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Entre Cada Palabra
Since I raved about Marta Gómez's first Chesky album about a year ago, Marta has found her audience. That album, Cantos de Agua Dulce, [Sweet Water Songs, Chesky JD 281] received almost unanimously favorable reviews and reached the upper regions in sales charts such as Billboard's "Latin Jazz," and others dedicated to "World Music," and "Latin-American Music." It pleases me that she's been discovered and enjoys international sales and air play, because I appreciate her art, and because I'm a terrible "I told you so."
With her second Chesky album, Entre Cada Palabra [Between Each Word, Chesky JD 301], we get a more relaxed Marta Gómez, presenting fourteen different selections in thirteen different rhythms. Her poetry still knocks me out, albeit breaking my heart a little, because she is comfortable revealing herself as still more than a little vulnerable. You have only to hear her treatment of the oft-performed "Cielito Lindo" ("Beautiful Little Heaven") to hear what she's about.
You may recall this song for its memorable refrain, which with English frat-house drinking lyrics (in my day) used to go: "Ay, ay, ay, ay,/ In China they never eat chili./ So hoist me another one/ Just like the other one;/ And waltz me around again, Willie." If you're too young to recall that version, maybe you'll remember the TV ad treatment; "Ay, ay, ay, ay. I am The Frito Bandito." This animated character went on to steal his family members' Fritos, and the narrator suggested it was wise for each family to purchase extra bags of Fritos and hide them from the family Frito Bandito. [The Frito Bandito campaign wound up in court, but this is not the place for that discussion.] Probably due to this mixed history, I might not ever have taken the song seriously. And then there was Marta.
Singing of lost love (perhaps her most arresting subject), Marta, after a very short mood-setting acoustic-guitar introduction, begins her version of "Cielito Lindo" very slowly. (I mean slooowly.) She takes it in a key pitched so low she never has to reach for a note. And, Marta being Marta, she never "belts out" the refrain: first, because she has a delicate voice; and because her style is to low-ball the lyric and underwhelm us in her subtly dreamy, wistful way. She practically sighs the refrain. If you're not tuned in, you could mistake her profound softness for only down-tempo, low-volume presentation to add variety to the collection. What you'd be missing is the well known yearning of the lover for the suddenly disinterested loved-one. Marta can make weak men weep, and strong men come unglued. Of course, women love her. I was playing this record one night for visitors, and a woman of Spanish descent asked me to play "Cielito Lindo" again. I did. She was visibly moved.
Have you ever read the "Cielito Lindo" lyrics with a Spanish-English dictionary in your lap? Well I have, (and as Spanish speakers among you will attest), with limited success. I listened to it numerous times before I realized she was not singing to or about "Beautiful Little Heaven," so much as the repeated words cielito lindo were a form of address, a complaint to the heavens, and, I think, an ironic metaphor for her now unmoved lover of whom she is singing. Could she call him, "You bastard," and ever expect to receive his affection renewed? It is he, in his guise as the man in the moon, with a birthmark near his mouth, who can touch her as no other.
It turns out this is not a celebration of the beautiful heavens, but a song about love gone awry, and fighting off the urge toward weeping while trying to face up to loss. In this case, the beloved seems to be a mountain smuggler with handsome, dark-eyed good looks, in comparison to whom nobody does it better. Marta believes the Spanish have developed the ability to weep while they sing, and the way she presents the singer (as a distraught lover) is a good example of how she works her voice and the tempo to suggest this. In the popular American treatment by the Mills Brothers, "Cielito Lindo" came across as a much more robust song, perhaps a celebration of outlaws, perhaps an anthem of defiance toward the state, to be sung vigorously while drinking and weeping.
It's a little schizoid to have such a sad song performed as a rousing drinking song, though not unheard of. In Bluegrass there are many sad revenge songs, probably of archaic Scottish-Irish origins, that are performed as hoedown dance tunes. Through Marta's subtly skillful singing, "Cielito Lindo" is returned to its place as a sad love-song, a remembrance of sweetnesses past. "Canta y no llores." Or; in my feeble translation: "Sing! And don't weep." And "Porque cantando se alegran,/ cielito lindo, los corazones." "Because singing cheers us up, beautiful little heaven, in our hearts." Like singing the blues purges depression, you bastard.
With "Cielito Lindo" Marta illuminates a song sung in many languages in many lands, this time not as a poet but as a performance artist. Her haunting voice, phrasing, use of accompaniment, the catch in her throat, the grieving she re-establishes with her poignant treatment of the lyrics; these techniques gang up on "those who know" and reach behind our sophisticated façades to grab us by our secret but universal fear. Everyone dreads abandonment. When you hear her perform this song you will understand why I think she is gifted beyond the merely talented.
As on her previous CD, Marta demonstrates a breadth and depth to her poetry in the treatment of a wide range of songs. On this collection she sings of birds, village characters, hard work like cutting sugar cane, the special relationship between aunt and niece; one song is as to a child, another is about a black kid who painted his face white; others are about secrets, fresh water fish, and poetry, more precisely, the spaces between words: "There is a silence hidden between each word we say, between each laugh and each song. Some people think we waste our lives on those silences. I actually believe that those moments are what life is made of." She has such a lovely poetic sensibility.
My city, Baltimore, has a growing Latino population and I often tune to the regional Spanish radio station while driving around town, to keep my ear ready for spoken Spanish cadences and inflections. I seldom hear sentiments like Marta's on the air, sung in Spanish or any other language. Marta Gómez towers above what is being broadcast. She is very special.
What I find most ironic about her is, she is a graduate of Boston's Berklee School of Music, the alma-mater of many world-class musicians, such as (Latino) Chick Corea. Rather than play and sing that sort of jazz, she sounds more like she studied to become an historian of ethno-musicology, or a music archivist for the Smithsonian, but decided to become a performer instead. At least, that's what I imagined inside my head when I discovered she had the scholarly impulse to systematically choose thirteen different rhythms for this album. I forgot where I read there are dozens of different sub-species of Samba, each with its own variation on the basic samba beat, and each with its own name (Samba Triste, Samba Allegre, Samba Maximus? Samba Dudious?).
With this album she shows more self-assurance in her chops, a stronger sense of her own taste, and more flexibility in how she uses her band to back her up. Each of the musicians seems to get a featured turn in one or another of the tunes. They are: Julio Santillán, guitar and arrangements; Franco Pinna, percussion; Fernando Huergo, electric bass; Yulia Musayelyan, flute; with guest artists Alejandra Ortiz, background vocals; Evan Harlan, accordion; and Anat Cohen, clarinet. Deserving of equal billing are the dance rhythms: the Peruvian Lando, the Argentine Chamame, the Peruvian Vals, the Spanish Flamenco, the Colombian Bambuco, the Mexican Ranchera (2), the Uruguayan Candombe, the Colombian Cumbia (2), the Cuban Son, the Venezuelan Tonada Llanera, Franco's Rococho, and the Argentine Zamba. She does have the courage to mix it up.
The tunes themselves range from slow to medium to fast, from sounding as if the group were intimate family members sitting around a picnic table in someone's backyard playing and singing well-known traditional songs, to a professional band at a night club performing covers of the best Latin material. Someday I'd like to hear what Marta can do with an album of a dozen or so of Latin America's Greatest Hits; "Besame Mucho" and the like. I bet she'd reinvent them and make them her own. There'd be a number of ear-opening surprises in that collection, I'm sure.
If you haven't heard Marta Gómez yet and you'd like to know what the buzz is all about, you might pester your favorite D.J. to play her. Or, you might take your best gal and vals on down to your local CD boutique to get a copy of Marta's Entra Cada Palabra. If you like it, you will also like her Cantos de Agua Dulce. There are obvious similarities between the two albums, but with her new CD, I feel, Marta shows more effortless poetry, more inclusive music, and overall, more polish. She keeps the music simple in order to better express complex ideas and feelings in her lyrics, something like the young, unamplified Bob Dylan.
Oh yeah, lest I forget: Kudos to Chesky's corporate leadership for having the vision to bring Marta and her group to a larger audience, for putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and living up to their commitment to new music: To the entire Chesky recording-engineering/production team for maintaining their ongoing tradition of excellence despite changing personnel: And finally, kudos to new mommy Lisa Schoenepunim for keeping everyone from losing their heads when those around them are losing theirs and blaming it on her.
So if you want to keep up with the hippest, and start your own in-crowd, just punch up your favorite on-line vendor and tell 'em Maxie Waxie sent ya' when you order Marta's latest Most Highly Recommended! album, Entra Cada Palabra. It's the kind of album you might leave on the CD player for days, perhaps weeks at a time. With this album around the house you might develop a sadder but wiser smile.
Adios niños y niñas.