Latina Jazz: Vocalists Claudia Acuna, Magos Herrera, Venissa Santi, Susana Baca, Martirio Much of today's best Latin jazz embraces old traditions to create something new. NPR Producer Felix Contreras spotlights five female singers whose sounds borrow equally from Latin music and jazz.

Latina Jazz: Spanish-Speaking Vocalists

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Joined in the studio by our friend, Felix Contreras - of course, the NPR arts producer and blogger for NPR's jazz blog, A Blog Supreme. Felix, thanks for bringing back with us.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We talk to Felix every now and then about various genres and styles of music that come from the Spanish-speaking world. Now, today we're going to focus on some vocalists. He's brought in four CDs, which are in Spanish. What else do they have in common, Felix?

CONTRERAS: Well, they all embrace the idea of using tradition to create something new. For example, our first vocalist, Magos Herrera, is from Mexico. And she has a deep, rich voice that's perfectly suited for singing the traditional bolero, or the love ballad. Her new CD, "Distancia," is her first release in the U.S., and it's full of the cultural mash-up that has made her extremely popular in Mexico and throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

(Soundbite of song, "Reencuentro")

Ms. MAGOS HERRERA (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Magos Herrera studied at the Musicians Institute of Technology in L.A., and at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and now makes her home in New York. And she's part of a larger movement among jazz musicians from Latin American countries that create a sound that borrows equally from Latin music and jazz but is neither at the same time.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HERRERA: (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: Given her background, is she a bilingual performer?

CONTRERAS: She is trilingual. She sings in those three languages, too: Spanish, English and Portuguese. And on this album, she is writing in both Spanish and English.

(Soundbite of song, "Staying Closer")

Ms. HERRERA: (Singing) This confusing wide open space, this night but...

SIMON: Who's next?

CONTRERAS: Venissa Santi. She is a young, Cuban-American vocalist based in Philadelphia whose new CD is called "Bienvenida," or "Welcome."

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: She says her music is one-half jazz and one-half Cuban. Now, the mixing of Cuban music and jazz goes back most famously to the late 1940s and the explosion of Afro-Cuban jazz coming out of New York and from Havana a little later.

(Soundbite of song, "Tu Mi Delirio")

Ms. VENISSA SANTI (Singer): One in the meadow, two in the garden, three, there's that girl again walking down the street...

CONTRERAS: Her album includes lyrics in both English and Spanish. And by doing that, Venissa Santi is on a very short list of vocalists who have taken on the musical challenge of mixing jazz and Spanish.

SIMON: Now, why is that especially challenging?

CONTRERAS: Well, it takes a lot to make them fit. And to my ear, it all has to do with the syntax of the two languages. You can't just cut and paste English lyrics over a song structure that was written in Spanish, and vice versa. It doesn't always work out musically and mathematically. But that's where I think Venissa Santi succeeds on this album.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SANTI: One, two…

CONTRERAS: On this cut, for example, she and her band perform a very old bolero called "Tu Mi Delirio." And they do it as a very up-tempo, almost bebop swing.

(Soundbite of song, "Tu Mi Delirio")

Ms. SANTI: (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: Is there such a thing is scat singing in Spanish?

CONTRERAS: Well, she's pulling it off. I think she is making it happen, and what we hear is Venissa working the rolling R's and multi-syllable words like corazon and dichoso into a delivery that just swings like crazy.

(Soundbite of song, "Lucerito De Mi Amor")

Ms. SANTI: (Singing in Spanish)

(Soundbite of song, "Embraceable You")

Ms. SANTI: (Singing) Don't be a naughty baby…

SIMON: She also sings in English.

CONTRERAS: Yes, she does. In fact, the CD has a version of Gershwin's "Embraceable You," in which she does very nice vocal over the solo section that's not traditional scat singing like you and I know but more like improvised storytelling over the chord changes of the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Wish You Well")

Ms. SANTI: (Singing) Don't you know, can't you tell, I think it shows that I'm in love with you. There's really nothing that I wouldn't do. Can't you see my dream is to be with you my whole life through. Dearest one, if only you would understand and you would hold my hand. We'd fly away to some unknown fairy land...

CONTRERAS: There are a couple more jazz tunes on the album, and some very interesting takes on traditional Afro-Cuban rumba.

SIMON: I think I'm noticing a trend among the vocalists we've talked about so far. Latin American roots and East Coast U.S.A. ZIP codes.

CONTRERAS: And I brought in another example of that in vocalist Claudia Acuna. She is originally from Chile, and moved to New York to become a jazz singer in the early 1990s. She's a little more established than the other vocalists we've heard so far. She's already recorded four albums here in the U.S. Her most recent CD is on Branford Marsalis's label Marsalis Music, and it's called "En Este Momento."

(Soundbite of song, "El Cigarrito")

Ms. CLAUDIA ACUNA (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: I don't know if this is a marketing question or aesthetic question, but we've been listening so far to CDs that have a mix of English and Spanish, but the songs are predominantly in Spanish.

CONTRERAS: It's probably an aesthetic question. I mean, some of these vocalists, they start out in one language and go with another. And the interesting part about that question with Claudia Acuna is that she didn't speak much English when she came to the U.S. to pursue her dream of becoming a jazz singer. Eventually, her recordings were mostly in English. And over time, she's reconnected with her native language and created a musical identity using both languages and now, eventually, leaning more towards Spanish.

(Soundbite of song, "Te Recuerdo Amanda")

Ms. ACUNA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: This CD has songs from Argentina and Cuba and Mexico. This diverse selection of songs illustrates something else each of these singers have in common: the vision to mine the rich mother load of Spanish-language songwriters.

SIMON: We're taking a musical tour of contemporary Latin-American jazz vocalists with NPR's Felix Contreras. Now moving from Chile north to Peru.

CONTRERAS: To Susana Baca, one of the great voices of modern Peru. She's taken the country's Afro-Peruvian musical heritage to stages and airwaves around the world. And she's become a key figure in the revival of a culture that's been pretty much ignored within Peru. Her new CD is called "Seis Poemas," and it's a tribute to a great voice of Peru from a different era, Chabuca Granda, a folk singer who became an icon for progressive movements and musicians throughout Latin America in the 1970s.

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. SUSANA BACA (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: Felix, please help us through the lyrics.

CONTRERAS: Well, this cut is called "El Bosque Armado" or the armed force, and it's a good example of how Chabuca Granda bent the rules of poetic cadence. And the lyrics are, I will sleep the rest of my amazement.

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. BACA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: So I can arrive early…

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. BACA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: …and yet…

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. BACA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: …there is still an open path…

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. BACA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: …and a star.

(Soundbite of song, "El Bosque Armado")

Ms. BACA: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: The interesting part about that section of the song was how well Susana Baca interpreted the complex cadence, how she separated (speaking Spanish), kind of splitting the thought into two distinct musical phrases, two parts of the song, which is really not a natural music flow.

SIMON: The emphasis in this album seems to be on lyrics. The arrangements are sparse.

CONTRERAS: And the instrumentation is sparse. Guitar, voice, little soft percussion. That reflects Susan Baca's great interpretation of Chabuca Granda's songs about the simple beauties of Peruvian life and culture.

SIMON: Felix, nice to talk to you again.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.

SIMON: Felix Contreras, producer for NPR Arts Desk, and a blogger for the NPR jazz blog, A Blog Supreme.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can hear full songs from the singers that we just featured today, plus - if you act now, a bonus track! - on one of our Web sites, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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