Mixing his Latin accents

Boston Globe, November 27, 2010

NEW YORK – A small diaspora of new-generation Latin American singer-songwriters has recently gained critical mass: artists steeped in the folk music of their countries but also jazz, rock, and electronica, artists who seem most comfortable in places like New York, Barcelona, or Mexico City where the scene is ever-changing and full of expatriates.

Claudia Acuna from Chile, Lila Downs from Mexico, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis from Argentina, and Marta Gomez from Colombia are a few of these new-breed Latin troubadours who have made names for themselves in the past few years. But the well of talent runs deeper, and around these best-known artists are colleagues, friends, and accompanists who are also enriching this new school of Latin song.

Among them is Juancho Herrera. His guitar work has accompanied all four of the singers just mentioned as well as Jenny Scheinman and other genre-bending players in New York, where he has lived for a decade. But Herrera is a singer in his own right, with an eclectic and engaging 2006 album, “Buscando,” and an upcoming new one, “Banda,” in which he mixes a host of lesser-known South American folk rhythms with sweet and often playful stories, in Spanish and English, that carry an instant pop appeal.

A periodic visitor to Boston, where he studied at the Berklee College of Music in the mid-1990s, Herrera returns to the Beehive tonight in a trio with two close friends, Franco-American bassist Ben Zwerin and percussionist Yayo Serka, who hails from Tierra del Fuego.

Herrera is himself a kind of double migrant: Though he comes from Colombia, he grew up mostly in Venezuela, where his parents, like many other South Americans, were drawn to work during the 1970s oil boom. And although he never deliberately intended to stay in the United States, he has been here 17 years and is basically a New Yorker.

“The countries that we left don’t exist anymore,” Herrera says over cappuccino in Brooklyn. He means that their economies and cultures have changed from what these expatriate artists remember from childhood. The music he and his friends make has no choice but to be new.

That does not mean throwing out tradition, however. Quite the opposite.

“Latin America is a big melting pot,” Herrera says. “There are all these African traditions that were brought with the slaves, lots of indigenous groups; then you have flamenco, and of course music from the States. All these things can work together if you know the DNA of the rhythm. And that takes you into trying to understand the cultures.”

Though a guitarist, Herrera says he has learned the most by working with percussionists and trying to understand how rhythms work – what it is, both technically and emotionally, that makes a groove a groove.

“Once you understand a groove in its traditional form, you can understand how to mix it with another one,” Herrera says. “And so maybe you change an accent and you are in Colombia. Another accent and you’re in Brazil. Another and you’re in Puerto Rico, or Mali. Of course, you have to go deep into it.”

It’s this kind of research, he says, that can help fusions of Latin American music with pop, electronica, and other sounds gain depth and hold listeners’ interest – as well as his own.

“I don’t want to create something that is just a 4/4 beat with a bandoneon line on top of it,” Herrera says. “That’s fine, but imagine if you work with a carnavalito in 6/8, or a samba – that would be more interesting. I’m trying to figure out ways of doing music from Latin America with an electronic sound but that doesn’t trivialize all these relationships.”

Herrera credits his Berklee time – and specifically, his exposure to fellow students from around the world – for sparking his investigations. It’s been a rich payoff for what was basically a whim: He sent a demo tape to the school after seeing a brochure about it, and was surprised to find himself accepted with a full scholarship.

After graduating, he lived briefly in Spain before deciding that New York was the most promising place to do his work, in part because of all his fellow new-school South American musicians already there.

He doesn’t hesitate to call what they are making a movement.

“We have found all these common sounds and a healthy place to grow because all these people have played with each other in one situation or another,” he says.

“We are Latin Americans living in New York. We are not the person that lives in the fields in Venezuela singing to bring the cows back. We respect that a lot, and we get inspiration from it. But we can connect the dots.”