Erasing Genres En Español: A Smoky-Voiced Jazz Singer Meets Classical Strings

Sep 28, 2018
Originally published on September 28, 2018 7:28 pm

Magos Herrera is a jazz singer from Mexico, but she has also sung pop songs with Brazilian beats and crooned Mexican classics with a touch of rock. Herrera takes another adventuresome step on her new album, Dreamers, where she partners with a classical string quartet for an album steeped in Latin American culture. The potent mix of themes and the sound of the string quartet, plus a little percussion, are compelling.

There's a socially conscious stream running through the new album. Even its title, Dreamers, is a word loaded with political tension these days. But the messages are often subtle. The song "Niña," for example, with music by Herrera and a text by Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz, distills the power of childhood in a single girl who has dominion over the earth, sky and water.

The most striking thing about Dreamers is Herrera's singular voice. It's never sounded more majestically smoky, commanding and beguiling, especially in "Tu y Yo," an aching love song set to words by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, architect of the so-called modernismo movement in Latin American literature.

Herrera's phrasing is supremely expressive, but what makes the album shine even brighter is the collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, a seriously eclectic string quartet. This isn't some all-purpose "carpet" of accompaniment. Brooklyn Rider's strings converse directly with Herrera. They embody characters and moods, even other instruments, such as the "drum beats" and "guitar" in violinist Colin Jacobsen's arrangement of "Balderrama" by the Argentine folk song composer Gustavo Leguizamón.

A few songs on Dreamers recall the nueva canción movement in 1960s Latin America, when songwriters paired socially relevant lyrics with back-to-the-roots folk music. And at the heart of the album lies Herrera's atmospheric performance of "Volver a los 17" ("Being Seventeen Again").

The song — written by Chile's Violetta Parra, known as the "Mother of Latin American Folk" — in pulsating verses, reflects on love, fragile moments and the power of feelings over reason. It's voiced from the vantage point of adulthood, but filtered through the poetic mindset of a teenager. Its refrain, suddenly adopting a carefree tone, takes the form of the Chilean dance called the cueca.

The album's title Dreamers is deliberate. As a spokesperson for the United Nations campaign Unite to End Violence Against Women, Herrera pushes back against the current anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the world. "Every big change in history happened because someone dared to dream," she says in a statement to accompany the album.

And art, she adds, plays a role. In "Dreams," the only song in English on the album, Herrera's voice soars on the refrain "sing out loud." She seems to suggest that we too can play a role by raising our own voices.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Magos Herrera is a Mexican jazz singer who's sung pop songs with Brazilian beats and crooned Mexican classics with a touch of rock. Her latest recording is with a string quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUZ DE LUNA")

MAGOS HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: Her new album, "Dreamers," is steeped in Latin American culture. NPR's Tom Huizenga says those themes combined with the sound of strings makes it compelling listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: There's a socially conscious stream running through this new album. Even its title, "Dreamers," is a word loaded with political tension these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGO HERRERA SONG, "NINA")

HUIZENGA: But the messages are often subtle, such as this song, "Nina," about the power of childhood with a text by Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NINA")

HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

HUIZENGA: The most striking thing about "Dreamers" is Herrera's voice. It's never sounded more majestically smoky, commanding and beguiling as in "Tu Y Yo," an aching love song set to words by Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TU Y YO")

HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

HUIZENGA: Herrera's phrasing is supremely expressive. But what makes this album shine even brighter is the collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, a seriously eclectic string quartet. This isn't some all-purpose carpet of accompaniment. Brooklyn Rider's strings embody characters and moods, even other instruments like the drum beats and guitar in violinist Colin Jacobsen's arrangement of "Balderrama" by Argentina's Gustavo Leguizamon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALDERRAMA")

HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

HUIZENGA: A few songs on "Dreamers" recall of the nueva cancion movement of 1960s Latin America when songwriters paired socially relevant lyrics with back-to-the-roots folk music. And at the heart of the album lies Herrera's atmospheric performance of "Volver A Los 17," "Returning to 17."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVER A LOS 17")

HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

HUIZENGA: The song, written by Chile's Violeta Parra, known as the mother of Latin American folk, reflects on love, fragile moments and the power of feelings over reason. It was banned during the Pinochet dictatorship. The refrain takes the form of the Chilean dance called the cueca.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVER A LOS 17")

HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish).

HUIZENGA: The album's title, "Dreamers," is deliberate. As the spokesperson for the United Nations campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, Magos Herrera pushes back against the current anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the world. Every big change in history, she says, happened because someone dared to dream. And art, she adds, plays a role.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")

HERRERA: (Singing) Dreams fill with reverse violence curse.

HUIZENGA: In "Dreams," the only song in English on the album, Herrera seems to suggest that we, too, can play a role by raising our own voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")

HERRERA: (Singing) Sing, sing out loud.

CORNISH: The album is "Dreamers" by Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider. Our reviewer is Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")

HERRERA: (Singing) Sing, sing out loud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.