The Mavericks have already proven that they can effortlessly bound across genres during an impressive career that now spans four decades of work. On their latest album, the band shows that they are just as potent in another language. En Espanol is, as you might guess, an all-Spanish album, but one that finds the band both playing to their strengths and embarking on exciting new territory.
In an interview with American Songwriter, Mavericks singer Raul Malo explained what he and the band had in mind with this project. “It’s kind of a continuation of what the Mavericks have done, but it’s in Spanish,” Malo says. “We’ve been hinting at this for years. In our live shows, we’ve played some of these songs. This has been percolating now for a while.”
“I had no interest in doing a straight-up Latin record, or salsa record, or mariachi record or anything that was genre-specific or too limited in its scope. I wanted it to be a bit more inclusive and expansive. And I wanted to explore the musical subgenres of the Latin genre and incorporate some of that. But it’s our style, our narrative, our way of playing. And I thought that combination would make an interesting one. That was the impetus and concept from the beginning.”
Malo and his band, which also features Eddie Perez, Jerry Dale McFadden and Paul Deakin, strived to keep their identity intact while doing these songs in Spanish. “That was the key,” he says. “How do we get the Mavericks to stay true to themselves and not lose what we’ve done and what we are? And throw a little sauce on it?”
A little bit more than half of En Espanol is comprised of classic songs from across the Latin American spectrum of music. But Malo also wrote or co-wrote five originals that fit in seamlessly, including the horn-filled “Poder Vivir” and the stirring ballad “Pensando en Ti.” “Spanish is my first language,” Malo says of the writing process. “I practice it enough in my house and whatnot. But I’ve been writing in English for the last 20 years. It was a challenge, but it was great. You have to make sure all your p’s and q’s are correct, and I think they are. I haven’t been called out on one yet.”
Malo feels like even non-Spanish speakers will get the gist of these songs. “I think most people, when they hear music, it hits them in an emotional, visceral sort of way,” he explains. “I think that’s the first thing that happens. And then you start to listen to the words and maybe you say, ‘What does that mean?’ But by then, I think you can probably figure out more or less what the meaning or the gist of the song is. It’s not unlike opera. We don’t understand Italian or German or whatnot. You don’t understand what they’re saying and yet you get there and there’s such an attack on the senses that you kind of get what they’re about.”
“Some people might say, ‘Well, I don’t understand.’ Most of the comments that I’ve seen are ‘Well, I don’t know what they’re saying, but I don’t care because it’s so beautiful.’ And I think, in the end, that’ll be the sentiment for the most part. For those that want a translation, we offered that on the record. We did a literal translation so you could see what the words mean, not necessarily to sing along to in English. There are a lot of beautiful lyrics on there, especially the older songs. A lot of the language doesn’t even really exist anymore. It was really fun singing those old songs and putting them in a modern context.”
What you’re likely to notice about the songs on En Espanol is how The Mavericks manage to draw out the similarities embedded in all forms of music, no matter the language of origin. Check out the countrypolitan feel of “Me Olvide de Vivir,” the doo-wop traces within “Suspiro Azul,” or the spy-movie guitars on “Sombras Nada Mas.” “Sombras Nada Mas’ is originally an Argentinian tango,” Malo says. “But it has such an amazing melody. To me it sounded natural for us to do that song. Had the lyrics been in English, people would say it’s just another Mavericks song.”
“‘Me Olvide de Vivir’ was my grandfather’s favorite song when I was a kid. And it’s a song that resonates with me on a personal level, not only because of the family memories, but also, lyrically. It’s a song about a musician’s life and going through our lives too fast, leaving and missing out on all the little things. Missing out on the people that you love and hurting those people because you’re gone, and all that strife that happens in the course of a musician’s life. It’s the old story. I always thought that if we were to record it, I wanted to treat it like ‘Gentle On My Mind,’ that kind of John Hartford folkie, Americana story song. And it’s very much that. It’s just the Spanish version of that.”
Malo stressed these parallels throughout the interview. “The similarities between the world cultures, that’s what we’re after,” he says. “It’s one world and music is one language, whether you speak English or Spanish or it doesn’t matter. Music is inclusive and it is a universal language. I think now more than ever we need it.”
As someone with a Cuban background, Malo felt a strong personal connection to this record, especially when it came to closing track “Me Voy a Pinar del Rio. The song features members of Sweet Lizzy Project, a Cuban band that the Mavericks discovered while in Cuba. They signed the band to their Mono Mundo label after being impressed with the way they overcame adverse circumstances to play raucous rock and roll instead of traditional Cuban music.
“Here I was in Miami, a Cuban kid playing country music in a band called the Mavericks,” Malo says. “I understood that passion, that rebellion against your culture growing up. It was really ironic to have them on this record. It was the first song that they recorded in the US and it’s about going back to Cuba. The irony was not lost on anybody that day. And now this track is on there and it’s the final thing on this record. It’s a beautiful moment that I’ll never forget and they’ll never forget.”
Malo isn’t having the argument that music should be confined to tiny little boxes. “We live in a world and a time where we’re retreating more and more into our corners,” he says. “I’ve experienced similar things in the music business from musicians. For years, the attitude, from not all musicians, but from some, would be, well, if you’re doing Cuban music, it has to be a certain way. Or if you’re doing Mexican music, it has to be a certain way. Or you can’t do Mexican music if you’re going to do Cuban music. And vice versa, and so on and so forth. In much the same way that we try to do in our lives and our careers, just throw all those rules and sentiments out the window.”
If there is a bottom line to the entire En Espanol project for Malo and the Mavericks, it’s that music unites far more than it divides. “Organic music is a language,” Malo explains. “I’m talking about a song written on a piano or a guitar or a bass. That music, there’s a thread that runs along all of it. I’ve spent my whole life seeking that thread. I’ve bet my entire career on it. We always have and always are searching for that thread. That’s what inspires us the most. And that’s what inspires this record is finding that thread.”
“One of the songs right now is getting heavy airplay on Tejano radio, while another one gets played on another kind of radio. And I love that. From a business standpoint, we’re not sticking to one format or genre or subgenre. We’re going after all of it and just putting the music out there. We’re getting a lot of love. It’s surprising, but it’s also inspiring because it’s hopeful. Maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to loosen our restrictions that we form in our own head and our own culture and our own industries. I love that about music and I love that about this record.”
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