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Lucía Pulido: Time Darkened by Sorrow, Brightened By Passion



The sky darkens, Lorca-like and a primordial wail rips through it. “Ai…leh leh leh…/No sé qué tendrá mi pecho/no sé qué tendrá mi pecho…/que mi voz alevanta,” she sings as she cries… “I don’t know what’s in my chest/I don’t know what’s in my chest…/that my voice is arising.”

Lucia’s voice cuts through the dense clouds and shoots across the sky towards the infinite… Beloved Carmelita has thrown her life away. Dressed like a siren, she emerges from her home to walk the streets. The singer is heartbroken. “Carmelita, adiós,” she warns… “Ai…leh leh leh…/No sabiendo que la rosa/no sabiendo que la rosa/muere triste y deshojada/a le le le,” “Not knowing that the rose/Not knowing that the rose/Dies sad and bereft of petals/Carmelita adios.

Note from the Editor: Originally published on August 1st. 2010, this feature article gets an update today to include two new recordings: Por Esos Caminos/Journeying, and Songbook III – Myths with Fernando Tarrés.

Lucía Pulido’s voice is in flood, like the Orinoco when it rains and is angry that the earth is dry. Her voice rises and falls, ululating… mimicking the river as it soars high and mighty over everything, sweeping out of sight the flotsam and jetsam that despoil the green brown and blue of the soundscape. It is the cleansing fire, the heart’s desire. The gausá rattles and trembles in her hand as her voice is tremulous. The chirimía band that encourages her sensuous swagger to become intense as a dervish, or mystic… a saint in a trance until her energy and the band’s consume everything on the earth that bleeds with elemental sorrow—and many time with unbridled joy as well.

The album is Lucía Pulido, a 2000 release from the German label, Intuition. It is a pivotal one for Pulido, who is joined here by the Japanese percussionist, Satoshi Takeishi who arranges the songs and also plays the Tambora, Llamador and Redoblante—instruments of north and west African origin that are traditional to Colombia and elsewhere in South America, first brought over by the Spanish conquistadores. Like she has done on so many occasions before, Pulido reaches deep into the heart of her music. In fact she goes even beyond that to find the soul of the songs, the ghostly characters and develops the kind of bestiary that would have done that Argentinean master—Jorge Luis Borges—proud. Her lyricism is beautiful and her profound interpretations qualify her to be more than a griot. On the sensual “El Pilón,” a traditional feature that is like something from out of missing verses from the Biblical Songs of Solomon she cavorts with her characters, slurring and delaying the end notes of each phrase to depict near-drunken love and this infuses the song with dramatic puya effect.

Two religious songs make this album breathtakingly beautiful. The first is the somber, “En Una Tiniebla Oscura” devoted to the Virgin Mary and the other is played to “Cantos de Vaquería,” lavishly enhanced with brass and woodwinds. Her association with Bullerengue is masterful and the two on the album are unforgettable. “Porro Magangueleño” and “Carmelita, Adios” are so deeply felt that they are almost seared into the memory. “Zafra” is a high and lonesome zafra or herding song from the Atlantic coast of the country and is magnificently approached by bassist, Jairo Moreno, who might as well have bowed his way into a very special place in the realm of acoustic bass players. The percussionists make the piece much too seductive to resist. And “Velo Qué Bonito” is a funerary masterpiece, conceived and executed with sublime emotion.

Lucía Pulido is an artist who connects with the genre of song at a very elementally deep level. To that extent she exercises an almost shamanic control over the lyric, its narration and how it will affect the listener. In Africa she would be a gnawa, like Maalem Mahmoud Gania, the legendary Moroccan gnawa musician first brought out of Africa by Bill Laswell with the seminal Trance of the Seven Colors, a collaboration with the great tenor saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders that is a certified masterpiece, as is the other gnawa album produced by Laswell, The Next Dream with that other mystical gnawa artist, Bachir Attar.

Pulido is an artist who has been shaped by a passionate love for her country and is bonded to Colombia almost the way a wood sprite is bonded with a forest floor. The air she breathes seems to transform itself as it courses through her veins. Cultures collide in her heart and soul… African, Spanish, Caribbean, Amerindian. She may not be any one of them, but she is all of them. This is why her soul can float free, travelling infinitely across the country drawing on sounds and stories—real and mythical, concrete and mystical—until she has absorbed them and made them her own. It seems that she can experience life through every pore. As experiences become internalized they also form a continuum that Pulido transforms into her art using a voice that has no parallel in music. Pulido’s voice is like an instrument that is at once a part of her body as well as a musical device that is to be controlled with unbridled imagination and extreme virtuosity.

So complete is Pulido’s command of her sublime voice that she can set it free like a bird, watching as it catches a thermal and floats high and mightily across oceans of sound. She can bend it, let it crack and yodel with it. And because her voice is a mirror to her soul she can let it sink to depths of despair to conjure up images of extreme sadness—even the finality of death—before it rises and flies free as it is the soul itself ascending into the heavens where it will be ensconced, with celestial beings, as it finally comes to rest. That is just one of the stories she can tell. Her intonation is exquisite. Her songs become arias as she articulates not just emotions, but the complicated melodic and harmonic journeys that she undertakes to tell the music’s stories. She is a trumpet, a shepherd’s horn; a trombone and a lyre. She is a wood sylph, a siren, a saint and sinner crying out for salvation. She is a drum connecting with the animism of the rainforest as well as with the frightening prospect of life in a slum.

Clearly Pulido exists in a continuum that parallels the history of Colombia. Its fractured history from the time it was liberated from its Spanish colonists by Simón Bolívar through dictatorships of the early part of the 20th Century, the guerillas who tore up the country; the drug cartels—the chilling legacy of the 70’s. It was against this backdrop that Pulido first made a name for herself as the voice of the legendary duo, Iván y Lucía. The “Iván” of the dup was Iván Benavides, a songwriter and musician whose name was synonymous with the Nueva Canción movement, which incorporated the newly invented vallenato musical dialect, much in the same way Caetano Veloso’s and Gilberto Gil came to found Musica Popular Brasileira, or the tropicalia movement in song. Throughout the 80’s and the 90’s, the duo, Iván y Lucía ruled the Colombian popular music scene as Veloso and Gil, Elis and Maria Bethânia ruled the one in Brasil.

The power duo performed tirelessly crisscrossing the country, performing in small towns and large ones. Benavides grew into a truly accomplished composer, who probably did not get the credit he deserved for the music he helped create for a decade. It is unfortunate that the duo is known to have recorded only two albums and it is not really known how much of the music really remains for aficionados and collectors to treasure. It is however, impossible to erase from memory the recording and many performances of Benavides’ classic chart, “Alba,” a song which he wrote to a poem by José Luis Díaz Granados. Iván y Lucía created a song that became an anthem for a whole generation, as did other classic Nueva Canción compositions, “A la sombra del tiempo” and “Corazón” among the numerous others that Benavides created for his partner and himself to woo audiences with wherever they went to perform. Benavides also created songs of protest against the murderous politics of the paramilitary culture that was tearing Colombia apart then. A few have still survived. “Canción para los ausentes” and the towering “Afuera” were two such songs. The latter is as well-known as the Brasilian legend, Chico Buarque’s “Calice.”

Then, in the early 90’s Carlos Vives, arguably Colombia’s most well-known artist launched a new record label to celebrate the growing popularity of Colombia’s Nueva Canción. Gaira Musica Local was launched with the release of Lucía, Pulido’s first really solo album. Although produced by the prodigiously talented composer, pianist, accordionist and organist, Héctor Martignon, Iván Benavides returned to compose virtually all of the music and play guitars throughout the album. The music on Lucía stands out as one of the finest popular albums ever made in Colombia. The musical idiom is almost completely vallenato, a Colombian street rhythm long considered part of the lower class, untouchable culture by Colombian elites. Bookended by Benavides’ amazingly deep and moving chart, “La Hoguera,” the album also contains such gems as “Las Cuatro Palomas,” “El Piano Dolores” and the Caribbean flavored “Circulo Vicioso,” which was probably one of the most enduring melodies that Iván Benavides has ever written.

In 1994 Pulido arrived in New York and immediately began a niche for herself. Although her first solo album, Lucía was released by Vives’ label a year later, Pulido had already begun to meld the music of Colombia into a unique approach to her musical art, stretching her experimental style of singing to the limit. Traditional forms of music, such as Bullerengue, joropos and cumbia became launch pads for her fabulous flights of vocalastics. Her sophisticated art also encompassed cantos de vaquería, herding songs, alabaos funeral laments and cantos de zafra or harvest chants. After the success of Lucía Pulido: Cantos Religiosos y Paganos in 2000, she went on to release Dolor de Ausencia, a classic repertoire of broken love, despecho, twelve boleros and valses that are filled with such elemental sadness that are breathtaking in their sweep of the emotional beauty. The chart, “Aunque me duela el Alma” is one of those songs that will remain seared in the memory even with just one hearing. Once again Pulido had struck home not only with her amazing ability to turn timeless feelings into timeless music. The brilliance of her art continued to grow beyond even wild expectation. Still her appeal was largely niche and her recorded output considered to consist of specialized projects, although she continued to gain fame from performing not only in the United States, but also in Latin America and Europe as well.

In 2005, Pulido began a cycle of Songbooks with the writer and experimental guitarist, Fernando Tarrés y La Raza, Songbook I (Beliefs) and Songbook II (Prayers) will remain among the most ambitious vocal music ever committed to disc in any language or culture in any time. The full impact of Lucía Pulido’s sophistication and fearless experimental approach to music exists in these two discs released on the Argentinean label, BAU Records. The extraordinary musical journey is like a river in flood. Its brilliance is felt from the time the first bars are sounded by Tarrés’ spectacular guitars, Jerónimo Carmona’s deep resonant bass and the polyrhythmic gymnastics of Carto Brandán’s percussion and the host of other talented musicians. This incredible music continues unabated throughout Songbook I (Beliefs). It is, however, Songbook II (Prayers) that is, without doubt, one of the most breathtaking albums in Pulido’s repertoire. On the opening chart, “Aqui te estoy esperando” Pulido provides the most extraordinary example of her vocal prowess as she sings the first few bars of the mystical song a capella but is eerily pitch perfect throughout its undulating progress. On her favorite, “La Hoguera (Final)” she duels in fine fashion with two fine percussionists, Jorge Sepúlveda and Urián Sarmiento.

The collective improvisation on both albums is clearly why New York musicians, David Binney and Erik Friedlander love to work with Pulido. Her innate ability to create music quite literally out of mouthfuls of air makes her one of the most precious artists in that city. It is also the reason why the Brasilian musician, Benjamin Taubkin tipped her for his own ambitious project, Contemporary America, Another Center (Adventure Music, 2007) a beautifully crafted recording where the musical idioms of 7 South American countries explode in an album of Amazonian splendor, as colorful as it is dense and rich and fresh in experimentalism. Experimentalism and unbridled creativity is also the most memorable aspect of Pulido’s tribute to the renowned Colombian writer, Rafael Pombo put together by Carlos Vives in 2008. And spectacular versions of “Canto de Zafra” and “Canto de Velorio” were included in the soundtrack for Gustav Deutsch’s experimental German film, Film ist: A Girl and a Gun, a musical experiment Pulido shared with three contemporary European musicians: Christian Fennez, Burkhard Stangl and Martin Seiwart.

Lucía Pulido created a sensation with her 2008 masterpiece, Luna Menguante/Waning Moon also released on the Adventure Music label. Here she celebrates her rare talent once again. Of all the vocalists in the world of music, especially those that practice the ancient, dying art of singing a story – not merely narrating – but telling it as griots do only a handful inhabit an atmosphere so rarified that they would qualify for canonization. If such sainthood was possible then Abbey Lincoln and Sheila Jordan would have been anointed a while ago. So would Sussan Deyhim, the Farsi singer of Sufi music and the Ethiopian singer, Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw, as well as Maria Bethânia from Brasil… and the reigning griot princess would, of course, be Lucía Pulido from Colombia.

The album, Luna Menguante/Waning Moon is a breathtaking showcase of this otherworldly talent. It gathers together music from the folkloric traditions of the Colombian Caribbean, its Pacific Coast and the Eastern Plains. There are twelve songs rendered in an utterly ancient yet modern context with such brilliance that each seizes the senses and it is impossible to extract oneself from the lyric, the manner in which the song is vocalized and the dynamic sound canvas that she is able to conjure up. Pulido inhabits the music with body and soul. She alone commands what it will do to the senses – all six of them, which are at once her prisoner until the song becomes the epiphany.

Although each of the songs is exquisitely complete there is something extraordinarily magical with the ones she sings with the accompaniment of Stomu Takeishi’s bass. “I’ve No One to Love Me,” “Full Moon Song” and “Funeral Song” are exemplary in style, interplay with the bass and the power of voice over lyric. But is the 0.27 second, solo-voiced “Cattleherding Song” that will be best remembered for its power and solitary splendor. But then the other tracks are no less unforgettable… And the magic of Lucía Pulido’s voice continues to haunt long after the echoes of the last notes have died in the future.

This is an extraordinary record. Although many musicians may have attempted to bring the beauty of Latin American folkloric beauty to life, few artists are likely to have such a lasting impact as Lucía Pulido’s Luna Menguante/Waning Moon. Perhaps with the possible exception of Gigi’s Abyssinia Infinite, Sussan Deyhim’s Madman of God, Maria Bethânia’s As Canções Que Você Fez Pra Mim, Maryam Tollar’s work on Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Jazz Project and Abbey Lincoln’s Abbey Sings Abbey. But Pulido’s may be better than them all.

The year 2012 was a capital year for Pulido; she released not one but two fabulous albums in and she travelled the world—from Vietnam to New York and Bogota to Barcelona to promote her extraordinary work. The first of these two albums was a solo endeavor. Just when it could have been posited that she could not raise the bar on the immense beauty and brilliance of an album after her album, Luna Menguante she returned with Por Esos Caminos/Journeying, which is more than its equal in repertoire, performance and memorability. How she does this should no longer be a mystery, for Pulido immerses herself into narrative and lyrics like no other musician recording and performing today. Moreover, she is capable of communicating feelings and emotions directly to the soul so that when she sings of pain, she feels it too and so does anyone listening to her sing. When she experiences pure joy, the listener exults with unfettered abandon. Similarly, when she tells a story, moving visuals seem to appear in rustic colors and tones on a canvas that billows and glistens before the eyes, as if by magic again.

On this record, Pulido has surrounded herself with musicians of rare ingenuity. Composers and arrangers such as the incomparable Sebastián Cruz, her musical director on this and other projects; the great Aquiles Báez on two charts; the masterful Stomu Takeishi on bass and so on. Not only this, Pulido is able to inspire them to give performances that are absolutely unforgettable. Cruz’s and Takeishi’s are a case in point, as is Aquiles Báez’s on “Canta la Gavana”.

Pulido mesmerizes listeners into taking with her on Por Esos Caminos is both an actual as well as a spiritual travelogue. In it, Pulido touches the soul of her listeners and opens hearts to the miracles of love through despair (“Por qué me Pegas?”), bringing hope (“Soledad”) and the elevation of joy after sadness (“Flor de Mayo”). She also introduces some fascinating characters along the way like “El Manduco” and “Señor Pascual”. This is a journey that begs to be undertaken with one of the most fascinating artists in vocal music of any kind today.

The second record is a collaboration between the Argentinean wunderkind and multi-instrumentalist, Fernando Tarrés and Pulido. This album is the third part of their Songbook series. It is Songbook III – Myths, a terrific companion to Songbook I – Beliefs (BAU Records, 2005) and Songbook II – Prayers (BAU Records, 2006), both of which related to the mystical aspect of the Latin music repertoire. The songs on Songbook III – Myths look less at the preternatural and more at the earthy more folk end of the Latin repertoire. The record is an extension of the palimpsest of the series and further proof that Lucia Pulido is by far the most extraordinary interpreter of traditional music.

Though tiny in stature (was not Edith Piaf small as well?) Pulido has power beyond what would be physically possible given her size. Moreover she becomes the characters in the songs swaying and seducing as she sings, piercing the heart and soul with musical arrows that ache and hurt, or bring joy, depending on what the song is supposed to do. And that is simply astounding for like Abbey Lincoln who used to use a more laconic poetic, Pulido is more aligned to the poetics of the melody, leaving the overtones and the harmonies to an inner voice that flies out in the narrative every once in a while.

There is something altogether new in this record that is not present in many of Lucia Pulido’s other records. And this has to do with orchestration. This is clearly the hand of Fernando Tarrés. This is it: Tarrés, far ahead of his time in this type of folk music is unafraid to use dissonant musical harmonics that slash across the melody, dueling with Pulido. This he does in the form of devices that he probably learnt from Stravinsky and the late classicists. For instance he has used a string quartet in the statuesque version of Dino Saluzzi’s magnificent “Carta a Perdiguero”. On the forlorn “Esperanza” (and elsewhere) he uses the horns and reeds and woodwinds to swoosh across Pulido’s beautifully linear lyric. Then there is Tarrés enormously powerful use of the flatly tuned acoustic guitar, with which he and the ensemble duel mightily with Pulido on “Domingo ‘i chaya” a magnificent Argentinian folk song. All this is reminiscent of the dueling of soloist and symphonic orchestra in a classical concerto.

And so the story of this great artist rolls on. Tragically, however, Lucía Pulido still remains a niche artist, known for her extraordinary experimentalism rather than for the great vocalist that she is—in any country and in any point in time. Perhaps one day when musical tastes return to the high art that they once were Pulido will receive what is truly due to her.

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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