lhasa arrived at a new chapter in her life: Marseilles the ancient port city where half the titles for her new album would be born. In 2002, back in Montreal, where her career had begun she re-united with Francois Lalonde drummer percussionist and sound engineer onLa Llorona and Jean Massicotte pianist who had also contributed to the mixing of her first release. They were to co-produce her second album The Living Road.
Where La Llorona revolves around a mythical siren The Living Road centers on the metaphor of life as a road. A gathering of original titles sung in Spanish, English and French the album bridges physical distances as it links the musical traditions of the present and the past. “That’s what inspires each of the songs on the album,” said Lhasa. “The mysterious force that doesn’t let us box ourselves in that compels us to keep changing. The road is alive we can’t freeze or stop it. And we know we can’t.”
The self-titled and self-produced Lhasa reveled in her eclectic sum of influences was released in 2009.
After battling breast cancer Lhasa passed away on Monday January 1st of 2010 at her home in Montreal Canada. She was 37.
Jenny & The Mexicats – Mar Abierto (Mexicat Records, 2017)
Globetrotting mestizo music band Jenny & The Mexicats has a new album titled Mar Abierto (Open Sea). The multinational group is led by British vocalist and trumpet player Jenny Ball. Originally based in Madrid, the band later moved to Mexico.
Mar Abierto includes catchy Spanish and English-language songs featuring flamenco rumba, pop, cumbia, reggae, merengue, swing, son veracruzano and pop influences. The English-language set includes Jeny’s neo-soul vocals.
The lineup includes Jenny Ball (UK) on vocals, trumpet and guitar; David González Bernandos (Spain) on percussion and vocals; Alfonso Acosta “Pantera” (Mexico) on guitar and vocals; and Luis Díaz “Icho” (Mexico) on bass.
With Mar Abierto, Jenny & The Mexicats demonstrate that it’s one of the most exciting roots music acts currently based in Mexico.
The delicate combination of chicano afterbeat and the general ear is challenging. We tend to hear eight bars of Mexican euphony of whatever quality and file it under “humorous film scene background music.” Listen to this one again. The challenge is met.
With this sort of music, one hears the message THROUGH the recording rather than along with it. The environment is established first.
The environment, for multiple award-winning Yuly Tovar, is somewhat south of the border between arid and tropical. It is a “wet” mariachi, more languid than the familiar standard, and closer to the emotion than to the technical form. The afterbeat is there, and the pull toward minor keys, but the foundation is … in the verdant bushes, rather than in the sun-beaten, dry plains.
This is no field recording, with engineers taking what they can get. The mix is absolutely the star here. Balances between sections are unique and perfect for getting the tunes across. Ms. Tovar is in perfect sync with the players, sometimes using her voice as part of the horn section, then lilting atop the strings, then laying back to encourage relaxation along with the backline rhythm. She is spotlighted throughout this release as a consummate band leader.
“Songs from Mexico” is the first global release for Ms. Tovar, already well known and respected in her own country. It should serve as a most effective letter of introduction for her.
Los Utrera is a group from Veracruz, Mexico that was founded in 1992 around the Son Jarocho traditions of this musical family and patriarch Esteban Utrera, who plays guitarra de son.
The group uses various forms of guitars including guitarra de son, jarana, and jarana barroca, along with quijada (donkey jaw), zapateado (foot percussion) and violin.
Throughout the years, Los Utrera have pushed the boundaries of traditional Son Jarocho introducing non-traditional instrumentation and then expanding their repertoire to include Son Huasteco, also of Veracruz.
They have performed in festivals in the United States and Europe.
This new release from New Mexico, the self-professed “land of enchantment”, is sure to get you dancing. Acoustic trio, Lone Piñon’s second album, (literally translated Happy Days), is a fiesta of music that pays homage to the borderland’s cultural roots. The band members hail from different geographic, cultural, and musical backgrounds but have come together since 2012 to revive the New Mexican Chicano string band style. According to the band’s bio, they “bring a devoted and explosive musicianship to Northern New Mexican… and Mexican music”.
It’s a challenge not to clap, tap, or sway along with these rhythms. Catchy melodies abound, the vocal harmonies sung in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl. The instruments also sing: violin, accordion, guitar, guitarrón, and upright bass. Multiple themes recur and duel. Some are upbeat and some are dark and mesmerising. Some songs sound like soundtracks, some a wedding jig, some a square dance.
The opening instrumental track, “El Borrachito”, is a celebratory introduction and heralds the party to follow. Another fifteen tracks of dance music and crooning ballads demonstrate Lone Piñon’s complex repertoire.
Standout tracks are: “Estas Lindas Flores”, a duet of vocals and accordion in a jolly hoedown; “El Querreque”, a toe-tapper in huapango style; and “La Llorona”, alternating brisk fiddle and doleful lament that tells a clear narrative with or without lyrics.
Listening to this album highlights the pleasure to be derived from cross-cultural relationships. These Días Felices are uplifting.
I will be writing a column on Length & Time in music, in each presenting an album and its strategies that pertain to addressing Length & Time.
Juan Gabriel’s album Con Mariachi Vol. 2 confers Mexican society a variation of traditional spirit that it delights in, this time made fashionably beautiful.
Juan Gabriel is a product of the 20th century whereas Mariachi style of the 19th century. In the 19th century, only the opera singer or the composer was conferred the titles artist, fashionable, beautiful, and could represent a nation. All others were quite simply entertainers.
With the 20th century came both radio and the idea that crowds could decide on the representation of a nation through song, despite the countless songs of the French, American, Haitian, or Mexican revolutions. Mariachi came to represent identity. The 20th century also brought along both prestige for modern art and creatives at marketing and media companies inspired by modern art in the aesthetics of their communication. Juan Gabriel came to represent fashionable beauty.
Gabriel produces 20th century crowd music, for those obsessed with visual beauty, true to 19th century style of music subservient to rituals of fiesta in a society, as opposed to producing them. He does this through his person. Mariachi is wedding music, event music: Gabriel makes good with the idea that is a traditional fiesta, true to old dreams.
Smithsonian Folkways Tradiciones/Traditions has released a new album Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú. The title of the recording is Serrano de Corazón (Highlander at Heart).
Huapango arribeño is a distinct regional tradition of Mexican music with colonial roots, long-lasting but sheltered in its mountainous homeland in the central states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Querétaro.
Remarkable folk poet Guillermo Velázquez and his Leones de la Sierra de Xichú deliver the songs with their violins, guitarra quinta huapanguera, jarana, and percussive dancing. Serrano de Corazón (Highlander at Heart) evokes the spirit of all-night topadas, competitive duels between poets and their musicians for the delight of all. The album includes a 40-page bilingual booklet with photos.
Inberoamerican Music Expo (EXIB) organizers were forced to move the outdoor showcase venues to the historic Teatro Garcia de Resende. The beautiful renovated theater turned out to be an excellent space to experience the live performances.
The first act on stage was La Colectiva Corazón, a multinational group of graduates from the Berklee College of Music – Valencia, Spain Campus. The collective plays what they describe as cumbia fusion. Bear in mind that it’s Chilean cumbia along with guajiras, boleros, funk, Andean music, and pop. Think of Chico Trujillo mixed with Manu Chao.
The slow dance beat immediately got members of the audience dancing (primarily women). The band brought a dance party atmosphere to Teatro Garcia de Resende and the performance was very well received.
La Colectiva Corazon was created by Chilean composer, vocalist and percussionist Gonzalo Eyzaguirre. The ensemble includes musicians from Puerto Rico, Slovenia, Ecuador, Colombia, Italy and the United States. La Colectiva just released its debut album titled “Viajero.”
The band included Gonzalo Eyzaguirre on vocals, charango and percussion; Travis Smilen on electric guitar; Sebastián Laverde on congas; Carlos Llido on drums and timbales; Eric Benavent on saxophone; Alfonso Benavent on trumpet; and Javier Giner Garrido on bass.
The second act was Portuguese singer-songwriter and guitarist Luiz Caracol. He’s a talented artist who combines the rhythms of Portugal with jazz and the music of African countries, Brazil and the sounds of Jorge Drexler.
Luiz Caracol has a captivating laid back song style supported by his rhythmic electric guitar and a fabulous rhythm section that includes a percussionist from Brazil and a West African drummer.
Caracol was born in Elvas right after his parents arrived from newly independent Angola, where they had lived before the African nation became independent. Luiz Caracol released his first album, Devagar, in 2013. Devagar includes special guest performances by Fernanda Abreu, Sara Tavares and Valete. He’s currently recording his new album titled Metade, scheduled for release later this year, in 2016.
Concert lineup: Luiz Caracol on guitar and vocals; Chico Santos on bass; Miroca Paris on drums; and Ruca Rebordão on percussion.
Mexico was represented by vocalist Zaira Franco. Zaira’s show crossed numerous musical boundaries. She was accompanied by a rock band and delivered a mix of Mexican music, boleros, funk, Afro Cuban sounds and rock. The band’s electric guitar player was impressive, releasing fiery solos using various types of techniques. At one time, Zaira’s band went into full blown progressive rock. Zaira Franco presented her latest album, Tumbalá.
Showcase lineup: Zaira Franco on vocals; Mario Patrón on piano; Federico Erik Negrete on bass; Alfredo Martínez on guitar; Fausto Aguilar on drums; and Luis Manuel García on percussion.
The fourth act was truly spectacular. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the entire event. C4 Trio is an award-winning ensemble of three Venezuelan cuatro players along with a bassist.
C4 Trio are highly skilled musicians who demonstrated virtuosity, creativity and delivered a captivating and fun show featuring ensemble pieces, solos and interplay. The repertoire included Venezuelan folk songs as well as pop standards played at dazzling speeds. The group received repeated standing ovations and was the only act that came back for an encore.
The C4 Trío lineup included Jorge Glem on cuatro; Héctor Molina on cuatro; Edward Ramírez on cuatro; and Gustavo Márquez on bass.
The closing act was 78 year old Brazilian vocalist and guitarist Dona Jandira. The charismatic performer started her career in 2004 after she met producer José Dias.
Lineup: Dona Jandira on vocals and guitar; José Dias Guimaraes de Almeida on bass and Eugenio de Castro Ribeiro on violin.
Headline photo: La Colectiva Corazón, courtesy of EXIB Música
Rounder Records has reissued the album Music of Veracruz by Los Pregoneros del Puerto. The reissue is part of Rounder’s back catalog of world music albums released into full digital distribution.
This delightful music from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz in Mexico features diatonic harp, the four-string requinto, and the eight-string guitar called the jarana. The powerful vocals of group leader José Gutierrez and supported by string harmonies, while the majestic harp playing of Gonzalo Mata is a wonder to behold.