The oldies never get old; they become classics. So what makes Latino music and romantic songs, called boleros, of the “golden age,” the 1930s, 40s and 50s, so unique and universal? Why have icons, such as Mexican superstar Luis Miguel or American crooners, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra, even contemporary Jennifer Lopez and Carly Simon kept them alive?
It’s the mysterious stories behind the song, the odd, emotional mix of longing to remember and wanting to forget. The contradictory, complex struggles within displaced persons, who feel alienated or rejected because of prejudice, but who still know how to love passionately and have a good time. It’s the lover who feels enraptured with desire, who becomes overwhelmed with sorrow when separated. It’s the enjoyment of suffering that means you’re alive. That’s what makes Latino Music Fever so accessible and worthwhile.
Arrive early for this travel-back-in-time and sit at one of the round tables, in a glittering nightclub set, staged by director Greg Stevens. This is a musical cabaret that will enthuse you to travel south to Mexico and maybe Cuba (in the future) where there’s sand. So, go ahead, kick off your shoes, walk the beach and feel the tropical breeze. Shake off the stress, follow the crowd to the healing range of eerie sounds from percussionist Iván Navas’s high-pitched bongs, deep-sounding congas, and rattlesnake sounds of cylindrical tube shakers, tinkling chimes, the metallic afuche cabasa (made of wrapped steel beads), and cajon, the freight box used by slaves on Peruvian docks to transmit drumming signals to defy the masters. His solo spots scattered throughout are worth the price of admission.
In Latino Music Fever, you experience the songs that refuse to be forgotten or disappeared, from a richly talented, stellar local cast, featuring baritones José Sacín and Alex Alburqueque, along with resonant-voiced mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo and soprano Adriana González.
Now that the United States is hopefully opening up the dawn of cultural exchange with Cuba, the show pays tribute. It opens with the infectious beat performed by the ensemble, “El Manicero/The Peanut Vendor,” by Moisés Simons, and Act I closes with “Para Vigo Me Voy/Say Sí, Sí,/I’m Going Away to Vigo,” a conga by Ernesto Lecuona. These two favorites contributed to the fevered craze for Latino music that swept the U.S. from the 30’s to the 50’s– before rock ‘n roll.
But for me, the most memorable was in-between. Sometimes the pain becomes too deep for defiance. I will never forget one 1943 indelible “Nosotros/The Two of Us,” a bolero by Cuban Pedro Junco Jr., that tells a story with a mysterious ironic twist, what sets typical Latino songs apart. Soprano Adriana Gonzálas captures the sense of despair of two young lovers.
LATINO MUSIC FEVER
June 5 – 6
In Series at Mexican Cultural Institute
2829 16th Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
The lover declares his love and says farewell at the same time, “You and I, who made of love,/a wonderful sun, a romance so divine…..You and I must go our separate ways.” The agonizing twist hits at the end when the narrator-lover breaks off the relationship. “….I adore you, and in the name of our love/and for your good, I say goodbye.” So why the split of such a divine relationship? In 1943, Junco, who at 23, after his song was published, died of tuberculosis. He was contagious and didn’t want to infect his female lover. The song is a classic example of the dark paradox found in many Latino songs.
A second highpoint is another 1943 bolero made popular by Mexican-American baritone, Andy Russell, who made public his Latino background and bridged the gap of prejudice against Mexican-Americans by singing bilingually: “Amor, Amor, Amor/Love, Love, Love,” by Mexican songwriter, Gabriel Ruiz. The song, that became one of Andy Russell’s biggest hits, is immortalized for eternity with an inscription, “Amor“, on his gravestone.
As performed by baritone Alex Alburqueque and mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo, “Amor” is given a bilingual delivery, one verse in Spanish, the next in English. It’s another archetypical Latino song that puts earthly love on a spiritual level. As performed, it proved to be a crowd-pleaser, with a break-out, spine-tingling, spotlighted solo by the exciting percussionist and music director, Iván Navas, decked out in a snappy striped black and white cap. Navas makes you edgy and introduces a new language. His bongo and conga drums seem to talk. Added to the mix, Navas brings in exotic sounds by banging on the jam blocks, and timbrel, an ancient instrument similar to the modern tambourine. He also uses the afuche cabasa, wrapped loops of steel on a shaker, that elicits a metallic rattling, like a rattlesnake.
When Navas breaks out in the solo spotlight, as in, “Baia,” by Ray Gilbert, the hushed interjection of this master percussionist adds a touch of the otherworldly to mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo’s rendition. “Now I am sick with longing./Baia, land of happiness,/find me a love like the one I lost.” It’s beautiful and haunting.
“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás/Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” is deliverd by Adriana Gonzálas and Patricia Portillo. The song was made popular in the U.S. by Nat King Cole, is a bolero cha-cha-cha, by Osvaldo Farrés, from Cuba. The skit gave Alex Alburqueque, who doesn’t sing this number, opportunity for display of his comic talent, his expressive face that reflects held-back feelings. In a hilarious pantomime, Alburqueque depicts the man who can’t make up his mind. He’s caught between two powerhouse women, who are mildly impatient with him.
José Sacín, the charismatic baritone who in formal tux jacket projects the image of the debonair gentleman, delivers a nuanced and beautifully expressive rendition of “No Me Platiques Más/Don’t Speak Any More, by Vicente Garrido, a modern Mexican song writer. Garrido’s renewed interest in boleros, the big band and swing music has created a revival in the Anglo-American market, previously dominated by rock music during the 1960s. This selection contrasts nicely with Sacín’s upbeat mood in Eres Rayo de Sol/You Are Sunshine, by Cuban Rodrigo Prats.
A recognizable “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, popular in the 1930s, as performed in ensemble, with Spanish lyrics by Mexican songwriter Maria Grever. Here’s a discovery – This iconic Cole Porter is from the Caribbean, Guadeloupe and Martinique, where “beguine,” means a white person of mixed ancestry. Very American. It’s a slow fox trot, like a rumba, sung and performed here as one of the closing finales.
Latino Music Fever, Latin American Romantic Songs To Remember adds up to a live-life-to-the-fullest, satisfying message. It’s the rich sounding music, uniquely Latino, that captures the paradox of pain and the beauty of people who live a hard-knocks life, but who transcend the situation by singing and celebrating life. Go for it and clap along with the infectious rhythms.
Sung in Spanish and English, with guides to translation provided in handouts
Latino Music Fever, Latin American Romantic Songs To Remember . Song Favorites chosen by music director Mari Paz and artistic director Carla Hübner . Directed and staged by Greg Stevens . Music Director & Pianist Mari Paz, assisted by percussionist Iván Navas . Produced by The In Series . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.