Corrections or additions?
This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the April 3, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Claudia Acuna: Music Fusion
When it comes to young female jazz singers these days,
fabulous photogenic looks (that is, stunning beauty in the mode of
Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Norah Jones, et al) are almost a
as the conglomerate record labels invest heavily in marketing
to distinguish one already distinct look and voice from another.
Vocalist Claudia Acuna, who performs Friday, April 5, at Mount-Burke
Theater at Peddie School, in Hightstown, is certainly a model of a
marketer’s dream. One look at her album cover reveals her smoldering,
brooding, luminous, brunette beauty. But if looks are all you notice
about Acuna, you’ll be doing her — and yourself — a
Acuna’s voice is stunning, too. It’s a strong, but not deep, alto,
with rich undertones, and a passionate attack of both Spanish and
The journey of Claudia Acuna (her name carries a tilde over the N
and is pronounced uh-CU-nyuh) is as fascinating as her artistry. Born
and raised in Santiago, Chile, she has successfully melded her Latin
American heritage with the African-American jazz canon.
If the world’s popular culture is one huge mosaic of colors and
all glued together by the overwhelming influence of America’s TV
which in turn is linked inexorably by the Internet, the musical and
visual culture of Latin America falls under similar parameters. Many
of the world’s most enduring cultural influences — European,
Native American, Asian, and Arab (check the sound and feel of
siren Shakira for evidence of that) — have all come together in
This is a region of the world where millions of people watch movies
made in Mexico, that are broadcast via cable networks based in
and Florida, that air nightly "telenovelas" made in Rio de
Janeiro and dubbed in a Portuguese-flavored Spanish. This is a region
of the world where one of its biggest stars — Mario Kreutzberger,
otherwise known as "Don Francisco" — often commutes weekly
between Chile and Florida because both of his shows are wildly popular
all over the Spanish-speaking world.
The Americas are made up of more than 20 distinct cultures, but the
region’s popular culture is becoming more and more homogenized. And
it’s also true that the influence of North America, almost despite
Latins’ desires, pervades every one of them.
It was into this schizophrenic, but fascinating world that Claudia
Acuna the musician was born. Santiago, Chile, is a large, reasonably
cosmopolitan city, but it is far from being a jazz mecca. Yet Acuna
was able, as a young woman, to begin her lifelong quest to master
the craft. Her later work shows heavy influence of Latin rock, Chilean
folk music, South American nueva trova, and opera. She didn’t have
many opportunities to perform live in Santiago, but visiting jazz
artists that included Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano, and Danilo Perez
encouraged her to come to the U.S.
Upon arriving in New York in 1995, Acuna set upon meeting her idols
Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Dianne Reeves. They all encouraged
her, but the money did not roll in. Acuna had to babysit and wash
dishes just to make ends meet. Yet her musical gifts were undeniable,
and the more chances she had to sing, the more the folks who perform
the music were impressed. She was signed by Verve Records, and her
first album, "Wind from the South," saw her hailed as a
new voice in jazz.
Now Acuna’s new disc, "Rhythm of Life," just released this
week on Verve, shows evidence of her continuing process of discovery.
Employing a crack set of sidemen — Dave Holland on bass, drummer
Jeff "Tain" Watts, guitarist Romero Lubambo, pianist Jason
Lindner, and many others from Latin and North America — Acuna
tiptoes, strolls, and barges her way through standards and new tunes,
singing in English and Spanish, and utilizing a variety of artistic
In the seven years since she moved from Chile to New
York, Acuna has had to learn English and, to mangle a Wyntonism,
herself to singing comfortably the blues-based improvisational music
that is American jazz. But she has also had to learn another musical
language as well — that of Caribbean Latins.
Afro-Cuban musical forms such as rumba, son, and son montuno, as well
as Brazilian music, are not really foreign to Chile. Yet they are
also not indigenous to the Andean nation’s culture. To really perform
these styles correctly, musicians — whether Latina or not —
who do not have the five-beat "clave" for a heartbeat, must
invest time and energy to assimilate the compelling rhythm. Acuna,
who has spent many a night performing with New York’s best jazz and
Latin musicians, has invested this time and energy.
To show the results of her efforts, she uses an interesting device
to lead the listener into her work as a "sonera" — that’s
a salsa-style singer. Her device: Nat King Cole and the English
She approaches his hit "Nature Boy" in a fairly conventional
manner, her languid alto declaiming resolutely over Lindner’s piano.
As in much Latin music, however, the song swiftly changes focus when
it morphs from jazz to Cuban son montuno (a form evolved from
Cuban folk style). Acuna works the slow, gritty feel of the montuno,
dropping spicy improvisations — in English — over a roiling,
building Afro-Cuban-style chorus.
Two other album selections, this time Latin standards, also show a
new side of Acuna’s skills. "Volver a los Diecisiete" ("To
be Seventeen Again"), written by Chilean star Violeta Parra and
covered by an untold number of Latin stars, is treated with that same
cosmopolitan paintbrush here, with Acuna singing with controlled power
over a Cuban charanga-influenced arrangement.
And "Maria, Maria," penned by the visionary Brazilian
Milton Nascimento, is one of Acuna’s most uninhibited performances,
a song she sings in Spanish in honor of her mother. You can be sure
that these and other songs of Acuna’s varied repertory will light
up her live Hightstown appearance.
— Kevin L. Carter
School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Pre-concert chat with Acuna is at
7 p.m. $15. Friday, April 5, 8 p.m.
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