This is my first attempt working with a new concept for this blog. I'm a musician, as I've maybe mentioned before on this blog, and I listen to a fairly wide range of music. I've been looking for a way to talk about some of the music I really like and a way to present some of the results of my continual search for great music that I've never heard. So I'm going to try as best I can to pair every book with an album of music that I think shares some of the tone and the mood of that book. Sometimes it will be music that was mentioned in the book, sometimes it won't be. Sometimes it'll be music I know something about, other times it'll be something I just found in the process trying to match some music with the book. It'll be sort of like coming up with a hint of a soundtrack for a book, only I mean to get some the tone of the prose more than music that would be appropriate for the movie version of the book. I want it to also be a way to think differently about a writer's style, putting in some kind of cultural perspective. We'll see how it goes. First up is Julieta Venegas' live album from 2008, MTV Unplugged, as music to go with Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name, the tragic story of the death of his wife Aura.
Venegas is from Tijuana, on the border with the United States, and in the last ten years or so has become hugely popular in Mexico and the United States (and, I read, even in Western Europe). She got a good deal of formal musical training as a youngster before making it big in the world of Mexican pop music, and this shows to some degree in her pop music. Her songs stand apart from others because of their intelligent musical construction, which rely more on traditional songwriting abilities than on any pop-music industry tricks for their appeal. Because of this they work very well in the setting of the MTV Unplugged concert. Going unplugged forces artists to rely on the more traditional aspects of music-making, the chord changes and the instrumental interplay and live vocals rather than drum machines and keyboards, and Venegas' songs sound fantastic on this album.
Venegas has a way of putting Mexican Spanish, which its patterned accents, into the simple one-two rhythms that pop music encourages. Those simple rhythms fit easily over the mostly single-syllable American English that one hears in most American rock and pop music. But Spanish is more complicated, and I am struck by how fluidly she squeezes her Mexican Spanish into pop's duple rhythms, sometimes by moving accents around on words, sometimes by spreading a vowel over a couple beats. My Spanish is terrible and so I am far from an expert on its phonetics, so I have no idea what this sounds like to a native speaker's ear. She seems not to have offended many ears, though, and I think the musical flexibility it gives her probably makes up for any issue that Spanish language purists might have with it. (For argument's sake I imagine some kind of old-fashioned opera critic obsessed with proper articulation, who is for some reason examining the work of Julieta Venegas).
That complete comfort with the rhythms of two cultures is what connects this album to Goldman's work. Venegas is originally from Tijuana, and Goldman too is something of a child of the border, though in a more metaphorical sense, since his border, the one in Say Her Name, is the imaginary one between Mexico City and New York City. It is also "girl music," as Goldman calls some of his Aura's music, and it is youthful music, though of an undeniable quality that give it an appeal broader than most young girly music (though I have to guess that her audience is still primarily young women). And Venegas, like Goldman in his book, keeps a light musical touch on topics that could get overly sentimental.
The MTV Unplugged album serves as almost a best-hits collection as well as a way to hear her music in a different way. It doesn't have my favorite, "Oleada", but it has most of her biggest songs, some re-imagined with guest stars, including Mala Rodriguez on "Eres Para Mi". It is a great pop album, and a good one to have on while reading Say Her Name.