Think beyond mariachi for what Mexican music means – Marty Lipp / Huffington Post

Think beyond mariachi for what Mexican music means – Marty Lipp / Huffington Post

It is way past time to give up the idea that “Mexican music” means mariachi, but three great albums released last month give a glimpse at the diversity and inventiveness of Mexican music and the “alt Latino” scene.

Singer Natalia Lafourcade followed up her popular last album with an unexpected turn to the past; the idiosyncratic Café Tabuca, who have become godfathers of the scene, released their first studio album in five years; and the Mexican-American singer Lila Downs released another collection of tunes in her characteristically hybridized trad-modern style.

Where Lafourcade’s critically acclaimed Hasta la Raiz was forward-looking in its deft acoustic-electric mix, her new album, Musas, looks back to older styles. Playing with the veteran acoustic-guitar duo Los Macorinos, Lafourcade renders this rootsy music delicate and utterly gorgeous.

Lafourcade went to a secluded country home to slowly create this music, a finely wrought homage to older Latin music. The 33-year-old singer said the sessions, playing with two veteran musicians, were a life-changing experience for her, appreciating the rich spirit held within the soulful, thoughtful playing of Los Macorinos. While it is absolutely “rootsy,” the music sheds any rough-hewn trad wrapping, leaving a lean, brilliant prettiness. Pristine production allows Lafourcade’s voice to glimmer amid a spare but lovely instrumental accompaniment.

Lafourcade’s voice is as delicate as spun sugar, but while it can seem fragile she can still wring a lot of strength out of it such as the finale of “Mi Tierra Veracruzana.”

The daughter of two music educators, Lafourcade demonstrates her musical acuity with some nice, surprising but not too showy vocal filigrees. She even somehow transforms the silly old Dean Martin hit “That’s Amore” to a wistful, and at times haunting, slow waltz. In an inspired bit of teaming, she duets with 86-year-old Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club on “Tu Me Acustombraste,” with both singers nailing emotive note after note for a cross-generational moment of absolute beauty.

Appropriately, the album closes with a “Vals Poetico,” a lovely valedictory instrumental from the two nylong-string guitars of Los Macorinos, musically expressing the thought that parting is such sweet sorrow.

Café Tacuba’s latest in their 25-year career, Jei Beibi, shows the band joyously adding new sonic textures to their kaleidoscopic repertoire.

Starting as a feisty group of art rockers during the 1980s “Rock en Espanol” movement, Tacuba has become hugely popular at home and across Latin America. Claiming rock as their own, the members mixed a quirky contemporary sensibility with chunks of traditional Mexican styles that resulted in music that was both proudly Mexican and cosmopolitan.

Tacuba simultaneously sounds like the arena-rock band it has become and the tongue-in-cheek deflator of rock-god pretentiousness. With its loyalties and politics always with the little guy, the band’s impish sense of humor takes turns with many heartfelt moments on this latest album.

Frontman Ruben Albarron steps back a bit and lets other bandmates sing. Reggae, rap, some ‘60s flourishes all live side-by-side in Café Tacuba’s densely packed musical neighborhood, still leaving room for its trademark melodica and Albarron’s reedy vocals.

Notably there are some ominous tones on the album. On “Futuro,” bass player Enrique Rangel sings in an altered voice about over a menacing martial beat, with lyrics that touch some dark places: “Death said yes/I say no, life said no/I say yes.” The surreal video is funny and a bit creepy, but ends chillingly with the lyrics “the future is today.”

Lila Downs’ latest, Salon, Lagrimas y Deseo, once again showcases her powerful deep voice, setting it against a morphing background of rock and Mexican traditional music. This time out, Downs adds a bit of old-Havana into her Mexican styles with a few boleros, channeling her inner nightclub chanteuse, if not her inner Shirley Bassey. On “Palabras de Mujer,” her smoky vocals twist around a muted trumpet, tango-sexy violin and lovesick mariachi brass.

No better ambassador to America for Mexican music, Downs is the daughter of a Mexican mother and an American father and was raised in both countries. While at one time a youthful devotee of the Grateful Dead, Downs fell in love with the traditional regional music of Mexico and became a re-interpreter of the dramatic, rootsy styles from around the country, salting it at times with American styles.

As always, the big payback on the album is Downs’ vocals – by turns almost-operatic, other-worldly or just plain stunning, but always precisely controlled. On “Peligrosa” – a feminine formation of the Spanish word for “dangerous” – she tosses out an over-the-top exercise vocal workout over a bluesy mariachi arrangement.

Downs knows how to set off a party, but both her exuberant songs as well as her darker-toned ones grab you by the gut: all are intensely felt wake-up calls to life.

Video for Lila Downs’ “Peligrosa”

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