Alejandro Melendez / AFP / Getty Images – Francisca Valenzuela:
the American-born Chilean singer, poet, and multi-instrumentalist is a testament to the joy of catching contemporary live Latin music performances in the club space.
A couple of weeks before the pandemic appeared in our lives and changed everything, I went to see Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela at a small club in Los Angeles. The evening remains particularly memorable to me not only because it was the last show that I would attend for over a year – something unprecedented in the past three decades of my life – but also because seeing Valenzuela in concert was strikingly different than listening to her records.
Valenzuela’s songs are oblique by nature, filled with unexpected melodic touches, yet hooky and addictive. On this particular show she performed on a Nord piano, glancing sideways at the audience to underscore a steamy lyric here and there, accompanied by two female backup vocalists.
Standing in the club’s cavernous space, I pondered how raw and intimate the experience was – darkness all around me, beams of piercing white light reflecting Valenzuela’s red lipstick, the melodramatic chords on the piano swirling around a cloud of soaring voices. Her short set – she was opening for Puerto Rican singer iLe that night – gave me a deeper understanding of Valenzuela’s artistry: the specificity of her style, the vivid color hues and shadowy chiaroscuros with which she paints her sonic canvas. Had I not been familiar with her work, I would have become an instant fan. The memory lingers, intense and bittersweet.
Now that we are slowly returning to a semblance of the normalcy we used to take for granted, the small clubs housing Latin music are more relevant than ever in keeping the genre alive, especially considering the profound revolution that has shaken these sounds in recent years.
As the Latin charts are dominated by the seductive sheen of reggaetón, trap and the capricious permutations that make up the DNA of new Latin pop, everything else appears destined to recede into relative obscurity. Recently, a publicist with an extensive track record in the business told me with a laugh: “I guess ‘indie’ is the new name we’ll use from now on when we refer to everything other than urbano.”
Like the meteoric rise to fame of Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Rauw Alejandro demonstrated this year, there is definitely space in our lives for a refreshing hybrid of pop and reggaetón. The synthesized drum pattern and slick syncopated verses of the summer anthem “Todo De Ti” are a personal favorite of mine.
J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Karol G and Maluma may be some of the biggest music stars in the world right now, routinely selling out arenas and huge festivals. Still, small clubs – from Buenos Aires and Bogota to Mexico City and New York – provide the perfect avenue for the discovery of young talent.
Because Latin America boasts such a vibrant array of styles, thousands of bands and singer-songwriters continue to change our culture one song, one performance at a time in the genres of rock, folk, tropical and everything in between.
· In Bogota, singer and accordion player Diana Burco fuses the soulful roots of her native Colombia with subtle elements of hip-hop.
· Brazilian quartet Glue Trip recreates to perfection the hazy textures and languid melodies of classic psychedelia on records overflowing with existential nostalgia.
· Partners in music and life, Peruvian duo Alejandro y María Laura recently released “Algo Tiene Que Estar Mal,” one of the loveliest cumbias I’ve heard in the past decade, shimmering with the magic of creation.
· In Buenos Aires, indie darlings El Asesino del Romance create cinematic pop seeped in poetic observations, with nods to the torrid balada flourishes of decades past.
Small concert venues are still the perfect places to discover such artists. In fact, their very existence guarantees the plurality and wide encompassing magic of contemporary Latin.
Andrew Lepley / Redferns – Tito Forever:
Writer Ernesto Lechner had the pleasure of seeing Tito Puente at LA’s storied Conga Room.
I remember chatting with Colombian singer Jorge Villamizar back at the time when his Miami-based band Bacilos was breaking through. We were talking about making it big, the obvious advantages of playing large venues all over the Americas. But Villamizar was quick to point out that his favorite thing to do was play the small clubs. He spoke fondly of the many nights he had experienced having a couple
of drinks and walking onstage, being able to look at his fans in the face. To him, this setting provided a deep communion with the very essence of the music making process that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy otherwise.
As the Latin Grammys continue to honor the artists who innovate and challenge, recognizing their creations through multiple categories and awards, there is much joy to be found in the prospect of experiencing their music in a live setting, sometime in the not-so-distant future.
A couple of decades ago, when king of Afro-Caribbean music Tito Puente was still with us, my older brother happened to be visiting from out of town. I wanted to share with him a glimpse of what my life as a Latin music journalist in Los Angeles was like, and managed to secure front row tickets to see Tito at one my favorite clubs in the entire world – the legendary Conga Room, at its original Wilshire Boulevard location.
This happened so many years ago, and yet I vividly remember the delight in my brother’s face when Tito stepped onstage and launched into “Machito Forever,” an electrifying instrumental culled from one of his classic ‘80s Latin jazz Concord sessions. We could actually touch the wooden stage and feel the vibrations as Tito played the timbales, watching his grimaces and showmanship. The brass section was on fire that night, all funky accents and staccato riffs. Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco showed up for a guest flute solo, and we all chanted along when Tito played “El Cayuco,” a zesty cha cha chá from his seminal 1958 LP,
It was the last time I would see Tito in concert. And the privilege of enjoying his music in such an intimate setting, surrounded by devoted fans such as myself, was a perfect summation of why, at age 24, I decided to spend my entire career writing about music and never looked back.
The utter vulnerability of a live performance. The magic, the positive energy, the reckless collision of feelings. The light. Life itself.