When Magos Herrera sings, her long, willowy arms sing with her. They shadow her voice with the grace that defines her song, and they breathe her elegance, torquing and elongating to the tips of her attenuated fingers and beyond.
Aire posts Herrera at the summit of her creativity and her agency. For the first time she holds the reins of vocalist, lyricist, composer, co-arranger, and executive producer, even artistic director, crafting, with an impressive supporting cast, a work all her own. Among the A-list players to join her are: Jacques Morelenbaum; Gonzalo Grau; Diego Schissi; Dori Caymmi; and her frequent collaborators, the Knights.
The album is broad brushed with the ever-fluid notion of jazz, embellished with classical sounds, indigenous traditional, Latin, and jazz spinoff, Bossa nova. Herrera’s deep luxuriant vocals, lending their way equally to all sensibilities, flow frequently into wordless song, allowing Aire to convey both the lightness and heft of air.
“Aire,” the album opener, is a love song celebrating the infinite romance of Being and Nature, and the temporal pairing of people as well, illustrating both an idyl and a painted canvas. The song opens with coquettish pizzicato strings that introduce more sinewy horn- and reed-driven orchestration, the strings bowed now and visited by an intermittent oboe and trumpet. Aire evokes the Spring, wending its way to a languid dance of lovers. Herrera’s deep, smoky tones and her lyrics personify the refinements of the song.
Herrera gives us a probing version of "Alfonsina y el Mar,” a song revered by many, especially Latin American feminists, as a memorial to Alfonsina Storni. Storni was an Argentine poet and playwright of the early 20th century, a pioneer of women’s consciousness and artistic achievement in the Latin world. She committed suicide at the age of 46, it is generally accepted, by walking out into the sea from a beach in Mar del Plata, on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. Herrera’s interpretation of the song, with the deep register that she commands, conveys the profound sorrow of “Alfonsina…” yet appears neither weepy nor melodramatic.
One can almost hear Storni’s footsteps on the pebbly path going down to the sea suggested by the harp’s cropped, plucked notes. Elsewhere, it takes on a certain liquidity, as of raindrops slipping off a low pitched roof. These passages strike a contrast and an affinity with Herrera’s elongated, earthy tones. Briefly raised voices of piano and flute over ample strings characterize the piece as an harmonic blending of modern 20th century orchestral music with intimate yet substantial jazz sounds. Herrera’s is an interpretation of “Alfonsina y el Mar” that honors Storni’s life and passing in new ways.
Maria Sabina, of the mazateca people in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, was a renown curandera and chamma—healer and shaman. A friend had gifted Herrera an audio clip of Sabina’s incantations during one of her ceremonies. With “Healer,” Herrera pays homage to Sabina and to the closeness she and her people share with the natural world.
Born in 1894, Maria Sabina had been known amongst the mazateca from approximately the age of 7 as a healer whose powers were facilitated by ingesting psilocybin-containing mushrooms. As the story goes, in 1952, two foreigners found the curandera in her ancestral town, Huautla de Jiménez. Robert Wasson and Valentina Pavlovna were invited into her world after having pledged to reveal nothing, ever, about Sabina and her secrets. They won her confidence, learned the secrets of the hallucinogens, and participated in her ceremonies.
Reneging on their word, the pair clandestinely recorded Sabina’s wisdom and ceremonies: the incantations, laying on of hands, the psycho-active powers of peyote… In a fateful betrayal, Wasson and Pavlovna disclosed her existence, her mystical craft, and her whereabouts, to the world. Sabina and her village were soon invaded by peyote-hungry thrill seekers who trashed the calm and sanctity of Huautla de Jiménez. Observed to have been overwhelmed by the breach, her will and spirit broken, Sabina expressed ire and disillusionment towards those who had dishonored her and her traditions, and the authorities closed off the pueblo to the visits. Now, after having known relative comfort due to offerings from the tourists, Sabina was left to subsist on the good will of townspeople. She died in 1985, destitute.
More than a melodramatic revisit of tragedy, Herrera’s telling of Sabina’s story honors a wise, gifted woman who upended her heretofore life of misery and abuse to become an icon of her people. What’s more, “Healer” is ultimately a celebration of Mexican indigenous traditions.
The song opens with the clip of Sabina incanting in near monotone in her native language, the somber tones of an introspective cello behind her, its bow flickering like votive candles; a dampened tinselly rattle of sorts fans into a gentle breeze until Sabina’s words yield to the music that will celebrate her and her people. Orchestral strings, including the lyricism of a harp once more, and woodwinds, are introduced as western and indigenous layer easily upon each other. We feel as if in the open night air as Herrera diffuses her smokey voice offering the curandera the moonlight, a star-studded tree, a shining star, and the whooping and hollering, toe- and heel-tapping indigena-hispano dance known as jarabe.
Herrera creates an air of her own magic in her tribute to Maria Sabina, bidding this bird of tradition to take flight towards the moon that awaits her. Aire is a wide-ranging album musically, serving especially well Herrera’s luxuriant voice. And it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work, a ballet of sound that closes the gap between elegance and feeling.
Aire is our selection for Music of the Month for July, 2023.