by Susan Kepecs
Radio Flor, the beautifully crafted fourth release by Bay Area-based Cascada de Flores (Ita Music, 2014), crackles with heartfelt passion for a diverse set of songs from Mexico and Cuba. The band has a deep sense of mexicanidad, but Cuban music’s always been part of Mexico’s musical soundtrack. Casdada de Flores is basically a duo – vocalist / guitarist / dancer Arwwn Lawrence and Mexico City-born guitarist / vocalist Jorge Liceaga. They’re accompanied on this album by Saul Sierra-Alonzo on double bass and Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet, both from John Santos’ ensemble and other Bay Area outfits, plus up-and-coming world percussionist Brian Rice.
Lawrence apprenticed with Nati Cano’s LA-based Mariachi los Camperos, though her own approach is much closer to trova mexicana, and the luminous voice of Guadalupe Pineda, than to the tear-soaked, cantina-style llanto of ranchera divas like Chavela Vargas or Lola Beltrán, or, for that matter, Lila Downs. Lawrence’s bright soprano soars like a sea breeze over the instrumentation on Radio Flor, based on the concept of bringing to life the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s sound of Mexico City radio station XEW – “la voz de America Latina desde México.” XEW, part of the Televisa empire that essentially controls the Mexican media, is still around, and it still has the classic sound of a Mexican radio station, though what’s classic today isn’t nearly as romantic as the mid-twentieth century oeuvre that’s captured on Radio Flor.
Staticky “radio clips” from Radio Flor, the live show – “Desde el DF, la voz grande de America Latina y California presenta para todos ustedes, la hora … (applause),” sound just like the real thing. Interspersed among the thirteen tunes on the album they lend gentle humor and an extra shot of love for all things Mexican to its concept.
The songs, culled from Mexico’s dizzying cultural patchwork quilt, speak to Cascada de Flores’ well-honed ethnomusicological sense and versatile musicianship. In the hands of a single quintet such a rangy set could be dulled by sameness, but that’s not what happens here. The instrumentation is ample enough, the musicians’ hearts open enough, to capture the bona fide feel of each piece, though there’s some healthy some cross-pollination that makes all of them sound sexy and new. Lawrence puts a flirtatious inflection on the famous guaracha-son “Maria Cristina” that’s more Mexican than Cuban, while Liceaga’s guitarra trés is spot-on Oriente – the eastern end of Cuba, where both the instrument and the song originated – and his ever-so-slightly off-key singing on this tune is pure sonero oriental. The bluesy whisper of Diaz’ trumpet adds gilds “Chuparrosa,” an Afro-mestizo son from the Costa Chica of Guerrero and Oaxaca, with California-style Latin jazz. Liceaga and Sierra-Alonzo’s clever danzon / danzón-cha arrangement of Rogers and Hart’s “With a Song in My Heart” turns a 1929 Broadway show tune Cuban. But there’s purity, too – Lawrence’s cajón provides just the right rhythmic nuances for “Chuparrosa.” “Claveles” is a shining example of la trova yucateca in bambuco time, marked out by Lawrence zapateando on the tablado -- and it's the song in the video at the top of this post. We don’t hear nearly enough songs from the land of pheasant and deer in the States.
In fact we don’t hear nearly enough musica mexicana here in gringolandia, outside the Mexican / Central American community. Even the world music circuit, so saturated with cumbia, bachata and timba, gives sounds from south of the border short shrift. The oversight’s a total mystery to me. But Radio Flor busts out of the box with its playfulness and jazzy twinkle. This album should assure Cascada de Flores a prominent spot on the world stage.