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Music Issue > Music Issue

Kind of Blue

Azul is a Mexican folk traditionalist who loves Daft Punk and Björk

Justin Parr
Azul Barrientos cites Etta James and Susana Baca among her favorite singers.


Romance was in the air. Couples huddled in their chairs as Latina chanteuse Azul Barrientos commanded the stage at Esperanza Peace & Justice Center for a special pre-Valentine’s Day show on February 13.

Standing in front of a striking David Zamora Casas stage design and looking like Frida Kahlo with a guitar, Barrientos paused for a moment to contemplate the spirit of the occasion. “I’m just going to do sweet, happy songs about love tonight,” she announced. “I know ... one.”

The crowd laughed, but they also recognized that Azul was only half-joking. Her dramatic, vibrato-powered, opera-trained voice tends to travel best down the dark alleys of the soul, zeroing in on the mournful qualities of beloved ballads such as “Solamente Una Vez” and “Besame Mucho” — two of the highlights from her Esperanza show.

“The music from Latin America, most of it is in minor keys, and the only major songs I’m used to hearing are the rancheras,” the 29-year-old
Mexico City native explains. “And I went straight from there to jazz and blues, and where are the majors there? Maybe it’s in me to look for that.”

She adds that she’s never shied away from bleak subject matter. “All the stories of the women in my family are so dark, but I’ve never been scared of listening to them and I always wanted to know about them. And it’s the same way with music: If you don’t listen to the darker stories, how are you going to make peace with life and make sense of everything?”

The dark stories in Barrientos’s family include her maternal grandmother’s encounter in Guadalajara with Pancho Villa’s army, which, according to Barrientos, “left them with just the clothes they were wearing.” With a brother battling cirrhosis of the liver, she desperately needed work and moved to Mexico City, where she cleaned homes.

On her father’s side of the family, her grandfather was stopped by revolutionaries while carrying money to make some payments. They mistook him for a wealthy aristocrat and tried to kill him. He escaped, but in order to keep a low profile, he changed his last name to Barrientos. As a result, Azul says, she’s never learned her real family name.

The most mysterious tale in her family concerns her paternal grandmother, who left her home one day and was never seen again.

“La Borrachita,” a traditional song that Barrientos often showcases in her sets, was her grandfather’s favorite song. “He cried whenever he heard it,” she says. “He would think of my grandmother. Two of my uncles got really attached to that song and they’ve both passed away. So that song is really connected to them, and usually when I finish it I’m emotionally drained.”

The youngest of seven children, Barrientos grew up in a house where traditional Mexican music was celebrated. Her father worked as an engineer for a government weapons factory but clung to the rebellious spirit of an artist. Although she says he never became a true professional musician himself, he hung out — and informally played — with the likes of El Viejo Elpidio, renowned for “La Malagueña.”

“He was totally bohemian,” she says with an incredulous grin. “He would go out, get drunk, play with friends, follow these musicians.”

Her mother boasted a fine singing voice, but put her own musical ambitions aside to maintain family stability.

At 15, Azul studied opera with a French voice teacher who taught her breathing techniques that helped her access what she calls “this crazy voice.” After her introduction to opera, she became infatuated with jazz and blues, which she heard when her brother began taking her to some of Mexico City’s hippest clubs.

Despite her parents’ shared passion for music, they reacted with alarm when she told them that she planned to become a professional musician, particularly when she decided to move to Syracuse, New York, with her then-boyfriend, guitarist Jose Alvarez. “It was one of those stories: Love, and I was too young,” she says with a laugh.

At the time, Azul was infatuated with the Cuban bolero sound then achieving international attention through the success of the Buena Vista Social Club. “Most of the people in Syracuse didn’t understand one word, but they really liked it,” she says.

In search of a locale closer to her family, she and Alvarez settled in San Antonio, where they played in the group Son del Sur. She began to play the guitar, arriving at a distinctive twist on traditional Mexican techniques, with moving bass lines providing counterpoint to her chord progressions.

For all her love of traditional sounds, however, Azul is no folk purist. For a spell, she returned to Mexico City and played with a band of old high-school friends called Toromata. The group employed loops and electronic beats and allowed Azul to indulge her fascination with Björk and Daft Punk. She says she loved the experience, but after returning to San Antonio to visit her friend Maya Guirao, she decided to stay.

The decision has paid off, with a 2007 Houston gig opening for the legendary Mexican singer Lila Downs, an artist-in-residence position at the Esperanza, and intermittent collaborations with a band she’s dubbed Electric Azul. She aptly describes an Electric Azul show with Buttercup drummer Jamie Roadman, Sexto Sol bassist Greg Goodman, and Los Mescaleros guitarist Roland de la Cruz as sounding “like Johnny Cash in a ranchera way.”

But she clings closely to Mexico’s folk tradition, partly as a celebration of, and partly as a reaction against, the culture she experienced as a child.

“I love Mexico City. I’m not trying to say bad things about it,” she says. “But the truth is, it’s very pretentious. Everybody tries to be blond and go as far as they can from their roots. And I think that’s the first thing that brought me to that consciousness of, ‘We should go on the contrary.’ My parents really come from very humble roots. To make the connection, music for me was that bridge.”

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