Nena Guzman can command a band with her voice, but hers probably isn’t the voice that pops to mind when you think of “commanding voices.” Her voice doesn’t have the bright edge of a trumpet or the dry husk of a drill sergeant. In fact, her timbre barely lends itself to descriptors, so thoroughly does it disappear into its work of song-leading. Down low she’s declamatory, murmuring just to you and/or some dude; up high she’s sweet and clear, a little like Debbie Gibson. Even her long notes, a singer’s usual vehicles for savoring her voice, appear for their musical utility. In the banda ballad “60 Segundos”, the lead single from Guzman’s third and best album La Iniciativa, Guzman deploys the odd long note only to complete the song’s title or give emphasis to certain phrases. What she really loves to sing are words. Words contain syllables, you see, and syllables are the building blocks of rhythm, and by manipulating her rhythm Guzman telegraphs her intentions to the band.
This is especially true on the songs she sings with a smaller norteño quartet; apart from “60 Segundos”, her big band songs are wind-up toys that would keep going with or without Guzman. On the smaller songs, though, she handles the formidable task of holding the band together so they don’t go reeling through the studio walls. Each of the four instrumentalists — an anonymous Del Records house band — plays his or her own line with the maximum amount of improvisation allowed by musical law, and it’s Guzman’s job to make sure they get a song out of the mess.
“La Ruleta”, a whirligig of a waltz, is actually two waltzes in one. During the bedlam of the verses, Guzman’s voice is the mortar smoothing over the accordion’s flights of fancy and the tuba’s stinging hemiolas. Throughout La Iniciativa, accordion and tuba are mixed louder than drums and bajo sexto; they play in counterpoint to Guzman. Then everything stops — breath — and Guzman introduces the new chorus tempo, pounding out the phrase “So-lo una co-sa te digo” — “One thing I say”. From there the music slows down, grows more stable. Guzman depicts the vagaries of fate and love as a spinning roulette wheel, demonstrating her point with the long word “vueltas” turning gorgeously across two full measures, sweet and clear and devoid of vibrato. Before long, she sings the band into their next verse, and we’re off and running again.
Like most of these tunes, “La Ruleta” is a love song. In the past Guzman has focused on corridos, but La Iniciativa contains only a couple of those. (“Las Plebes Mandan Ahora” and “Guzman” race past in the same key, guns blazing.) Guzman is unusual, though hardly unprecedented, because she’s a woman who sings norteño. Just watch her on the variety show Estudio 2, leading her all-male band through “La Intrusa” while bikini-clad women dance in the background, to see how her genre’s default setting is “male gaze.” Yet the Estudio 2 audience is full of female fans, and Guzman sees La Iniciativa as an album “totalmente para la mujer.” “At the end of the day I’m a woman, I like everything that has to be sensitive, romantic, and I think that’s part of being a woman,” she told the paper La Opinión.
Guzman wrote three of these love songs, and her music’s better than her words — aside from the one where she plays the Other Woman and winks to her cuckqueaned rival, “I’m your assistant.” (Ouch.) Musically she’s in pop territory, throwing flatted chords and blue notes into melodies that showcase her two distinct vocal registers. Her lyrics aren’t all that interesting — but hey, neither are Luciano Luna’s, the omnipresent hit songwriter who contributed Guzman’s title song. (His tune’s not much, either.) Whether she’s singing someone else’s song or one of her own, like the list song “Olvidaste”, Guzman treats words like musical possibilities. They’re devices that let her push ahead of the beat or drag behind it. In her appealing voice, with this amazing band, the songs yield to her wishes.