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Trio Los Panchos | Frontera Project

Featured Song: Romance and Revolution in “Sabor a Mí”

Among acculturated Mexican Americans, only a handful of Mexican songs have managed to gain wide popularity and a special cultural significance on this side of the border. A few become iconic songs, with lyrics and melodies memorized by the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

            One of them, of course, is “La Bamba,” the traditional jarocho tune turned into a 1950s rock hit by Ritchie Valens, and later reprised by Los Lobos for the 1987 biopic of the teenaged Chicano singer from Pacoima, California. Another is “El Rey,” the mariachi classic by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, about a spurned, penniless vagabond who clings to his overblown pride and capricious ways, a monarch in his own mind.

            There is only one song, however, that is so embedded in the bicultural community that it’s been dubbed the Chicano National Anthem. Surprisingly, it’s not a rousing number that stirs some sense of ethnic pride. It’s a beautiful yet sorrowful torch song about the lingering traces of a lost love: “Sabor a Mí.”

            The tune was written in 1959 by Alvaro Carrillo, one of Mexico’s top composers during the golden era of the romantic bolero. Since then, it has been recorded scores of times by an array of stars in multiple languages and a variety of styles.

            A YouTube search yields amazingly diverse interpretations: an instrumental by Cuba’s father/son piano duo Bebo and Chucho Valdés; a version with alternating vocals, in excellent Spanish, by the South Korean boy band Exo-K; a top-selling pop version by Mexican superstar Luis Miguel; a spare and wispy version by the young, Virginia-born Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis; a jazzy/folksy adaptation by the Bogotá-based band Monsieur Periné; an easy-listening rendition by soft-jazz saxophonist Kenny G; an accordion-accented, Tex-Mex version by American roots band The Mavericks; a low-key, bilingual version by 1950s singer and screen star Doris Day; a classic version by Chilean crooner Lucho Gatica with a Latin big-band sound; and a schmaltzy instrumental version by the Baja Marimba Band, from the 1960s Tijuana-Brass era.

            Believe it or not, there’s even a surprisingly tender take on the tune in English (“Close To Me”) by mass murderer Charles Manson, in a vocal style smacking of Willie Nelson.

            The Frontera Collection contains 25 recordings of the song, including a particularly noteworthy rendition by Mexico’s Javier Solis on Columbia (discussed further below).

            “Sabor a Mí” has been recorded in French, Japanese, German, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, and the Zapotec language of Oaxaca, the composer’s home state. In the case of English, however, the lyrics lose their lyricism in a straight translation.

            Literally, the title means “a taste of me.” Yet, the word “sabor” suggests much more than “taste,” as one of the five senses. It connotes flavor, style, zest, gusto, and an intangible essence of something or someone. Music made with “sabor” has swing. Those who dance with “sabor” have flair and feeling. And of course, a chef with “sabor” has a passionate touch for tastiness.

            Use of the Spanish article (“a”) in the title also makes a difference. Normally, the word “of” is translated as “de” in Spanish. The song “A Taste of Honey,” for example, could be translated as “sabor de miel,” as in literally savoring the sweet substance. But “sabor a miel” would be less specific, meaning something leaves a hint of honey, or has a flavor that evokes honey.

            So “Sabor a Mí” does not mean you take a bite out of your boyfriend. It is not so much “a taste of me” as it is a sensual trace of a loved one’s ethereal memory, like perfume that lingers in the air, or a missing person’s aroma woven into the threads of their clothing. Sabor is the air of someone, an indefinable essence that triggers a physical yearning, a hunger for their lost love.

            The composer, however, did not sweat over etymology to come up with the famous title. The word choice occurred to him by chance at a dinner party. In his blog, Con Sabor a Mi Padre, Carrillo’s son, Mario Carrillo Incháustegui, gives the following account of how the song was born, as told by his aunt, Guadalupe Incháustegui Guzmán, his mother’s sister.

            In the spring of 1957, Alvaro Carrillo met his future wife, Ana María Incháustegui, through her cousin, who was secretly in love with her. The cousin planned to bring a serenata to Anita for her 24th birthday but without revealing his amorous feelings. So, knowing that she admired Carrillo’s love songs, he invited his friend, the composer, to help with the serenade. What he didn’t plan on was the outcome: It was love at first sight for the songwriter. By the end of that year, Alvaro and Ana María were engaged.

            In December, the couple attended a Christmas dinner where Carrillo started drinking shots of whiskey. At one point, his betrothed complained that he was over-indulging, but the songwriter stubbornly continued to drink, and lean in for a kiss.  He went on alternating shots and smooches through the night.

            Finally, Ana María remarked that she was getting drunk from so many besos borrachos, drunken kisses. Although she wasn’t drinking, she told her fiancée that he was leaving the taste of whiskey (“sabor a whiskey”) in her mouth. The musician paused and said, “What you have in your mouth is not the taste of whiskey, but the taste of me…sabor a mí.”

            The way the younger Carrillo tells it, a light went on simultaneously above his parents’ heads.

            “Both of them, accomplices in composition, understood at that moment that the phrase arising from the complaint was a poetic expression that should be converted into song,” Mario Carrillo recalled. “My mother wrote it down like a homework assignment for my father. And, breaking her sobriety, she took a drink from his glass, and they toasted to what would become the biggest hit Alvaro Carrillo ever wrote.”

 

Tanto tiempo disfrutamos de éste amor,

nuestras almas se acercaron, tanto así,

que yo guardo tu sabor

pero tú llevas también... sabor a mí

 

Si negaras mi presencia en tu vivir

bastaría con abrazarte y conversar

tanta vida yo te di

que por fuerza llevas ya... sabor a mí

 

No pretendo ser tu dueño

no soy nada, yo no tengo vanidad

de mi vida, doy lo bueno

soy tan pobre, qué otra cosa puedo dar

 

Pasarán más de mil años, muchos más

yo no sé si tenga amor la eternidad

pero allá tal como aquí

en la boca llevarás... sabor a mí

         

            Carrillo, a member of Mexico’s composers’ society, Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de México, registered the song on July 11, 1958, with publisher Promotora Hispano Americana de Música (PHAM). The publishing contract indicates the song was already set to be recorded by Los Tres Ases for RCA. In his blog, Carrillo notes his father’s composition was first recorded in 1959 but he doesn’t cite the artist.

            The following year, young Mexican singer Javier Solis had the first big hit with the tune. Some 40 years later, Solis’ 1960 rendition on Columbia was among the inaugural recordings inducted into the 2001 Latin Grammy Hall of Fame, along with other timeless singles such as "Bésame Mucho" by Pedro Vargas (RCA 1941), "El Día Que Me Quieras" by Carlos Gardel (RCA/Victor 1935), "El Reloj" by Lucho Gatica (Odeón Chilena 1959), "The Girl From Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve 1963), "Mambo #5" by Pérez Prado (RCA Victor 1950), and "Oye Como Va" by Santana (Columbia 1970).

            Alvaro and Ana María were married on July 21 of that same year. And they stayed together for almost a decade until a tragic car crash took their lives on April 3, 1969. The composer, who was 47, left a legacy of more than 300 compositions, including other enduring gems such as “La Mentira (Se Te Olvida),” “El Andariego,” “Luz de Luna,” and “Sabrá Dios.”

            Today, more than half a century after its debut in Mexico City, “Sabor a Mí” is still popular among young Mexican-Americans, often played at weddings, quinceañeras, anniversaries, or backyard parties. It is one of a handful of Spanish-language tunes that consistently appear among sets of English-language oldies, the Fifties-era rock, doo-wop, lowrider, and R&B tunes so popular among young Chicanos.

            In a 2009 reader’s poll conducted by the culture blog LA Eastside, “Sabor a Mí” was nominated as one of the songs that best “embodies the broad richness and historical flavor” of East Los Angeles. Coincidentally, the poll was published the year the composition marked its 50th anniversary. The blog was new at the time, launched the year before by Al Guerrero (aka AlDesmadre), an artist and one-time UCLA student who was born in Ciudad Juarez and raised in East L.A. since age two.

            The version picked by Eastside’s readers was recorded in New York in 1964 by Trio Los Panchos and Eydie Gormé. It was included in the album Amor, the first in a series of top-selling Columbia LPs pairing the popular Mexican guitar trio with the Bronx-born pop singer, performing Latin American pop standards.

            The enduring appeal of their version among second- and third-generation Mexican Americans may be due to the binational and bicultural quality of the act itself. Los Panchos represented the strong Mexican identity of the generation that came of age in Mexico during the 1940s and ’50s. And Eydie Gormé, the daughter of Sephardic Jews who came from Italy and Turkey and spoke Ladino at home, represented the acculturated immigrant still tentatively tied to ancestral roots. Chicanos may have perceived the faint hint of an Anglo accent in her pronunciation of Spanish lyrics, making them both sympathetic and simpatico. The singer became so closely identified with Latinos that she earned the affectionate nickname, La Gormé.

            During the 1970s, “Sabor a Mí” gained new fans as a young generation of L.A. bands recorded fresh versions with modern inflections. This came during a turbulent era of the Chicano Movement, when Mexican Americans were demanding their rights and reclaiming their cultural roots. This one bolero was embraced as part of that cultural resurgence, which also produced Santana’s Latin-rock style and the brown-eyed soul explosion spearheaded in L.A. by bands such as Tierra and Thee Midniters.

            Los Lobos, the most critically acclaimed Chicano band of that era, recorded “Sabor a Mí” for their 1978 debut album, Just Another Band From East L.A. Except for a guitar solo with jazzy touches, and some cool background harmonies, they delivered a mostly traditional, trio-style treatment, sung competently by Cesar Rosas. This was the early, folk-oriented phase of Los Lobos, who would go on to experiment with rock, blues, and Latin fusions in the 1980s.

            But by far the most emblematic version for Mexican Americans was the one by an East L.A. band whose name represented both the people and the movement – El Chicano. The bolero appeared on the group’s second album, Revolución, released in 1971. Once again, the lead vocalist was a woman, Ersi Arvizu, a former boxer and FedEx driver, also raised in East L.A.

            In his book, Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles, UCLA musicologist Steven Loza writes that this recording by El Chicano “is still remembered as one of the most important musical legacies of its period in East Los Angeles.”

            Evidence of that enduring legacy appears on the Internet, where the group’s version of the song has tallied almost 6 million views on YouTube, and more than 1,600 comments. The video was posted in 2007 on a Chicano oldies channel that has racked up almost half a billion views in 12 years.

            One of the commenters is none other than Arvizu herself.

            “When I learned this song by Eydie Gormé and recorded it with El Chicano, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this would become my ‘signature song,’ ” the singer wrote, when the video had half its current views. “Here it is over 3 million plays, WOW!! I'm truly humbled by your love and support of this song. I'm no longer with El Chicano, but realize that it took everyone in the group to make this song what it is today. Peace, love and music.”

            The question remains: Why did this specific song, above all other boleros, strike a chord with Chicanos?

            Dionne Espinoza, professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, argues that El Chicano’s rendition with Ersi Arvizu is not simply a romantic song. She calls it “a representation of the politics and aesthetics of the Chicano Movement in East Los Angeles,” as she wrote in an essay that borrows the song’s opening phrase, “ ‘Tanto Tiempo Disfrutamos…’ Revisiting the Gender and Sexual Politics of Chicana/o Youth Culture in East Los Angeles in the 1960s.”

            “In the case of  ‘Sabor a Mí,’ the reclaiming of the bolero connected its listeners historically to the music that had been the background to their parents’ and grandparents’ daily lives. Yet the song’s rendering by El Chicano as a hybrid music spoke to the community’s cultural complexity,” writes Espinoza in her essay, published in 2003 in the collection Velvet Barrios: Popular Culture and Chicana/o Sexualities, edited by Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto.

            Almost four decades later, as I recount in my story for the Los Angeles Times, Arvizu was coaxed out of retirement by roots-music musician Ry Cooder, best known for his work with Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. In 2008, Cooder produced the singer’s first solo album, Friend for Life, mostly featuring songs she wrote. Arvizu was 59 at the time.

            Cooder was impressed by both the timeless quality of Arvizu’s style, and the enduring nature of the song that had first made her famous.  

             "They never forgot that song, that 'Sabor a Mí,’ ” he said in a 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was a million-seller, ferchrissake. In East L.A., they don't forget. The tune is still there for them.”

 

– Agustín Gurza

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The Unsung Folk Music of Venezuela

The Frontera Collection is not a static library archive collecting digital dust. It is designed to be a dynamic, interactive cultural resource, open to contributions from researchers and music fans, as well as from friends and relatives of the thousands of artists represented in this incomparable record collection.

          Many Frontera followers have started offering feedback, comments, information, and appreciation. In some cases, their missives point us to hidden gems in the collection that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.

          Such was the case last month when a music fan from Caracas, Venezuela, contacted us about a song called “Ay Trigueña!” by Dúo Espin – Guanipa, a guitar-and-vocal duet on a Victor 78-rpm disc. I had never heard of the artists, nor this lovely old-fashioned song about a man’s yearning for the love of a beautiful woman with a wheat-colored complexion.

          The query piqued my interest.

          I looked closer at the record label, by clicking on the image to enlarge it. And I found two clues to the song’s origin: It’s identified as a style known as “joropo,” and it was “Recorded in Venezuela.” Saying joropo in that South American country is like saying mambo in Cuba, or tango in Argentina. It’s not just a genre, it’s a national cultural symbol.

          The man making the inquiry identified himself as Bernardo Bernal, music engraving assistant with a musical enterprise called El Libro Real, based in Caracas.  The website offers a songbook of traditional Venezuelan compositions, with lyrics and musical notation, like printed sheet music distributed for centuries on paper and papyrus. The book identifies the composer of each song, and the genre. Bernal wrote to ask for the dates when songs were written or published, which we unfortunately could not provide since Frontera’s focus is on commercial recordings.

            His request, however, spurred me to explore the Venezuelan music contained in our collection. Although it focuses primarily on Mexican and Mexican-American music, the Frontera Collection features a remarkable array of music from other countries and regions, including Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Each one has its own rich, regional music traditions. An unfiltered search for the term “Venezuela” yielded over 250 entries in our database.

          I don’t consider myself an expert in Venezuelan music, far from it. But I know enough to appreciate it as one of the most fertile and diverse – and undervalued – schools of music on the continent. When you think of the musical powerhouses of Latin America, Venezuela doesn’t always get its due. Today, sadly, Venezuela is known more for its economic collapse and political turmoil than its musical culture. Even in more prosperous times, Venezuela was known for its productive oil fields, its stunning beauty queens, and handsomely produced telenovelas. Its native music, along with its native cuisine, have received less attention.

          Yet, the country has managed to leave its mark on modern pop music, with internationally successful artists in various fields:

  • Pop Music: Jose Luis Rodriguez “El Puma,” Ricardo Montaner and Maria Conchita Alonso, a former beauty queen and Hollywood actress
  • New Song Movement: Ali Primera, Los Guaraguao, and Soledad Bravo
  • Classical and Jazz: Aldemaro Romero, Alberto Naranjo, and Gustavo Dudamel, the renowned conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • Salsa and Tropical: Legendary, long-lived acts such as Oscar D’Leon, Billo’s Caracas Boys, and my personal favorite,Guaco, which fuses hip salsa rhythms with traditional Venezuelan folk styles

Like the other major musical strains in Latin America, Venezuela’s musical traditions share the multicultural roots that define the continent’s best sounds – a mix of European, African, and indigenous elements. It is no coincidence that some of the most rhythmic and irresistible music in the Americas comes from countries with significant black populations as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese slave trade.

          Cuba, with its potent infusion of African rhythms and religious fervor, is the pulsating heart of this musical diaspora. Colombia and Venezuela, on the South American mainland, share similar traditions, along with common shores on the Caribbean Sea. Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Dominican Republic are also part of this rich tropical triangle.

          Yet, it would be a mistake to lump these countries into the same musical bag. Though the roots are similar, each one has developed it own distinctive genres, with unique melodic structures, rhythmic patterns, and dance styles.

          I grew up in the 1950s as a Mexican-American kid in San Jose, California, far from Venezuela both culturally and geographically. But I became aware of Venezuelan music through my father, who was an avid record collector and a big fan of Trio Los Panchos, the romantic Mexican guitar ensemble that was so popular in Mexico during the 1940s and ’50s.

          One day I found an album that promised something a little different. The cover showed a bird’s-eye view of a city tucked against towering, cloud-shrouded mountains. It had a magical attraction. The title was in English, The Ballads of Venezuela, with big, bold, white lettering that stood out against the hazy, scenic backdrop.

          The album became a favorite during my college years. The copy I now have is a U.S. release on Columbia, but it is undated and very sparsely annotated. That’s a shame, since records were always learning tools for me, a window on new music and cultures not only through the grooves, but also the liner notes. A Spanish Wikipedia page for Los Panchos lists a 1967 album titled En Venezuela, presumably the original release in Mexico.

          It’s not surprising that the trio would focus on songs of Venezuela. The group was popular worldwide, and Venezuela was among their fist stops on their earliest international tours in the late 1940s. Their album contains three Venezuelan songs that are standards in the Latin American songbook: “Alma Llanera” by Pedro Elías Gutiérrez, “Barlovento” by Eduardo Serrano, and “Moliendo Café” by Jose Manzo, although authorship is sometimes credited to his famous nephew, composer and arranger Hugo Blanco, who has 39 recordings in the Frontera Collection.

          Those three essential songs could comprise the core of an introductory course on Venezuelan folk music. The Frontera Collection has several versions of each, linked above. They have in common a deep sense of place and identity, celebrating the beauty and customs of the country, and the countryside, always described idyllically.

          “Alma Llanera” (Soul of the Plains) is a classic joropo considered a second national anthem by Venezuelans. Wikipedia has an informative description of the song and its meaning, including an English translation of the exuberant lyrics, with its catchy chorus of two-syllable verbs punctuated by full stops (“Canto, lloro, rio, sueño”), and its pastoral personification of nature providing a climactic finale (“Soy hermano de la espuma, de las garzas, de las rosas, y del sol”).

          The Frontera Collection has 17 recordings of the song, in a variety of styles and arrangements. They include an almost symphonic mariachi, a guitar ensemble, a jarocho version with harp, one with refined, quasi-classical vocals, and another with a full studio orchestra.

          My favorite from our list is the 78-rpm version by the Orquesta Tipica Venezolana of Manuel Briceño, on the SMC Pro-Arte label. The arrangement sparkles from the dramatic opening with a fluttering clarinet. It has a folkloric feel despite the sophisticated arrangement, which brings in the singer, Lorenzo E. Herrera, mid-way through the track. I guess it’s natural that the Venezuelans would be masters of their own music.

          In hindsight, I’ve reconsidered the version I first heard by Trio Los Panchos. (The Frontera version was recorded in Mexico by Columbia and released in the U.S. by the New York–based Seeco label.) It’s pleasant enough, but now it sounds commercially processed, and slightly soulless. The same is true for the trio’s version of “Barlovento,” a 78 released on Columbia de Mexico. On my domestic Columbia LP, the title is translated as “Windward.” Actually, the song refers to a region east of Caracas where Spaniards established cacao haciendas worked by African slaves.

          By contrast, listen to the elegant yet folksy version by Briceño’s Orquesta Tipica Venezolana, which transports you to a magical, tropical time and place. The label, another SMC Pro-Arte 78, identifies the song as a merengue, although it’s very different from the Dominican dance style familiar in the United States. The Venezuelan merengue has a lighter, more lilting rhythm, popular in Caracas in the 1920s as a ballroom dance for couples.

          Merengue is one of several distinctive musical genres native to Venezuela, which often reflect regional diversity. The joropo, for example, has roots in the central plains (los llanos), featuring a distinctive Venezuelan harp. It is sometimes referred to generally as “música llanera,” but even within the category there are variations.

          For example, the Frontera Collection has a thrilling song titled “Joropo Tuyero,” written by Briceño and performed by an outstanding vocalist named Alfredo Sadel, who I recently discovered through his solo albums which I happily stumbled across in used record stores. The title refers to the Tuy Valley, an area south of Caracas with its own variety of steel-stringed harp. The archive has two other versions with different vocal stylings, by Lorenzo Herrera with his Orquesta Venezolana on Columbia, and by Vicente Flores on RCA, with accompaniment by the label’s Conjunto Venezolano Victor.

          Among Latin American music fans, perhaps the most widely known Venezuelan folk song is “Caballo Viejo,” written by revered singer and composer Simón Diaz, who died in 2014 at age 85. The song, about the irresistible force of a May-December romance, is sometimes identified as a pasaje, a slower, more lyrical version of the joropo. But it has been recorded scores of times in various styles, from salsa and cumbia to mariachi. Diaz himself delivers this engaging rendition, interspersed with poetry and dialog, in a live concert with a traditional folk backup band. But by far the most popular rendition is this 1981 recording by Cuban artist Roberto Torres in a novel format called charanga vallenata, a salsa fusion of Cuban and Colombian elements.

          Another emblematic style, the gaita zuliana, comes from northwestern Venezuela in the region around the port of Maracaibo, in the state of Zulia. The gaita started as a grass-roots, improvised style that served as Christmas music. It gained national popularity in the 1960s, merging its melody and message with salsa and other styles, including protest music from the New Song movement.

          The modern evolution of the genre is traced in a documentary telling the history of the aforementioned Guaco from Maracaibo, named for a local bird and originally known as Los Guacos de Zulia. The film title, Guaco: De Gaita Zuliana a Género Propio 1958-2004, suggests the band converted the gaita into its own, distinctive genre, incorporating elements of salsa, rock, jazz and funk without losing the Venezuelan essence.

          “Gaita music was really the first, uniquely Venezuelan popular music that has a clear African-American … aesthetic foundation, although that aspect was not frequently recognized within the country,” says T.M. Scruggs, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Iowa who spent six years studying Venezuelan music and culture. “No one would exactly trumpet the fact, though it is clearly Afro-Venezuelan.”

          Scruggs makes his comments in an informative interview published by Latino Life, a British cultural website. There are other online resources that explore Venezuelan music and culture in some depth. Smithsonian Folkways has a good introduction to música llanera, with a description of some typical instruments. The interactive music website Folk Cloud, which allows users to explore folk music worldwide by clicking countries on a map, provides samples of Venezuelan songs, with brief genre descriptions. The cultural website Carnaval.com and the travel site Venezuela Tuya both offer an overview of the music and artists, along with other cultural topics for travelers and music lovers alike.  

          Then, of course, there’s the website that got us started on this journey. El Libro Real was founded by Mark P. Brown, a musician and instructor who was born in Queens and moved to Venezuela with his family when he was nine. He started the project of transcribing folk songs because of the dearth of published music in the country. His desire to get the most authentic renditions drove him to seek out the living composers and document their original works, a quest that took him from one side of Venezuela to the other.

          “The primary motive for publishing El Libro Real is to leave a record of the richness and diversity of traditional Venezuelan music … so that these pieces can be read, learned and interpreted by new generations of Venezuelan musicians,” Brown’s website states. “At the same time, it aims to recognize the valuable work of those who, through their compositions, have helped construct an essential part of Venezuela’s cultural legacy.”

          That same educational mission and spirit of preservation is shared by the Frontera Collection, through its digital archive of priceless recordings representing an array of musical genres from throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

-- Agustín Gurza

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