Rolando Villazon on the passion for Latin American folk songs: “They struck your heart”

Latin American music is not only festive.

Away from the fiesta vibes and heart-pounding beats, there is a body of folk songs recounting the turmoil and heartache the continent has endured over the centuries.

Some of these works will be presented in a recital at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Monday.

To open the Abu Dhabi Classics series, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon and French harpist Xavier de Maistre perform pieces from their joint 2020 album Serena Latina.

The 21-song collection includes works by major purveyors of the genre such as Cuban Silvio Rodriguez and the late Carlos Guastavino, hailed as one of Argentina’s greatest composers.

Talk to The NationalVillazon says the concert is the best way to experience the moving material.

“The songs really touch your heart,” he says.

“They’re beautiful in the sense that they speak to some of the grief and sadness that we all feel. Of course there’s also happiness and joy in there, but it’s presented with a color different.”

A rich tradition

It was a project that was slow to arrive for Villazon.

For more than two decades, the tenor has been a sought-after performer in opera and recitals with performances at prestigious venues such as the Scala Theater in Milan and the Royal Opera House in London.

He is in addition to being a prolific artist, with more than 20 CDs to his credit, and an author with two published novels, including the first in Spanish in 2013. Malabars.

He describes Serena Latina and the resulting tour as tying all these threads together: the songs are story-driven and feature arrangements inspired by classical music’s greatest composers.

“It resembles the French chanson tradition in that they took the motifs of folk music and translated them into the language of classical music,” he says.

“With Latin American folk songs, great composers like [19th century composers] Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler came to the area and studied music and brought it back to Europe.

“Our concerts will feature both folk songs and classical works and I guarantee that in some cases you won’t know the real difference between the two.”

Bridging the two musical worlds is from Maistre.

As one of the world’s greatest harpists, he is credited with bringing new attention to the instrument as a guest soloist performing with such renowned orchestras as the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Philharmonie of Cologne and the Orchester National de France under the direction of the Italian master conductor Riccardo Muti.

Villazon says the 47-string instrument offers new ground to explore as a singer.

“The harp combines the best of piano and guitar and in that sense it has a richness that brings something special to this kind of music,” he says.

“Also the way Xavier plays is that he combines sensitivity and passion with incredible technique. So my voice had to find a way to combine with that and our rehearsal sessions were helpful.”

songs for our time

Expect more of these songs to be released with Serena Latina, the first in a planned trilogy of releases. Such an expansive approach is needed, says Villazon, to introduce the rich tradition to a new generation.

As live music events slowly return amid the pandemic, these songs of hope and survival provide a soundtrack to a world getting back on its feet.

“What I can say about Latin American songs is that there’s always this sadness close to the surface,” says Villazon.

“But in that hurt, there’s also light and humor. These songs ultimately show you a way forward.”

Rolando Villazon and Xavier de Maistre will perform at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Monday, October 18. The show starts at 8:00 p.m.; tickets from 100 Dh to cultural Participants over the age of 12 must be fully vaccinated and provide a negative PCR test result taken within 48 hours of the event.

Updated: October 17, 2021, 11:23 a.m.

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