The strangeness of the recordings on Anda Jaleo does not emanate from the fact that Colorado-born English speaker Josephine Foster is singing twelve songs in Spanish. Nor is it due to the way in which her personal and professional partner Victor Herrero has chosen to accompany these Spanish folk songs with Portuguese guitar, estranging Iberian musics of various hues in the process. These facts may fuel the fires of purists wishing to lay claim to some kind of original, culturally defined purity in these words and this music, but that process was begun long ago, even before Federico García Lorca harmonized a number of songs he had collected in the 1920s in Spain then recorded them outside of Spain with dancer-cum-singer La Argentinita in the 1930s. Folklore, after all, is a living, mutating entity, rhizomatic rather than rooted in any single location.
No, the strangeness of Anda Jaleo comes with Foster’s voice. One is tempted to call up Joan Baez as a comparison to describe that borderline between shrillness and soprano clarity. Often tagged an outsider artist for her myriad and unpredictable projects, Foster, like Baez, could also be seen as being outside merely through vocal determination. There is often too much classical training on show for some folkiess. Yet when one listens to the original recordings of these songs, one realizes that what we’re hearing is a pretty good act of mimicry and vocal possession. Foster sounds uncannily like La Argentinita, whose voice is strange to us now due to the patina of time, to the fact that no one sounds like that anymore. Foster has done here what she did with her last album for Fire, where she voiced Emily Dickinson’s poetry in a manner that showed utmost fidelity to the poet’s hyphenated lines and nineteenth century rhymes.
Foster and band are wise to lead off with “Los Cuatro Muleros”, one of the standouts from the original set and also familiar to modern jazz fans via Charlie Haden’s quoting of the tune on Liberation Music Orchestra. Spanish guitar, whistles, and castanets give the song a charming irresistibility and the Herreros’ deep backing vocals counter Foster’s flighty lead brilliantly. Other tracks, such as “Los Pelegrinitos”, are more stripped down vocal-and-guitar readings, with Foster’s voice flitting in freak-folk sparrow mode from word to word, savoring each morsel. Throughout, her unconventional style retains a sense of outsider-dom, chasing away the idea of authenticity as a template to fit into with the more convincing plea of authenticity as originality. She doesn’t find the truth of the songs, for there is no truth to find. Instead, as each number is revived and caressed back into consciousness, we witness the discovery of new truths.
This is a brilliant set and one which, even as we enjoy it, can only leave us wondering what Foster, who has now done albums of children’s songs, psychedelic folk, German art song, American poetry, Spanish folklore, and much more besides, will do next.