Beyond cha-cha and Aguilera

“We make a kind of music that’s not very well known in the U.S.,” says Chilean-born songstress Mariana Montalvo. “When you hear Latin music [in America], it’s Salsa or cha-cha — dance music.

“We’re showing another side to Latin music.”

Currently on tour with two other Latina performers (Toto La Momposina from Colombia and Belo Velloso of Brazil), Montalvo spoke to Xpress between stops on her current U.S. tour. “We connect very well with American audiences,” she insists.

Montalvo, La Momposina and Velloso are all featured on the newly released Putumayo Presents: Women of Latin America (Putumayo, 2004). Known for bringing world music to the masses, Putumayo (according to company founder/president Dan Storper) believes that offering thematic CD collections is one appealing way of introducing people to other cultures.

From these collections evolved Putumayo’s concerts and tours, which go a step beyond bringing world music into people’s living rooms: They invite foreign sounds directly into Everytown, USA. Case in point: the Latinas: Women of Latin America tour, coming to Brevard College’s Porter Center this Thursday.

Okay, when a lot of us think of Latina performers, we envision J. Lo, Gloria Estefan, Shakira (and I don’t mean the Swedish rockers). But the women of Putumayo comprise a different breed of chanteuse. Forget the Americanized, Top-40 chart climbers and imagine, instead, singers of inarguable talent performing complex, polyrhythmic songs in their native languages — songs not only inspired by but deeply influenced by their respective cultures.

“Bahia is a place full of rhythms with very original sounds,” Velloso reports of her hometown in a recent press release. “It’s a mix of the African drum with the swing of the Brazilian samba.”

Swayed by the confluence of rhythms, the young singer also draws inspiration from her own family — Velloso is the niece of two of Brazil’s most famous musicians, Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethania. Her own sultry song, “Toda Sexta-Feira” (Every Friday), trumpets her roots, boasting that “Every Friday/ All the world is Bahian together.”

While Montalvo shares Velloso’s Latin origins, her story is startlingly different. In 1973, Chile was overtaken by militant extremist Augusto Pinochet, a reviled dictator who tortured and killed thousands. Montalvo’s family fled their home in 1974, living in exile in France.

“The only way for me to keep my roots is through music,” Montalvo declared to Xpress. “My parents were very fond of Latin American music … they brought me to a folkloric professor when I was eight years old.”

Performing professionally since her early 20s, the singer works with poetry, mainly from Latin American women poets, setting the verses to music. “When I read a poem, I feel the rhythm,” she explains. “If it’s a Chilean poem, I use a Chilean rhythm.

“Many people have done this before,” she adds — perhaps most notably in the nueva cancion (new song) tradition, born in Santiago, Chile, in the 1960s, when a popular meeting place was modeled after a Parisian nightclub. Somehow, it just made sense that Montalvo embrace the connection between her birthplace and her adopted country.

“I found an instrument — the accordion — that makes a link between French music and Latin America, so I always use the accordion in my music,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot of French music. I put it into my own language, and [perform it] with my instruments.”

Singer/dancer Toto La Momposina is also a fan of culture blending. Her style draws on her Colombian heritage, but is also inspired by African, native Indian and Spanish elements. It was Spanish invasions that forced the natives of La Momposina’s homeland to flee the jungles where they’d lived. Intermingling with escaped slaves occurred, and the culture slowly evolved. “The music I play has its roots in a mixed race; being African and Indian, the heart of the music is completely percussive,” the singer remarked in a press statement.

Like Montalvo and Velloso, La Momposina grew up in a musical family. As a young woman, she traveled around the neighboring villages learning rhythms and dances. But though her roots are unpretentious, her career has led her around the world, performing at Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize ceremony and studying the history of dance at the Sorbonne.

Her strong, strident song “Yo Me Llamo Cumbia” proclaims: “I am the queen wherever I go/ No hip can keep still wherever I may be.”

Rich in tone and in heritage, the three singers offer something the Christina Aguileras of the pop world can’t: a taste of authentic Latin culture.

The Latinas: Women of Latin America tour, featuring Mariana Montalvo, Belo Velloso and Toto La Momposina, stops at Brevard College’s Porter Center for Performing Arts for an 8 p.m. show on Thursday, Oct. 28. Tickets are $23 and $25. For more information, call 884-8330.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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