Corrections or additions?

This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the April 3, 2002

edition of

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

prerequisite,

as the conglomerate record labels invest heavily in marketing

campaigns

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

disservice.

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

English material.

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

textures,

all glued together by the overwhelming influence of America’s TV

superculture,

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,

African,

Native American, Asian, and Arab (check the sound and feel of

Colombian

siren Shakira for evidence of that) — have all come together in

Latin America.

This is a region of the world where millions of people watch movies

made in Mexico, that are broadcast via cable networks based in

California

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

promising

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

sensibilities.

In the seven years since she moved from Chile to New

York, Acuna has had to learn English and, to mangle a Wyntonism,

acclimate

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

language.

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

traditional

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

singer-songwriter

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

Claudia Acuna, CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie

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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