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Natalia Lafourcade Is The 21st Century's Guardian Of Cultural Memory

Oct 9, 2018
Originally published on December 25, 2018 4:32 pm

It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers

Particularly in times of insurmountable struggles, Latin America has harnessed strength from its traditions. When countries experienced a surge of violent political upheavals in the 1970s, people achingly turned to their folk roots as a salve for the times, birthing the nueva cancion movement across the continent. In Chile, musician and activist Violeta Parra recorded some of the region's most time-honored melodies, while in Venezuela, Simón Díaz preserved the musica llanera of his country's plains. Argentina's troubadour Atahualpa Yupanqui appointed himself "a singer of forgotten arts," intent on keeping the world from forgetting "what is unforgettable." These artists understood the power that lives within cultural heritage, and their impulse was to protect the sacred reservoir of Latin American songs.

But in the decades since, a gulf seemed to widen between Spanish-language folk music and music of the modern day. A welcome gush of genres, from reggaeton to electro to trap en español, has revolutionized and improved the contemporary Latin musical landscape while leaving a persistent question of who might step forward to safeguard Latin America's folk soundtrack — and maybe even add to it as well.

Perhaps no one initially expected that person to be Mexico's Natalia Lafourcade. The plucky, pixie-like singer-songwriter swung onto the scene as a member of the short-lived girl band Twist in 1998, before making her solo debut as a wide-eyed multi-instrumentalist with a flair for precocious songwriting. In 2003, she dropped a self-titled debut loaded with gleeful quirkiness and gutsy introspection and, over the years, assembled and unassembled a band — Natalia y La Forquetina — that followed the pop-rock paths paved by Julieta Venegas and '90s-era Shakira. Especially on Lafourcade's excellent 2009 release Hu Hu Hu, she also recalled the spirit of many indie darlings of the English-speaking world at the time — the plink of dainty pianos and the trills of her guitar received frequent comparisons to music by Lily Allen, Regina Spektor and Kate Nash.

Had Lafourcade continued forging ahead with her brand of twee rock, she likely still would have become a refreshing fixture in the Latin music realm. But while some artists stake their territory by keeping an eye toward the future and forecasting new directions, Lafourcade has left her mark by looking back. Starting in 2011, she began diving into her roots — tentatively, in the beginning, and then with a hungry vigor, splitting the cannon open and unleashing the spirits of Latin America's luminaries into our present day. With her ability to weave history into the mainstream, Lafourcade has brought the past soaring into the 21st century and established herself as a proud guardian of Latin America's musical legacy.

At first, Lafourcade's foray into tradition seemed like it would amount simply to an esoteric passion project. She dedicated a year in 2011 to recording the songs of Mexican composer Agustín Lara, the idiosyncratic figure with a complicated legacy as a literary mastermind and womanizing lothario, credited with adopting Cuba's bolero trend and weaving it tightly into fabric of other Central and South American cultures. The understated homage, called Mujer Divina, could have simply been a footnote in Lafourcade's biography — "she once made a tribute album" — but then Lafourcade followed it up with Hasta La Raiz, a glowing showcase of her own writing that, with its expressions of heartbreak and longing, had clearly been influenced by Lara's work.

In many ways, Hasta La Raiz is a precise embodiment of Lafourcade's ability to thread together old and new, and show the possibilities that open by indulging retrospection. What drives the album's tracks is evocative writing that feels distinctly personal while channeling the imagery and tenderness of balladeers from bygone eras. "I keep crossing rivers, walking through forests, loving the sun / Every day I continue to draw thorns out from the depths of my heart / In the night I set fire to my dreams / To cleanse every memory with sacred smoke," are the opening lines of album's title song, which nods to the pictorial lyricism of nueva cancion. The arrangements, meanwhile, are stripped back and shaved down to the bone, often dressed only in simple guitar melodies — sparser versions of Lafourcade's past work that felt almost rebellious compared to some of the more ornate pop and urban sensibilities of the late 2000s. The industry embraced this new terrain, bestowing several Latin Grammys upon Hasta La Raiz in 2015 and reinforcing the suggestion that maybe there was a way to cast redolent, vintage-leaning sounds into the future.


And then Lafourcade fell deeper into the past. She partnered with Miguel Peña and Juan Carlos Allende, the 70-plus-year-old members of the guitar duo Los Macorinos, known for working with the renowned Costa Rican-and-Mexican singer and lesbian symbol Chavela Vargas. Holed up in a woodsy studio, they began a meticulous study of Latin America's cultural trove that initially, Lafourcade said, hadn't been intended as a full-fledged release. "It wasn't in my plans to release a new album, but I had this desire to record with Los Macorinos and just make music for myself," she told Billboard.

Yet Lafourcade and Los Macorinos recorded more than 30 songs that formed a two-part compendium, Musas and Musas Vol. 2. Lafourcade had always leaned heavily on Mexican icons, but Musas includes careful dissections of what some would consider the most precious folk standards across Latin America. There are odes to the nueva cancion greats, including Parra and Yupanqui, as well interpretations of other widely celebrated traditions. Lafourcade bravely takes on "Duerme Negrito," a lullaby that originated from enslaved people on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and "La Llorona," a song tied to the decades-old folk legend of a wailing woman. She also shines a spotlight on the women often overlooked in the shadow of male artists, paying homage to Argentina's Mercedes Sosa, Mexico's María Grever and Cuba's Margarita Lecuona.

It's one thing to churn out beautiful covers, but what heightens Lafourcade's work is an artful simplicity that transcends the bounds of time. Her voice, air-light and childlike, often feels as though it could have come to us from any era. Even her choice of quiet, ligneous guitars is a tribute to Latin America, acknowledging the sylvan landscapes and woodsy environments from which the instruments came, in the habit of previous folk artists. With Musas, she freed music that, for many younger listeners, had been trapped in amber and imbued it with new life.

Lafourcade's sound has come to us at a time during which the desire to examine Latinx roots has felt particularly urgent, perhaps as a result of challenges and political strains that both Latin America and immigrant communities in the U.S. have encountered in recent decades. The themes of ancestral roots and patrimony have been percolating in Latinx pop culture in recent years, coalescing into moments like the release of 2017's Disney blockbuster Coco. While the film focused largely on Mexican heritage, it won over wider Latin American audiences with its message of honoring familial roots. When the soundtrack surfaced, it surprised few people that Lafourcade was chosen to record the film's original song, "Remember Me," alongside R&B maverick Miguel, who is partially of Mexican heritage. A performance at the 2018 Oscars cemented her place as an indelible force in the mainstream and a custodian of traditions.

Remembering where you come from, and what the people before you have gone through, is an emotional exercise, often heavy with the weight of history. But as Latinx culture teaches, it can also be a way into limitless sources of tenacity, self-awareness and imagination. Even in the face of loss, it's the bits of memories, stories and songs that get passed along the generations to preserve the beauty of places that may no longer exist. Children of Latin American immigrants know this particularly well, perhaps having witnessed portals into past lives open through a fuzzy bolero playing on a grandfather's radio or through a family story repeated at a party like an incantation.

Lafourcade understands this alchemy, too, and her work is a testament to the creativity and the pride that unspools when one taps into tradition. In today's turbulent times, that sense of pride is more necessary than ever among Latinx communities, and Lafourcade's music is an invitation to plunge into the folds of collective memory and celebrate the cultural heirlooms we've inherited.

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For decades, young Latin artists have moved away from traditional music towards genres like reggaeton, electro and trap Espanol. That trajectory has loosened ties to the long rich history of Latin American folk. Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade has stepped in to bridge that divide.


NATALIA LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: With imaginative covers of folk songs and original music steeped in the past, she has emerged as a guardian of cultural memory in the 21st century. That's what music writer Julyssa Lopez argues for NPR Music's Turning The Tables Project exploring how women and nonbinary artists are shaping the music of our moment. She says, Natalia Lafourcade wasn't the most obvious candidate to claim this mantle.

JULYSSA LOPEZ, BYLINE: Natalia got her start really early on and she was about 14. She was in this all-girl band called Twist.


TWIST: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: The band didn't last that long. But eventually, Natalia came back onto the scene and was doing this alternative, indie rock music.


LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: In 2011, something really interesting happened. And it was a bit out of nowhere especially for fans who were used to her alternative sound, Natalia got really into this Mexican bolero artist called Agustin Lara who is really known for taking the bolero tradition from Cuba and bringing it to a lot of other places in Latin America. And Natalia kind of went through his repertoire and decided to make this album called "Mujer Divina" which was a tribute album to him. And it was essentially all covers.


LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: I think what was interesting about "Mujer Divina" is that it wasn't just oh she made a tribute album and here was this artist that she really liked, what happened later was that you could see that it really influenced a lot of her work moving forward. So after "Mujer Divina," she released an album called "Hasta la "Raiz."


LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: It was a lot simpler. And the songwriting was all about heartbreak and longing and very similar to the way that a lot of Agustin Lara's songs had been composed. You could really see how those artists were informing each other even though they're making music like 60, 70 years apart.


LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: Natalia really has evolved into this artist who's tying, you know, the past and present together. And part of the reason that it works so well is because of her voice. She has a really sweet and piercing tone that has a quality that I think of as really timeless.


LAFOURCADE: (Singing in Spanish).

LOPEZ: I think of Natalia as a guardian of cultural memory. And I think that's so important because so much of music of Latin America is based on tradition. It's important to have things evolve and keep coming up with new sounds and genres that are forward-thinking and innovative. But I think it's also a really important exercise to go back and revisit the boleros that your grandfather used to listen to or the lullabies that we heard as kids. And it's all of these traditions I think that shape our cultural memory and shape who we are in a lot of ways.

SHAPIRO: That's Julyssa Lopez celebrating Natalia Lafourcade for NPR Music's Turning The Tables Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.