Tuesday, March 21Welcome

The Mavericks’ all-Spanish album, ‘En Español,’ seeks to uplift and unify: ‘Music can help break down walls’

There isn’t a hint of politics or social commentary on The Mavericks’ enchanting new album of intensely romantic songs, “En Español.”

Or is there?

Released Friday by Mono Mundo Recordings, it’s the Grammy Award-winning country, rock and Americana-music band’s first release to feature lyrics performed entirely in Spanish. It’s also their first to focus entirely on such Latin music styles as mambo, son jarocho, cumbia, Tejano, bolero and cha-cha, with an enticing mix of original songs and classics popularized by such legends as Mexico’s Juan Gabriel, New York’s Los Panchos, and Cuba’s Celia Cruz and Omara Portuondo.

Yet, because of our nation’s increasing polarization — and because The Mavericks’ lead singer, Raul Malo, is the American-born son of Cuban immigrant parents — the heartfelt “En Español” is already raising questions about possible underlying messages. Sadly, that’s not entirely surprising at a time when walls, both literal and figurative, are a frequent source of division and controversy.

“I don’t think of this record as a political statement at all,” Malo stressed. “But the way everything is now, I’ve been asked about this several times already. It’s funny how, even though it’s a non-political record, the issue has been raised because ‘Wow, it’s in Spanish’!”

“I’m appreciative of the question, but I wasn’t prepared for it. But I guess that’s the world we live in. And if music can help break down walls and make us see things from a different point of view, I think that’s a job well done.”

The 12-song “En Español” is indeed a job well done, as its exemplary musicianship, thematic cohesion and unmistakably heartfelt delivery attest.

Raul Malo, the lead singer in The Mavericks.

Raul Malo, the lead singer in The Mavericks, hopes his band’s borders-leaping new album, “en Español,” will appeal to listeners regardless of how familiar they are with the Latin-music styles the album showcases.

(Photo by Nohely Oliveros)

Love lost, yearned for, and won

The album abounds with poignant odes to love lost, yearned for, and won. Its melancholic mood is underscored by the titles of such songs as the Malo-penned “Recuerdos” (“Memories”), the 1965 Javier Solis gem “Sombras Nada Más” (“Shadows and Nothing More”) and the 1997 Juan Gabriel/Rocío Dúrcal favorite “No Vale la Pena” (“It’s Not Really Worth It”).

In addition to The Mavericks — Malo, guitarist Eddie Perez, drummer/vibraphonist Paul Deakin and pianist/organist Jerry Dale McFadden — the album features a number of notable guests. They include Tex-Mex accordion great Flaco Jimenez, Santana/Los Lobos keyboard veteran Alberto Salas, a three-piece brass section and an 11-piece string section.

For Miami native Malo, who as the teen-aged singer-guitarist in The Tom Boys covered songs by David Bowie and The Cure, “En Español” is a long-gestating labor of love. The album’s roots date back to his childhood — and to the music his Spanish-born grandfather happily shared with him.

It was his grandfather who gave Malo his first guitar while he was still in grade school. His grandfather also helped him learn his first chords, sang along with the budding young musician and introduced him to flamenco, the early recordings of Julio Iglesias, and more.

Not coincidentally, one of the songs popularized by Iglesias — the 1978 lament “Me Olvidé de Vivir” (“I Forgot to Live”) — is featured on “En Español.” The Mavericks’ version boasts a notably more sprightly tempo and benefits from Malo’s wonderfully full-bodied vocals. His singing here at times suggests what Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley might have sounded like, had they grown up singing in weathered cantinas south of the border.

Throughout the album, The Mavericks’ versions of songs previously recorded by various Latin music stars sound both reverent and imbued with the band’s distinctive artistic DNA.

For Malo, revisiting the music from his youth is a welcome opportunity to extend his creative journey by drawing from his roots and those of his family.

“My grandfather also played Vicente Fernández’s version of ‘El Rey’ for me,” he recalled. “It was one of those eye-opening moments that helped show me all the beautiful music that is here and how it all connects. That’s how I viewed it. I didn’t see it as music from another world, or another country, I just viewed it as music.

“I wanted ‘En Español’ to be a record that wasn’t necessarily genre-specific in Latin music. I wanted to have really good songs that mattered to me and that the band could play them well. I knew it would run the gamut, because The Mavericks are really versatile, and I’m very fortunate to have a band like that. Not only can they play a lot of different music, but they appreciate a lot of different music, and that has been our motto from the start.”

This year, the band had to cancel its tour-opening April 15 concert at The Magnolia in El Cajon because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, The Mavericks completed their 30th anniversary tour. It is documented with this month’s release of 30 concerts from the tour on 30 individual albums, which can be streamed at nugs.net/The-Mavericks-Live.

The Mavericks, with guitarist/lead singer Raul Malo at the fore, at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.

David Bowie and The Cure are among the artists whose songs Raul Malo (above at center) performed as a teenager in a cover band called The Tomboys.

(Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

Gravity-defying hairstyle

Malo laughed when asked to recount his earliest musical experiences. They included a church group — “I had a big crush on the choir director; she was really pretty!” — and several garage bands that saw him sporting a big, gravity-defying hairstyle.

“The first band I was in, when I was 12, was called Devastation,” Malo said. “And, boy, was that an appropriate name!”

Like his fellow members in the aptly named Mavericks, Malo is a vital testament to the all-embracing stylistic diversity the band champions. His collaborators over the years have ranged from Bakersfield country pioneer Buck Owens, Brazilian music legend Caetano Veloso and the Nashville surf-rock group Los Straitjackets to Trisha Yearwood, Cuban music great Eliades Ochoa and Los Lobos.

In a 2009 Union-Tribune interview, Malo cited Louis Armstrong’s version of Edith Piaf’s iconic 1946 song, “La Vie en Rose,” as one of his earliest musical epiphanies.

“If a musician doesn’t get the nuance and the majesty of Armstrong’s ‘La Vie en Rose,’ they’re not going to be in my band,” he said at the time. “That song, to me, is the standard. When I hear it or Frank (Sinatra), if I come even close to bringing that kind of feeling to the listener, I’ve done my job.”

That Malo embraces so many kinds of music is a reflection of his upbringing, as he proudly noted during this hour-long mid-August interview from his Nashville home.

“I grew up in a unique household as a first-generation Cuban-American born in the new world,” said Malo, 55, whose father enlisted in the counter-revolutionary army mobilized to try to reclaim Cuba in 1961’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

“In our home, we had a beautiful, not strange, combination of modern and old. We had my grandparents and all the Cuban and Spanish music they liked. My mom liked all the big bands and big-band singers. And one of my aunts, who was younger than my mom, had all The Beatles’ records and other rock stuff. …

“There was a sort of mutual-respect society and no one ever put anyone’s music down. So, all this diversity was on display in our house, and it was cool. It was a unique way to grow up, and I try to do that now in my house as much as I can, which is why my kids like all kinds of music.”

‘Sell that sentiment’

While The Mavericks’ new album is filled with songs of heartbreak and loss, Malo is not a lovelorn wreck, even if he can expertly sound like one. Emoting deeply, without descending into melodrama, is part of his job description.

“The music and the lyrics go hand in hand, and these are powerful songs for sure,” Malo said.

“You really have to capture the right sentiment in order to draw the right emotion out of them. As a singer, those are always the most challenging songs to do, and the most rewarding as well. People equate that with: ‘You have to live those songs to sing them.’ I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think you just have to convince people that you have lived the songs. You convey those emotions, as an actor would, and sell that sentiment. If you can do that convincingly, you’ve done your job.”

For all of “En Español’s” artistic merits, Malo readily acknowledges making an all-Spanish album is a commercial gamble for the band, which is a largely unknown entity in the Latin-music world.

“We are rookies in that world, but that makes it fun and exciting,” he said. “We’ll get some doors closed on us, naturally, because — even in this day and age — people are still putting up barriers to music. That’s part of the human condition, so you just have to soldier on. We’re not easily dissuaded, as you can see.

“But some people will say (to me): ‘You can’t sing in Spanish.’ We put up all these walls, and that boggles the mind. In a world where walls are easily constructed and you’d think we’d be fighting to tear them down, even at the most inconsequential level, let’s not put up any barriers. Take it at face value. If you like the song, listen to it. That’s the criteria.

“That kind of underscores this record, that sort of attitude of: ‘Hey, we’re an American band that started off in country music in the 1990s, and look what we’ve done. Look where this journey has taken us. It’s a beautiful journey.’

“I don’t have any regrets or remorse about anything we have done musically. I think all paths lead to here.”

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