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A Cheerful Little Mystery

A full bio on Spanish singer Montserrat? No can do. The events of her past and subsequent rise to stardom are as much a blur as the Latin American style of genre-bending mashups that have catapulted her career. While recently talking via phone, she chatters on cheerfully about the production of her two albums, Añoranza (2005) and Boleros com Bossa (2006), and the importance of recognizing oneself as an artist whatever one's level of fame. Through all of this, one can't help but wonder if the reason she can't offer straightforward answers to biographical questions is the faulty connection to her adopted Brazil.

There was indeed a faulty connection two weeks ago, and hats off to Montserrat for never once losing that happy tone to her voice when New Times had to call back repeatedly. But the truth is, this silken-voiced bolero singer's been instructed not to discuss the details of her past or personal life. So how, pray tell, can you go about explaining Montserrat's recent move from complete anonymity to topping the charts in Latin America and Spain? Pop in one of her recent recordings and you'll be content to respect her privacy and focus instead on her music. It renders a retro '50s and '60s Latin lounge feel, but when she combines her impeccably smooth, syrupy voice with Brazil's winsome bossa nova on Spanish-language boleros such as "Bésame Mucho" and "Sabor a Mí," you get the feeling she'd be a hit in any generation.

What Montserrat can tell you is that she was born in the Canary Islands and raised by a mother who sang boleros around the house morning, noon, and night. Inspired by her mother's soothing song, Montserrat participated in a singing contest at age 12, but the real possibility of public performance didn't come until she was well into adulthood. Because of an insatiable desire to travel and study other cultures, she lived throughout Europe, Australia, and North and South America, spending years learning to sing opera with private tutors. These days, she divides her time living between Brazil, Spain, and Austria with her globetrotting Austrian husband. Four years ago, she left her private love affair with the opera for onstage success belting out sultry combinations of mostly Cuban and Mexican boleros to all sorts of Latin American beats.

She's been on a roll ever since, moving quickly from the studio to concert halls across Europe and Latin America and recently topping charts in Spain and Mexico. Her first album, Añoranza, featured performances alongside Cuban legends such as jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, contemporary troubadour Pablo Milanes, Buena Vista Social Club's Pío Leiva, and bolero king Mundito Gonzalez. Together, they mixed classics like the traditional song "Dos Gardeñas" with tango, the nueva trova number "Años" with old-school son, and "Tú Me Acostumbraste" with a slow, moody piano. The following year came Boleros com Bossa, which included arrangements by bossa nova master Roberto Menescal.

"I'd never really thought about popular song. It just kind of happened," she says. Back in Europe, she studied opera at home like an athlete, learning musical arrangements as though they were a game plan and rigorously working her vocal cords to belt out the melodrama. But when she took Brazil as her official place of residence 15 years ago, she was hard-pressed to find private opera instructors. In fact, it seemed some of Brazil's best music was quite spontaneous, often outside the realm of formal training. It wasn't until 2003 that she really began to recognize the potential of this loungy Latin fusion. As soon as she did, she turned herself into a musical entrepreneur, hiring a nine-piece band, a publicist, some businesspeople, and a musical director who helped her accommodate her voice, arrange the music, and lighten up on the stringent operatics.

"It was like a small business, a well-organized project of the heart and mind," she says.

It didn't take long for the negotiations to start coming. In fact, she says, she never struggled through club gigs to gain impetus for her first recording. Months after forming her project, she traveled to Cuba to use that country's musical legends as a sounding board. She immediately found herself putting that sound through the recording board at Valdés' home studio.

"I was really surprised by the Cubans' simplicity and sincerity. Chucho told me he was taking me to record with his band Irakere as though we were going off to eat hamburgers," she recalls. "It was a very dignified thing, where [famous] titles weren't what counted. I think I inspired trust and a deep desire to work and to take music seriously. They opened the doors to me in Cuba, and we worked for 15 intensive days."

In 2005, while attending a screening of a film about bossa nova, she was introduced to Menescal. He too was taken by her voice and serious enthusiasm for music appreciation.

"He's a man who only works with people he likes, and we were lucky that we really got along well," she explains. The night they met, Menescal decided he would compose all sorts of bossa nova arrangements to accompany her singing of traditional boleros, feeling that numbers such as "Contigo Aprendí," "La Mentira," and "Tú Me Acostumbraste" would be best interpreted by a native Spanish speaker like herself.

"For years, I searched for an authentic and unforgettable voice that would exhale femininity in order to make an album of bolero ballads with bossa nova arrangements," Menescal says via e-mail from Brazil. "I could not have wished for more when I heard Montserrat... [Her] voice fits like a sophisticated and smart glove."

Like bossa nova, bolero is rooted in an appreciation of life's emotional experiences, and Montserrat can certainly appreciate that. "I come from a very traditional background, and I was never educated to do things that weren't for pleasure," she says. It took her a while to learn to go with the flow of open-ended jam sessions, but adaptability comes easy to her. "I've integrated myself into so many countries, opening myself to the people, learning the language and the culture, and I think that's evident in my albums."

While her own musicians won't be able to accompany her on the U.S. leg of her tour, she's confident that South Florida's rich cultural fusion will help to streamline the sound she's created, as she performs with five local musicians for her U.S. debut. Other albums will be under way, but for right now, it's the communication of her music to the public that most intrigues her. "I want to spend this year with Bolero com Bossa in Spain, in Japan, in Germany — I want to connect with the public," she says.

The phone suddenly cuts out again, and this time, the call back doesn't work. No matter. Montserrat's enchanting voice still resounds sweetly from the CD player, and it will continue to do so until New Times can catch up with her at Saturday's performance.

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage

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