Blissful Combinations

Folk and popular music styles, when performed by uncommonly sensitive and resourceful performers, can be elevated from something commonplace into an expression that’s truly a work of art. That’s the case with this quartet of releases, which blend a desire for stylistic honesty with the highly personalized talents of their interpreters.

Lila Downs, the Grammy-winning Mexican vocalist and composer who has been in the vanguard of the neo-folk movement for almost two decades, is particularly provocative on the culturally revealing Pecados y Milagros. And, although the 14-track program is largely based on Mexican folkloric forms, the production benefits from the participation of a bevy of well known guests, including the legendary Colombian folk music diva Totó la Momposina. Downs, whose voice is as strong and clear as a shot of artisan tequila, based her concept for the album on the symbolism found in the themes of traditional Mexican votive paintings. Whether it is the well known huapango-rooted “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” to which she adds her own bird-like cooing effects, or the rhythmically rambunctious opening work, “Mezcalito,” a tale of drunken woes, Downs is unerringly captivating. Be it cumbia, border-savvy norteño or any other style that fires her imagination, the singer is always on the mark.

Another Grammy-winning artist, Susana Baca, has devoted her 25-year recording career to bringing the stylistically vibrant but, until her arrival on the scene, little known music of Peru’s Afro culture to a global audience. As proof of her stature in her homeland, Baca was recently named Peru’s Minister of Culture. On Afrodiaspora, the singer broadens her vision to include influential genres from other locales where the African influence has strongly influenced national music styles. “Plena y Bomba,” for instance, captures the bouncy rhythmic quality of two Puerto Rican styles associated with the island’s Afro population. “Coco y Forro” is based on Brazil’s rustic dance music from the country’s northeaster region. Other works, such as “Taki ti Taki,” hearken back to Baca’s ancestral roots in Africa itself while “Hey Pocky Way” is a synthesis of New Orleans funk and Afro-Peruvian rhythms. Baca’s honey-sweet voice, endowed with feathery inflections, is complemented by harp, guitar, harmonica, bass and the polyrhythmic thrust of a team of percussionists. It all makes for a blissful combination.

Ballad singer Mili Bermejo owes her world view to her Mexican composer father and her mother, a tango singer from Argentina. On Love Songs of the Americas, a collection of a dozen distinctive works, Bermejo wisely avoids the overly familiar torch songs of the bolero and Great American Songbook traditions for a less exposed but profoundly poetic repertoire. She spotlights pensive, often melancholy, creations of composers from Buenos Aires and New York, with detours along the way to Uruguay, Brazil and Cuba. Devoid of the kind of overt rhythmic pulse that fuels the two previously discussed discs, this session explores themes of love won and lost on the singer’s heartfelt terms. Standout tracks include Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s “Mais Que a Paixão” and “Te Amaré,” by Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez. Bermejo’s signature as a vocalist, performing in Spanish, Portuguese and English, is to give each song a reading so strikingly personal that it sounds as though she has actually lived the tales painted in the tunes’ lyrics. The accompanying trio of bass, piano and cello provides the perfect backdrop -- elegant and unobtrusive to a fault. Eugene Friesen’s soulful cello work is the perfect complement to Bermejo’s emotive stylizing.

Another gem that deserves attention is Edery Sings Yupanqui, which spotlights the remarkable legacy of the late Argentine composer Atahualpa Yupanqi. Considered to have been the guiding force behind his country’s folk music movement of the last century, Yupanqui (a stage name of Inca Indian origins taken by Héctor Chavero Aramburo) popularized the long marginalized folk rhythms of Argentina’s vast interior, including zamba and chacarera. Thirteen of Yupanqui’s hauntingly lovely songs are interpreted here by Gerard Edery, the noted Morocco-born singer and guitarist famed for his mastery of Spain’s Sephardic music. A small ensemble backs the singer, whose flamenco-grounded guitar stylings and mesmerizing voice add a new dimension to such Yupanqui classics as “La Flecha” and “Caminito del Indio.”


Mark Holston