The Romantic (And Still Relevant) Sound Of Bolero

Feb 5, 2012
Originally published on February 5, 2012 12:08 pm

It's February, and that means Valentine's Day is just around the corner. For Weekend Edition Sunday, that's as good an excuse as any to talk about love — and in particular, one of the great traditional forms of the love song, the bolero. Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras of Alt.Latino, NPR Music's Latin-alternative podcast, join host Rachel Martin to share some favorite examples.

"While each Latino culture has its own musical traditions, instruments and even songwriting style, the bolero is the one Spanish-language song form that is pretty much pan Latin," Contreras says. "Boleros are love songs at their core, but they are so much more. They deal in death, religion, despair, hope and la lucha: the struggle of living."

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RACHEL MARTIN: It is February folks. And yes, that means Valentine's Day is right around the corner, which means we have an excuse to talk about love. Latin love, to be precise. How is that for a provocative intro?

Joining us again are Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras, co-hosts of AltLatino, NPR's on line show about trends in Latin Alternative music.

Thanks for joining us you two.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Thanks for having us. Yes.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thank you for having us.

: So today, we're going to talk about one of the great traditional forms of the love song, especially in Latin music - the bolero. Felix, first, can you define the bolero for us? Are they always about love, these songs?

: There always about love. There always about life. I'm reading a great book life right now by Ry Cooder. It's a collection of short stories. He says the songs tell simple stories of life, romance, religion and death, and also songs of love and la lucha, the struggle of living.

: How far back does this music go?

: It goes back to the late 19th century in Cuba, and its progressive changed a little bit over the years. We're going to fast forward to 1940 when it really became internationally popular throughout Latin America, largely because of the success that Mexican groups were having in film and in recordings.

GARSD: I read something from Trio Los Panchos, one of the most popular bolero groups. It was formed in 1944 in New York, by a Mexican musicians Alfredo El Guero Gil, Jesus Chuco Navarro, and Hernando Aviles from Puerto Rico. And this is one of the most easily recognizable boleros, "Arrancame La Vida" or "Rip My Life Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ARRANCAME LA VIDA")

: It doesn't even matter that I have no idea what they're saying, you can feel the passion and there. What is this song about?

GARSD: It is a man saying why don't you just stick a knife in me, basically.

: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARSD: And the lyrics say: Rip my life out with a last loving kiss, and if it pains you it must be because you cannot see me, for I have taken after all your eyes.

: Aw, man.

GARSD: And I used to hear my grandmother - who had a very tumultuous, passionate relationship with my grandfather - and she would sing these boleros while she cooked. And, you know, as a kid I was a little annoyed. I wanted to hear other things other than, you know, my grandmother moping, you know, rip my life out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARSD: But, you know, now I hear this and I can almost smell her cooking.

: Huh.

: Wow.

: So, this musical form sticks around. How does it involve over time?

: It more or less stays the same; the song structure, the instrumentation - you know, the guitars, nice bass guitar leads in between the verses - two or three part harmonies. It stays the same and its and its adapted to mariachi. It's adapted to big bands. There's a handful of songwriters from Mexico, from Puerto Rico, from different Latin American countries that just nailed it.

: So you've got something else for us. We're now going to fast-forward a bit to the 1960s?

: This is about 1966. This is Jose Feliciano and he started as a folk singer. He was born in Puerto Rico. He was raised in New York in the Bronx. He was happened to be in Puerto Rico in 1966. Somebody heard him and said, you should do an album of boleros - you have this voice. And he made a record and it's one of his classics.

This is a song called "El Reloj," also means "The Watch" or "The Clock."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL RELOJ")

: Jose Feliciano has such a distinctive voice. I wonder, do these songs in particular, they really need someone who can bring oomph.

: Sure, yeah.

GARSD: You have two - I mean if you're talking about: Clock, don't count the hours and because they will drive me insane. I mean you've got to really be able to convey that feeling, like I really don't want her to leave or someone is really living my life out.

: But again, guys, it's another very sad song.

: But it's but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: It - but the sentiment is about the power of love.

: The power of love.

: You know?

GARSD: The power is to make you feel really bad.

: Yeah.

: It's true. We've all been there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: OK. So, boleros today, the year 2012 - are they still just as timeless as they were then?

: There's still just as timeless. But there also some younger artists, some newer artists, that are holding onto it and maybe even pushing it forward a little bit.

GARSD: And I brought a group, Aventura, which is an enormous Dominican American band which recently split up. And they do Batchata, which is a traditional Dominican style. Batchata however is rooted in Bolero. And for the song "Su Veneno," or "Her Poison," they did a very special Bolero version which I brought today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SU VENENO")

: Sinatra has saloon songs, you know, about unrequited love and all that stuff. It's very much in that tradition, the heartache, the struggle.

GARSD: A l'amore.

: A l'amore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras hosts NPR's online music show. It's called AltLatino.

Thanks, you two, very much.

: Thanks for having...

GARSD: Thanks for having us.

: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SU VENENO")

: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.