DEBUT ALBUM dedicated TO PUERTO RICAN COMPOSER SYLVIA REXACH
In most of Latin America, if you’re by the sea, there is bound to be a place called Miramar very close by. It will typically have a postcard view of the sea – and if music is playing, chances are that it will be boleros: the romantic ballads that originated in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century.
When Puerto Rican singer Rei Alvarez was looking to name a new Bolero project he searched for something simple that would be familiar to Spanish speakers; a name that would reflect the humble poetry of everyday life. Miramar seemed perfect: a romantic snapshot of a place both close and far away from home.
Miramar, the group, aims to capture that poetry through their music. Using a somewhat traditional instrumentation that includes organ, piano, guitar, bass, percussion and an occasional string quartet the group’s arrangements distill the essence of the golden age of boleros while adding touches that reveal the band’s scope and diversity.
While most of the members of Miramar have Puerto Rican roots, Marlysse Simmons Argandoña is a first generation Chilean American who brings a distinct South American flavor to her writing and arranging and singer Laura Ann Singh, although born in Tennessee, contributes a Brazilian flavor she owes to her years spent in Brazil singing mostly bossa nova.
For now a century, whether in the Caribbean or South America, Boleros have been the ultimate expression of love and suffering. While its origin is to be found in Cuba, the genre quickly crossed borders and became particularly popular in Mexico. From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, Mexican composer Agustin Lara wrote some of the most recognizable and most covered boleros. Classic Mexican trios of the 1950’s such as Los Tres Ases and Los Panchos, expanded the popularity of the genre all throughout Latin America, making the bolero a pan-Latin common denominator. Puerto Rico was no exception where boleros have been popular since the 1930’s.
Singer Rei Alvarez and pianist and arranger Marlysse Simmons Argandoña have been leading cult salsa band Bio Ritmo for well over a decade. Both have also long shared an obsession with boleros, especially with the Puerto Rican boleros sung by the classic duos of the 40’s and 50’s. “We decided to start a bolero group because there were only so many boleros we could do with a salsa band“ says Marlysse.
“When I first heard duo music, specifically Duo Irizarry de Córdova” says Rei, “ to me it was a new expression of pain and longing. It was a concrete manifestation of everything that I love about romantic music. “ Rei particularly loved the way the male and female voices interacted and the project didn’t really get off the ground until he met Laura Ann Singh who proved to be the perfect singing partner.
“We have to breathe together and feel the songs together, emotionally and rhythmically.” Says Laura Ann, “and because we have this natural chemistry in our voices and trust each other as musicians, I think we got to skip some of the mundane aspects of learning music and go right to the subtle and the abstract. ”
The one record by Duo Irizarry de Córdova that had the strongest impact on the group was an album of all Sylvia Rexach songs. It was Miramar’s introduction to Rexach’s universe.
In Puerto Rico, Rexach has attained cult status. Born in 1922 into a well-off family, Rexach was a self taught pianist and guitarist. A fiercely independent woman, Rexach eschewed the traditional path then available to women, and embraced the lifestyle of San Juan’s bohemia of which she became a central character. She began to compose and write poetry in her teenage years and went on to form the first Puerto Rican all female band, Las Damiselas. She contributed a regular column to El Diario de Puerto Rico, wrote radio skits in which she also acted and was one of the founders of SPACEM, the Puerto Rican Society of Authors and Composers.
Rexach sometimes performed her own songs accompanied by guitarist Tuti Umpierre but she never really considered herself a singer. Still, the one record we have of her singing her own songs is a masterpiece of raw emotion and intimacy, comparable in intensity to some of the work or Chavela Vargas or Violeta Parra .
Sylvia Rexach died in 1961, at the age of 39, from stomach cancer. Her songs have since become part or the Puerto Rican canon, but she remains mostly unknown outside of her native island.
When Miramar started to record their first album, the idea of a tribute to Sylvia Rexach came naturally. The band approached her songs with awe but didn’t hesitate to add their own touches. They also added some of their own compositions .
Miramar’s style is very much driven by their sense of roots and a certain nostalgia for their parents’ world. For both Rei and Marlysse, who grew up mostly in the U.S, musical appreciation first came from their mothers .
Before re-settling to the U.S, Marlysse’s mother had studied classical piano in her native Chile. She made sure her daughter got a similar musical education. She also exposed Marlysse to a steady diet of South American music. “My mom listened to Peruvian walzes, which are really popular in Chile: Eva Ayllon, Chabuca Granda – but also Mercedes Soza, Inti Illimani as well as the boleros of [Ecuadorian singer] Julio Jaramillo.” says Marlysse .
Rei comes from a family of musicians and poets and his mother, Nelida Alvarez-Morel, contributes the lyrics to Como tu Eres, one of the three original songs included on the album. “It’s a testament to the strength of the family thing.” Says Rei. “How much we love where we come from – how much we draw from that as artists. "
This balance between a strong sense of roots and a constant feeling of cultural uprootedness - between the Latin heritage and the American upbringing - is in part what gives the album its strength. While clearly anchored in the style and the era it pays homage to, the album can’t be mistaken for a period piece. The arrangements betray the skills of musicians who possess a wide contemporary palette of sounds and references .
The three original songs are clearly informed by a cosmopolitan sense of adventure that comes with growing up in between cultures. Sin Ti has a definite Asia Minor influence; Estatua takes its cues from Peruvian Criollo waltzes and Como to Eres, which features acclaimed cellist Tomeka Reid and closes the album, is pure Miramar: a song which owes to many genres but creates its own singular universe .
To paraphrase a certain presidential candidate, Dedication to Sylvia Rexach is an act of love by children of the Latin diaspora who feel a strong connection to their parents’ cultural heritage - and an even stronger motivation to see this heritage become part of the culture of the country they grew up in. In the end, recording an unabashedly beautiful album is the strongest statement they could have made – especially at a time when the adjective beautiful has itself become suspect to cultural critics .