Nueva Canción Connects in America:
Latin Ensemble Sol y Canto Sings of Hope from Here to the Moon
The origins of Latin roots music ensemble Sol y Canto are in musical hope-making. Founders Brian and Rosi Amador’s musical collaboration began when they joined a peace expedition to Nicaragua; American artists going to perform and to witness what was really happening there in the 1980s. “We were struck by so many people living in extreme poverty, in dangerous and horrible conditions,” says composer and guitarist Brian, “and still they were able to smile and laugh and dance and sing.” The couple fell in love on that trip and committed themselves not only to coming home and telling fellow Americans what was happening in Nicaragua, but in carrying on the message of hope in adversity.
That spirit lives on with their latest recording, Cada Día un Regalo (Each Day a Gift). The album combines original compositions about social justice and love—including a precious lullaby written for the Amadors’ twin daughters—with a couple of hand-selected classics from Latin America and Cuba. The overall effect is inspirational, as if Eckhart Tolle—the Oprah-endorsed self-help philosopher who advocates living in the moment—joined Nueva Canción, the 1960s and ’70s pan-Latin movement that united poetry, music-making, and grassroots social consciousness. None of this is new for Sol y Canto.
“We make music that is authentic, that speaks to people and connects us,” says Brian, who was born and raised in New Mexico. “It’s like when people turned on the radio in Chile and heard songs in English, and said, ‘That does not reflect our reality.’ It’s about people taking up musical arms to express their own realities, not the reality being fed to us.”
Upon their return from Nicaragua, the Amadors made a name playing at benefits and demonstrations for America’s Latin American solidarity movement. Out of that came their life mission of sharing the cultures of Latin America and bringing together audiences that include a diversity of people of Latino descent and those of other heritages.
Along the way, Sol y Canto built a dedicated base of fans who tell profound stories of the effect of the Amadors’ music. One man buys every album they release, remembering that their first cassette in 1986 saved his marriage. “He came up to me at an intermission and held my hands,” remembers Rosi, the group’s lead singer. “He said ‘I was commuting far away from my wife. I would play your album, and this is what kept my marriage together. I listened to those lyrics and I knew we would make it through an incredibly rough spot.’ I was in tears by the end of the conversation.”
Another fan called and said “I want you to know how much your music means to me. My child has a developmental disability and the only thing she responds to is music, specifically your CD. She is able to focus and look at me and be happy and listen to what I say. It is so clear that it is your voices, your rhythms. Everything you put into the CD.”
Sol y Canto walks a fine line between the exotic and the familiar. Is it Latin music or folk music? Is this a Buddhist message or a universal one? Their concerts draw diverse crowds; Latinos of all backgrounds, and non-Latinos alike. “Ultimately, I feel the most important thing is the connection,” says Rosi, who moved to the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico as a teenager. “The connection between what we are singing and as often as possible, the universal message. Everyone can relate to these messages, no matter where they came from.”
“Woody Guthrie famously said that he hates any song that makes you feel like you are nothing,” says Brian. “Music is something that exists at the core of everybody. That’s where it’s coming from: something that everybody can share.”
About the Songs
Like much of Sol y Canto’s fifteen years of performance, Cada Día un Regalo draws on a variety of Latin musical traditions. “Como Volar” is an instrumental based on a Venezuelan merengue rhythm in five. “Beso Discreto” is a humorous take on the old 1930s and ’40s favorite by the Cuban singing sensation Miguel Matamoros. The band enlists the audience to join the chorus of rhythmic, lip smacking kisses. Sol y Canto’s version of the widely recognized Mexican song “La Llorona” starts off with an instrumental version of the popular song “Gracias a la Vida” by Chilean folklorist and singer Violeta Parra.
Sol y Canto also tackles heavy social and political issues, but in a genuine, hopeful way. Original composition “La Colmena” (which means The Beehive) is a humorous allegory of democracy in the U.S. “It seemed like a good idea to get rid of the queen,” Brian explains the lyrics. “Now the ones in charge are the drones. They don’t produce honey, they don’t fight the wars. They kept the royal jelly. We see the downfall of the metropolis because they’ve taken all the propolis.” The song “Ojo por Ojo” (An Eye for an Eye), about the cycle of vengeance and retribution, ends with the refrain from which the album’s title derives: “Each life a miracle, each day a gift.” “Credo” rails against fundamentalism of any stripe: “Again they impose their beliefs, again they disguise them as science, again they reinterpret history, as always, they promise heaven.”
Their songs can also have a more personal side. “‘Hasta La Luna’ is a love song for our daughters, which I wrote when they were tiny,” Brian explains, “It says, ‘To the moon, the stars, the planets, the skies; that’s how much I love you today and forever. Look at the moon and you’ll know.’ It was based on something we always told them at night. I turned it into a song. I love the space imagery to describe the endlessness of a parents’ love for their kids.”
“When he first played it for me,” says Rosi, “I started weeping in the living room, thinking, ‘How am I ever going to sing this?’ On the one hand, it is a way to share our love, but ‘even when I am not with you…’ that sends me to a future when I am not here. And it hurts me to think of them without me. But they will always have this song.”
All of these messages—from the political to the personal, from the traditional to the original—come together in “Manifiesto,” a song that was written by the seminal Chilean Nueva Canción figure Victor Jara. At every concert someone comes up and asks which album this song was on, so Brian and Rosi knew it was time to include it on the new album. “It’s about your reasons for singing,” says Brian. “‘I don’t sing just to sing, or because I have a good voice. I sing because the guitar has feeling and reason.’”
Sol y Canto draws on Mexican, Pan-Latin, and even Buddhist philosophies that celebrate life and keep us connected to our past. Brian—a self-described “New Mexican Chicano crossed with Heinz 57”—draws motivation from three widely varied heroes. He cites Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration who dedicated himself to making people happy, in spite of his own difficult life. Then there is Nelson Mandela, who Brian says “came out of a lengthy unjust prison sentence not embittered, but dedicated to forgiveness and reconciliation.” About Afro-Cuban singer Miguel Matamoros, who composed “Beso discreto” (track 8), Brian says, “It would have been very difficult for a Black guy in Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s to make a living as a musician. But in spite of that he produced an incredible body of music.”
Rosi—a Puerto Rican of Argentinean Jewish descent—cites inspirations closer to home. Her mother gave up a lucrative Broadway career to perform in the USO alongside Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Dean Martin during World War II. “She told me about having to wash herself using a combat helmet filled with water,” remembers Rosi. “She spoke about the adversity and the exhilaration she felt singing for people fighting for something she believed in. She knew that was her place. She even received an award from General Patton for being the woman entertainer who stayed abroad the longest in Europe.” After the war, she made a name for herself as a film and theater actress in Mexico, starring alongside Cantínflas, the beloved comic actor sometimes referred to as the “Mexican Chaplin.” Back in the U.S., she toured nationwide, singing and dancing in variety shows.
Though under different circumstances, war and politics played a central role in Rosi’s musical career. The Amadors met in the early ’80s on a trip to Nicaragua, considered at the time a rogue nation by the U.S., when they participated in a cultural exchange group of artists. It was love at first sight. The emotional experience only intensified as the group traveled through Nicaragua and saw the smiling, laughing faces of local residents despite the extreme poverty, danger, and difficulty.
Appreciating Life in the Face of Death: Noche de Muertos
Rosi lost both of her parents within two recent years. Last fall, on the exact anniversary of her father’s death (to the minute), she found herself with Brian and their band Sol y Canto performing two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York as the live musical portion of “Noche de Muertos: Welcoming the Ancestors Home,” a multi-media performance celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The two were taken by how powerful the holiday was for reconciling feelings of loss for loved ones with an appreciation of what they brought to our lives.
“I wish I had something like this in the middle of my grief,” says Rosi. “It would have been a wonderful gift for me to do something like this. It really struck me what a beautiful tradition it was.”
Or to put it in the words of the poet Octavio Paz, “To the people of New York, Paris, or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, visits it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
Cada Día Un Regalo includes some of the songs Brian wrote for “Noche de Muertos.” “Imagen de Ti” (“Image of You”) is about “having an image of this person that is never erased, how they are still living inside of you,” explains Brian. “When I was writing this song, I thought about people really close to me that I lost. What would I say to them if I could?” He thought of Rosi’s parents; of Kavous, an Iranian guitar student who became a close friend; of Sylvie, a friend from music conservatory whose incredible attitude allowed her to battle cancer much longer than anyone expected.
As their latest album unfolded, the Amadors realized that their messages of hope, of appreciating life, fit well with the message of the Day of the Dead. Brian recalls an interview with a Buddhist monk who claimed that the secret to happiness was to spend five minutes a day thinking about death. “What I took away from that is the idea that death is not something we have to avoid speaking of or being aware of. It’s a part of life, you need to accept it. Be aware of the temporariness of your life. That is the only way you can live it fully.”