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Ageless romance with bolero.

The bolero, for centuries the love song of the Spanish-speaking world, has now spread far beyond its Cuban birthplace to capture the imagination of a vast international audience. Although scholars differ on its precise origins, all agree that the form in modern times is best described as a ballad of slow to medium tempo endowed with romantic lyrics.

Today, the bolero's many charms remain as potent as when such 1950s-era singing stars as Lucho Gatica and Olga Guillot made songs like "Solamente una vez" and "Delirio" all but synonymous with Latin American culture to the rest of the world. As multimillion-dollar record companies mine the riches of their aural archives to make historic bolero performances by such revered interpreters as Beny More, Tito Rodriguez, and Trio Los Panchos available for the first time on compact disc for the enjoyment of a new audience of bolero worshipers, singers who were not even born when the style reached its zenith of popularity have discovered the genre and have made the music their own. The phenomenal global interest in the efforts of the new generation of interpreters has fueled the bolero's resurgence and has elevated the style to its highest level of popularity in over four decades.

Much of the credit for the current bolero resurgence must go to Luis Miguel, the Mexican pop music superstar whose fashion-model good looks, youthful appeal, and high-powered voice have made him one of the most popular recording artists in the Spanish language today.

The twenty-five-year-old crooner's cross-generational appeal and vocal acumen made him the ideal candidate to spark new interest in the venerable bolero form. In 1991 his decision to collaborate with Mexico's modern bolero composer Armando Manzanero to craft a contemporary tribute to the style appeared to some to have been artistically presumptuous and a highly risky career move, but the resulting album, Romance (WEA Latina), tapped a responsive chord that echoed around the world. Now recognized as a masterpiece of modem music making, the album's irresistible combination of classic songs, string-laden arrangements, and subtle contemporary influences proved to be the perfect formula to reawaken the bolero's slumbering passions once again.

To date, Romance has sold close to six million copies and even after four years in the marketplace is still immensely popular. In the U.S., the effort has so far tallied sales of half a million. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world mesmerized fans made it one of the biggest selling albums ever in country after country. The sale of over fifty thousand albums in Taiwan was astounding evidence of the music's universal appeal.

Romance's unparalleled success was instant proof that the bolero was not only back but that it had probably never really gone away. The form, with its emphasis on poetic lyrics and appeal to romance, reflects certain timeless qualities of Latin societies throughout the Americas. Although the bolero style would be considered all but anachronistic outside of Latin culture in the U.S., where the kind of ballad singing that made Frank Sinatra a pop culture icon in the 1950s has today been relegated to the fringes of mainstream music, in Latin American cultures, the music still plays an important role. "It's one of the few styles that crosses generations and nationalities," notes Alfredo Alvarado, publisher and editor of New York Latino, a periodical that tracks trends in Latin American culture in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. "And it's particularly good for younger people who have been exposed to the music through the recent albums by Luis Miguel and others because the focus of the bolero is on the language," he continues. "The lyrics of the classic boleros are a high art form, a kind of elegant poetic expression."

"Like all musical expressions with authentic popular roots and with total capacity for communication," writes Mexican critic Javier Gonzalez Rubio in an essay for the album Symphonic Boleros (Teldec) by Ettore Stratta and the Royal Philharmonic, "the bolero has remained alive and is again vigorous, beyond its nostalgic following. Songs and melodies enjoyed in their time by young and old, which served as amorous invitation to adolescents of fourteen or fifteen in Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Cuba and danced 'cheek to cheek' in the halls of the United States and Europe since the Second World War," he notes, "today are sung anew and accepted by youth, thanks to a new style and modern arrangements."

Perhaps the fact that this unabashedly sentimental music's appeal remains so strong today is that the purity of its poetic expression continues to find resonance with innermost feelings that have changed little since Cuban trovadores sang the first boleros at balcony's edge. "We speak of intimacy because the bolero is an emotion that communicates itself and that each listener makes his own," states Gonzalez Rubio. "We all identify with those words that speak to us of love; hence its permanence as time passes."

Although the Spanish bolero form goes back at least three centuries and inspired such noted works as Maurice Ravel's Bolero and Chopin's Bolero Opus 19, musicologists say the continental version has little if anything to do with the style that began to evolve in Cuba early in the nineteenth century. Colombian author Jaime Rico Salazar, in his book Cien anos de boleros, advances the theory that refugees from the Haitian revolution of 1804 who relocated in Cuba's Santiago province brought with them traditions of dance and music, principally the stately French contradanza, that eventually melded with existing Cuban forms and resulted in the danzon, a forerunner of the modern bolero.

By the turn of the century, the bolero began to project its unique flavor. Accompanied by two or more guitarists, singers known as boleristas were making their melodies of love an important part of Cuba's cultural identity. And the ears of the world beyond Cuba's shores were eager to welcome the new style; in 1911 the song "Quiereme mucho" by composer Gonzalo Roig became the genre's first international hit.

Many others were to follow. By the 1920s, the first bolero craze was in full swing, with groups like the Lecuona Cuban Boys and El Casino de la Playa enjoying success on tours of North America and Europe. The 1940s became the bolero's defining decade as such Cuban composers as Cesar Portillo de la Luz ("Delirio"), Osvaldo Farres, Julio Gutierrez, and others penned the gorgeous melodies and heartfelt lyrics that would solidify the modern bolero personality and insure its longevity.

While virtually every country of the Americas has produced notable composers of the bolero, it is Mexico that has become the style's most important guardian of the flame in recent decades. A trio of Mexican composers - Agustin Lara, Consuelo Velazquez, and Alvaro Carrillo - are responsible for many of the most memorable boleros ever created: Lara's "Solamente una vez," Carrillo's "La mentira," and Velazquez's immortal "Besame mucho," perhaps the world's best-loved bolero.

Even in the 1960s, when the worldwide rock revolution threatened to render culturally obsolete everything in its path, the bolero found its champions. The most important, Mexican composer Armando Manzanero, virtually insured the survival of the art form through an endless flow of remarkable, instantly successful songs that rejuvenated the style while retaining the purity of its classic essence.

"In fact," writes Gonzalez Rubio, "when the bolero had ceased to be in fashion - when it had given ground on the radio, its great medium of diffusion for more than thirty years, to the attacks of rock and roll - Manzanero appeared at the start of the 1960s, a rare occurrence but fortunate for the maintenance of this great musical genre's vitality."

In the 1990s, aficionados continue to sing the praises of a trio of performers whose interpretive skills set the standard to which contemporary artists like Luis Miguel aspire. Chilean Lucho Gatica, honored by Spain in 1991 as "the voice of the bolero," recorded dozens of quintessential boleros in the 1950s and 1960s, including such genre-defining standards as "El reloj," "Tu me acostumbraste," "La barca," and "Piel canela." "When I asked people who their favorite singer was, nine out of ten would say it was Lucho," recalls Max Salazar, the well-known musicologist and contributor to Latin Beat, a Los Angeles, California-based publication. "And when I started to listen to him, I understood why. He's very romantic. You feel it - he puts you in that kind of mood."

The music's most noted female artist is known as "la unica," Olga Guillot. Born in Santiago de Cuba, the so-called "cuna de los trovadores," Guillot began her career in Havana in the late 1930s and went on to become a singer, actress, and socialite of legendary fame. "After fifty-five years of performing, she still has the magnetism and command to inspire and move her audience," says Maria Elena Piedra, editor of Vista en L.A., also a Los Angeles publication.

The group most identified with the movement is Trio Los Panchos, whose original members were two Mexicans and a Puerto Rican. These singer-guitarists enjoyed enormous international popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, broadening their appeal to North American audiences through a series of successful recordings with cabaret singer Eydie Gorme. "Their remarkable harmonies turned boleros into objects d'art and established an indelible mark in the world of Latin music," comments Manny Gonzalez, the Cuban musicologist and executive publisher of LA Salsa Magazine.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, singers and band leaders found the bolero hard to resist. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were but two big band leaders who incorporated boleros into their repertoire in the waning days of the swing era. Nat King Cole recorded extensively in the style, even singing in Spanish. Perry Como turned Manzanero's "Somos novios" into a hit with English lyrics by Don McLean as "It's Impossible," while fellow crooner Tony Bennett scored a major success with the Mexican bolero composer's "Esta tarde vi llover" with the English title "Yesterday I Saw the Rain." Vikki Carr, the Mexican-American pop singer who has enjoyed a successful career in both languages, has frequently recorded bolero albums during the past three decades.

Even singers known for their work in other styles have seen their careers dramatically redirected when touched by the bolero's magic spell. Tito Rodriguez, the fabled mambo band leader and singer of the 1950s, recorded the bolero "Inolvidable" in the early 1960s and its popularity quickly spread from Argentina, where it was first released, throughout the Americas, selling well over one million copies. "From that time on," recalls Max Salazar, "he gave up the up-tempo singing and just sang boleros." And one of tropical music's greatest soneros, Puerto Rican stylist Cheo Feliciano, followed the example of Rodriguez in the 1970s, becoming one of the music's most important transitional artists.

Today many young vocalists are responding to the same inspiration. From the Dominican Republic, vocalist Maridalia Hernandez, a member of the Grammy Award-winning group Juan Luis Guerra y 440, a young singer better known as an interpreter of the merengue dance rhythm, has recorded one of the best bolero albums in years in the elegant, lushly arranged Amorosa (Karen/BMG). Perhaps better than most of her peers, Hernandez evokes the full-bodied character of the original form without sacrificing any of the style's charm to the necessities of contemporary music making. Her rich, powerful voice is the perfect complement to the vibrant string orchestra and big band sound that wraps songs like "Sabor a mi" and "Besame mucho" in a warm tropical embrace.

Another vocal temptress, Mexico's lovely Lucia Mendez, a superstar pop music performer and telenovela actress, honors the music of one of her country's renowned bolero composers on Senora tentacion (Sony/Telemundo), a tribute to the works of Agustin Lara. The deeply nostalgic album evokes the bolero's golden days with sophisticated big band and string orchestra settings and such Lara hits as "Piensa en mi" and "Veracruz."

Also an idol of Mexican telenovela fare, actor-singer Mijares took inspiration from the films of actress Maria Felix for his pop-accented bolero tour de force on Maria bonita (Capitol/EMI Latin). Recognizing the important role boleros played in films of the 1940s and 1950s, Mijares and arranger Bebu Silvetti looked to the film diva's greatest cinematic triumphs to create a collection featuring works by Lara, Farres, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Bobby Capo, and other bolero writers.

From the cradle of the style, a quartet of young female Cuban vocalists is attracting deserved international attention through their wholly original approach to the style. Grandes boleros a capella (Magic Music) by Gema 4 presents such bolero standards as "Como fue," originally a hit for Cuban singer Beny More, in distinctive four-part vocal harmonies.

In Puerto Rico, home to such inspired bolero composers as Capo and Daniel Santos, balladeer Gilberto Monroig underscores the form's poetic side on his mesmerizing reading of recent works on Hechos no palabras (Sony Latin). By way of Argentina, Maria Martha Serra Lima draws upon the four-part harmonies of the vocal group Los Hispanos for an emotional survey of famous songs by Lara and Carrillo, among others.

Even Brazil has embraced the style. Former Musica Popular Brasileira star Simone has revitalized her international career as a tropical ballad torch singer. Her La distancia (Sony Latin) includes a duet with Julio Iglesias and beguiling versions of such romantic fare as Manzanero's "Voy a apagar la luz." Nana Caymmi, another Brazilian vocal legend, coos "Frenesi," "La puerta," and other vintage hits on Bolero (EMI).

Meanwhile, collections like La esencia del bolero and Boleros voz y sentimento (both Sony Latin) and Mucho, mucho bolero (Blue Moon) offer samplers of bolero interpretations that range from nostalgic - Javier Solis, Mona Bell, and Roberto Faz - to contemporary - Lourdes Robles, Tania Libertad, and Ricky Martin.

And, as if to prove that the success of his first bolero adventure was not an anomaly, Luis Miguel has recently returned with Segundo romance (WEA Latina), a superb encore that features performances of such memorable songs as Carlos Gardel's "El dia que me quieras" and Carlos E. Almaran's "Historia de un amor." Segundo romance proves again that the bolero is back, its heart beating as strongly as ever, its soul alive with tropical passion, a music for every time and all times.

Mark Holston, who is a regular contributor to Americas, writes about Latin music for a variety of international publications.
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Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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