By Evelyn Rosenthal
Magos Herrera teamed up with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet to create a collection of music that makes its case for life, love, and liberation through its sheer beauty.
Magos Herrera & Brooklyn Rider, Dreamers (Sony Music Masterworks)
For her latest album, the jazz singer Magos Herrera, a native of Mexico who has lived in New York for the past couple of decades, couldn’t have chosen a more timely theme. Inspired by the “Dreamers”—young people brought to the US as children by their undocumented parents—and by the plight of those who have suffered under dictatorship, oppression, war, and poverty in Latin America and Spain, Herrera teamed up with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet to create a collection of music that makes its case for life, love, and liberation through its sheer beauty.
Produced by Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman, the album covers a lot of musical, literary, and geographical territory: folk songs, milonga, samba, flamenco; compositions by Chile’s Violeta Parra, Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and João Gilberto, Argentina’s Carlos Aguirre, Mexico’s Álvaro Carrillo; settings of poetry by Mexico’s Octavio Paz, Nicaragua’s Rubén Darío, and the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. To realize this ambitious set of reimagined Ibero-American repertoire and new compositions, Herrera enlisted a quintet of superb arrangers from across the Americas—Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen, Argentinians Guillermo Klein and Diego Schissi, Venezuelan Gonzalo Grau, and Brazilian Jaques Morelenbaum.
Like the Dreamers—like their parents, and all migrants, and Herrera herself—this music crosses borders. Poems become songs, Brazilian percussion instruments (berimbau, tamborim, pandeiro) punctuate Argentinian tunes, classical instruments play complex arrangements of folk songs with jazz inflections. On the album’s first track, “Niña,” Herrera—who cowrote the music with Felipe Pérez Santiago—and arranger Gonzalo Grau mine their experience in the world of flamenco to create a brilliant marriage of Arabic-flavored harmony and Spanish flamenco rhythms with Paz’s poem addressing a girl who names and brings alive the tree, the sky, the water, the silence. The Grammy-nominated arrangement is a master class in dynamic modulation, from lightly plucked strings to the full-on percussion-driven sound of palmas (clapped hands), Grau’s cajón beats, emphatic bowing, and the weaving in of Herrera’s rich contralto.
Grau’s flamenco-based arranging is given another workout in “La aurora de Nueva York,” Lorca’s poem—set to music by Vicente Amigo—describing his reactions to the poverty he observed during his visit to the city in 1929. Together Herrera and flamenco singer Miguel Poveda convey the drama of the the poet’s words, the strings matching their intensity. A song loosely based on another poem by Paz, composed by Herrera and sung in English, echoes the album title. “Dreams” is a rousing call (mostly in quintuple meter) to dream “with our hands” and to “sing out loud”—to reject passivity and dream/sing yourself into your best life.
As a singer of Brazilian music, I’m especially impressed with the gorgeous versions of songs by three of that country’s music icons, three of the four arranged by the cellist/composer/arranger Jaques Morelenbaum. The first of two sambas by Caetano Veloso, “De manhã” invokes a lover who makes the rooster crow, bringing the dawn. A languid beginning—just strings and voice—gives way to the satisfying bounce of samba with the addition of percussion, as first tamborim (the small, handheld frame drum that delineates the beat) and then pandeiro (the tambourine-like instrument practically synonymous with Brazilian music) join in. Just try not to sway to this one. For the second Veloso tune, “Coração vagabundo,” Morelenbaum (who served for many years as Veloso’s music director) slows it down, commencing with a rubato string intro; Herrera follows, singing the verse in a subdued tone—perhaps to emphasize the sadness underlying the title, which she translates as “homeless heart.” A marchlike beat kicks in under a melancholic strings “solo,” adding to the poignancy. On a lighter note is Gilberto Gil’s “Eu vim da Bahia,” celebrating the Northeast Brazilian state he comes from (as the title says). It’s a joyful samba, with Herrera, quite at home in the Portuguese language, calling to mind similarly smoky-voiced samba singers like the Bahian Ivete Sangalo.
The fourth Brazilian tune is by João Gilberto. Known more for his guitar-playing (he basically invented the bossa nova beat) and singing, Gilberto wrote a small number of songs himself. On this one, he jettisoned a lyric penned by his friend, the great novelist Jorge Amado, and sang only one (probably nonsense) word, “Undiú.” Arranged by Colin Jacobsen, the song is introduced by scratching, dissonant sounds on the violin, eventually morphing into the percussive Northeastern Brazilian beat known as baião plucked on what I assume is Michael Nicholas’s cello (sounding an awful lot like a guitar). Jacobsen amplifies the dissonance of Gilberto’s chords, the violins and viola playing dissonant figures around the undulating melody sung by Herrera. It’s a haunting version of a rarely recorded tune.
Not surprisingly—given their similar vocal ranges and the album’s themes—Herrera includes a couple of Latin American classics popularized by the great Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. “Balderrama,” like “Dreams,” celebrates the importance of music, of continuing the song. She gives a sensitive reading of “Volver a los 17,” the last song written by Chilean composer Violeta Parra, a key figure in the Chilean Nueva Canción (new song) movement that combined folk forms and socially conscious lyrics. In Diego Schissi’s compelling arrangement, shifting rhythms and harmonies echo the delights, sorrows, and power of love at the age of 17, remembered and reexperienced “after a century of living”—love that makes you “fragile,” that grows like a “tiny moss on stone,” yet also “liberates the prisoners.” Schissi slows down and gives a Brazilian twist to Carlos Aguirre’s virtuosic “Milonga Gris”—a reasonable choice, since the piece does seem to owe something to Brazilian composers Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal. Backed by the baião rhythm with pandeiro and berimbau, trading lines with the strings, Herrera manages to make the wordless vocal, which is usually taken at breakneck speed, even more expressive
The haunting love lyric from a poem by Rubén Darío, “Tu y yo,” finds its match in the lilting melody (by Herrera and Fabio Gouvea) and syncopated arrangement by Guillermo Klein, with added depth from bassist Edward Perez. As on most of the tracks, percussionists Grau and Mathias Kunzli provide the heart(beat).
Herrera brings it all back home—to Mexico, that is—with the melancholic “Luz de Luna” by Alvaro Carrillo, and the haunting folk song, “La Llorona.” By the time this soul-stirring, brilliantly sung, played, and arranged journey through the Americas was over, I was more than ready to sign up for it again. And again.
Evelyn Rosenthal is a singer specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, a freelance editor, and a former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She writes about music and musical theater for the Arts Fuse.