NPR logo Canciones de Amor: Boleros for Your Lover

Canciones de Amor: Boleros for Your Lover

Vicente Fernandez is a legendary Mexican mariachi. hide caption

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The bolero is a form of love song that originated in Cuba in the 19th century. It came into its own after mostly Mexican composers, working in the 1940s, wrote songs that became popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The lyrics often reflect themes of bittersweet, unrequited, betrayed, or eternal love.

Here are some of my favorites. Some are not strictly boleros, but all of these songs maintain the tradition — and, more importantly, the feeling.

Canciones de Amor: Boleros for Your Lover

Cover for Just Another Band from East L.A.: A Collection

Volver, Volver [Live]

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Volver, Volver [Live]

  • from Just Another Band from East L.A.: A Collection
  • by Los Lobos

I'd bet the rent that those of you who know this song just sang that chorus to yourselves. A song of loss that's been covered most famously by the great Mexican mariachi Vicente Fernandez and the great Chicano rock 'n' roll band, Los Lobos. Sing it in the shower, full voice. You'll feel Latin.

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Song
Just Another Band from East L.A.: A Collection
Album
Just Another Band from East L.A.: A Collection
Artist
Los Lobos
Label
FFRR
Released
1993

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sinatra cover

In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

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In the Wee Small Hours...

  • Song: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
  • from Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960
  • by Frank Sinatra

It seems like a huge stylistic jump, but not really. This song has all the characteristics of the classic bolero: the poetic, bittersweet lyrics; slow, almost imperceptible rhythm (boleros are meant to be slow-danced) and that voice. Sinatra's ballads were always popular in Latin America. "When your lonely heart has learned its lesson, you'd be hers if only she would call."

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Song
Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960
Album
Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960
Artist
Frank Sinatra
Label
Capitol
Released
2000

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santana cover

Samba Pa Ti

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Samba Pa Ti

  • from Essential Santana [Columbia]
  • by Santana

Carlos Santana's father was a mariachi, and his grandfather was a mariachi. That musical lineage shows in this instrumental from the band's second album, 1970's Abraxas. Santana said he wrote it after his first trip to New York City, where he saw so many people living on the street, their spirits broken. It's still in their song line-up, and can still make old-school Chicanos get up to slow-dance with their wives.

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Song
Essential Santana [Columbia]
Album
Essential Santana [Columbia]
Artist
Santana
Label
Sony/BMG Japan
Released
2002

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Cover for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Lush Life

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Lush Life

  • from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
  • by John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman

Had Billy Strayhorn been born in Mexico, we'd be singing this song in Spanish. Written while he was just a teenager, it has become not just a jazz classic, but also one of the most popular tunes of the great American songbook. This performance of "Lush Life" is definitive.

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Song
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Album
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Artist
John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman
Label
Universal
Released
1963

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Cover for Frida

La Llorona

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La Llorona

  • from Frida
  • by Elliot Goldenthal

To this day, I get a little nervous if I'm standing near a river at night. La Llorona, or the weeping woman, supposedly roams rivers and streams, weeping for her drowned children. How is this romantic? Well, a mother's love is eternal, isn't it? The myth spawned a bolero, and one of my favorites is from the film Frida, as performed by the Mexican vocalist Chavela Vargas. While not exactly romantic, it certainly captures the desperate, tequila-fueled cantina environment of the bolero.

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Song
Frida
Album
Frida
Artist
Chavela Vargas
Label
Universal

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