You know times are challenging for a place when a benefit album comes out, and it needs to be explained that it’s not for the current catastrophe, but the last one. In the current moment of ubiquitous fundraisers to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Natalia Lafourcade‘s latest project is raising money for El Centro de Documentacion del Son Jarocho, a cultural center that was damaged by a devastating earthquake in 2017. She and other stars staged a benefit concert in Mexico City in November 2019 and have now released an accompanying album to help rebuild the center in her beloved home state of Veracruz.
Though Lafourcade rose to fame as a singer-songwriter of sophisticated modern popular music, she decided to do something fitting to the cause at hand and create an album that celebrates the folkloric music of Mexico. The album explores classic Mexican songs, beloved by generations, but also cleverly reconstitutes many of Lafourcade’s hits with varying degrees of traditional elements. The result is an earthy, rousing collection of songs brimming with heart and soul, yet also one with several moments of sublimely romantic music.
She starts with a big mariachi sound, singing “El Balaju/Serenata Huasteca”, two old Mexican tunes. The track begins with the ambient buzz of cicadas and other night creatures, but the son jarocho song, a traditional style of Veracruz, soon takes off to the picking and singing of Los Cojolites, who are then sent airborne by ebullient blasts of a chorus, strings, and brass. Lafourcade’s international hit “Nunca es Suficiente (Nothing Is Sufficient)” recreates the easy-going electro-cumbia version she did with the group Los Angeles Azules. Soaring over the groove, Lafourcade sings of unrequited love: ”It’s never enough for me / Because I always want more of you / Although you do me wrong, I want you here / My heart explodes with pain.”
The album’s first single is a newly written song, “Una Vida”, which is about embracing life for the good and bad. The song starts with a haunting, subdued electric guitar, then effortlessly slides into a lush production of strings, acoustic guitars, and mariachi brass flourishes, while Lafourcade’s versatile voice goes big: “There is only one life / To forgive us / There is only one life to give everything.” With swooning strings, Lafourcade refashions her lovely “Mexicana Hermosa” for a duet with Mexican singer and actor Carlos Rivera, accompanied by a tootling button accordion and folkloric stringed instruments.
The rousing anthem, “Un Derecho de Nacimiento”, was recorded in 2012 with other popular singers as a call to action as part of the #YoSoy132 youth movement. Here she collaborates with Panteon Rococo, a Mexican ska band. However, the result is not a ska song, but more in line with how she initially recorded it as a powerful crowd-chanting protest song calling for young Mexicans to become politically active and demand their human rights. “I was not born / Causeless / I was not born / Without faith / My heart strikes hard / To scream at those who don’t feel.”
The album also features several songs with lush, retro orchestrated arrangements, none more so than the recasting of Lafourcade’s duet with the late Mexican star Juan Gabriel, “Ya No Viver Por Viver (I no longer live to live)”. The swiftly but softly sung lyrics spill over with barely contained emotions: “Little by little, little by little, I fell in love / I couldn’t help it. I love you so much. I want to be yours. I am going to be yours / The greatest and sweetest love.” She also steams up her “Para Que Sufrir”, with glistening strings and wind instruments circling a whispery duet between Lafourcade and singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, a song about two lovers who find each other after a false start. “Why suffer if it is not necessary? / Why be cold if the world makes us feel at home?”
A perfect song for this project, her “Mi Tierra Verucruzana”, was originally done with a spirited small acoustic combo from her first “Musas” album. The lyrics, a paean to Veracruz, are filled with bittersweet longing for the sights and tastes of her home. Here she starts it delicately with a harp but builds on the inexorable rhythm to a grand sound with billowing strings, bright mariachi brass, woodwinds, and a children’s chorus.
Un Canto Por Mexico is a true labor of love: in making it, Lafourcade led with her heart and was elegantly guided by her refined musical intelligence. Buyers may be helping a good cause but will be treating themselves to a singular trip through a gorgeous musical landscape.