El Otoño is here, and every year its chilly winds awake a desire for acoustic singer-songwriter music. I’m a sucker for anything under the indie-folk label, including, of course, artists who sing en español, with mostly acoustic arrangements and contemplative lyrics. Fall in most of Latin America may not be as postcard-friendly as it is in Chicago, but its music certainly lives up to the season’s standards. Whether you’re a fellow music-junkie constantly craving new tunes or you want to brush up on your Spanish comprehension, this selection of five contemporary Latin American singer-songwriters may be the perfect playlist for your calabaza spice latte.
Jorge Drexler (Uruguay)
One of my favorite musicians of all time, Jorge Drexler is perhaps best known outside of the Spanish-speaking world as an Academy Award winner for Best Original Song for his single “Al Otro Lado Del Río,” from the soundtrack to the film Motorcycle Diaries. However, this Uruguayan 54-year-old ear, nose, and throat doctor turned singer-songwriter boasts a two-decade-long musical career.
Drexler’s most recent album, Salvavidas de Hielo (Warner Music Latina, 2017), is a meditation on global interconnectedness lead by his acoustic guitar and a voice that often seems to speak more than sing. Sample its first song, “Movimiento,” a celebration of human migration played in the rhythm of a fast-paced South American milonga. We are all migrants, the song says, and it summarizes it best in its chorus: “what I dream is more mine than what I touch/ I am not from here, but neither are you.”
Contrast “Movimiento” with the album’s title track and closer, a real heartbreaker that Drexler sings in harmony with Natalia Lafourcade from Mexico. The phrase “quiet ranchera” doesn’t seem to make much sense in any other context than in this song, a melancholy lament of a lost love that lasted as long as “a lifesaver made out of ice.”
Marta Gómez (Colombia)
Every melody Marta Gómez sings feels like a hug. Known best for her warm vocal range, this Colombian singer-songwriter, guitarist, and Berklee alumna has opened concerts for stars like Bonnie Raitt and John Mayer. Her lavish acoustic arrangements, built over rhythmic backbones of several Latin American genres, support her signature singing style.
Check out the title track and opener of her album Este Instante (Aluna Music, 2015), where her voice blends with piano and flute notes that give way to a lush, syncopated 6/8 beat that feels like a warm breeze.
“Manos de Mujeres,” from the same album, is an ode to female resilience, sung over a percussion pattern somewhere between Cuban son and cumbia. Gómez teams up with Spanish jazz/flamenco singer Martirio and Andrea Echeverri, lead voice of Colombian pop rock powerhouse Aterciopelados. The trio sings a heartwarming tribute to women everywhere: “hands that tremble, hands that sweat/ hands of earth, corn, and salt/ hands whose touch marks the soul/ hands of blood, wind and sea.”
Silvana Estrada (Mexico)
Mexican singer-songwriter Silvana Estrada composes at an intersection I have always adored: jazz and folk music. Born in Veracruz to classical musicians and luthiers, she has always been surrounded by music, and it shows in her debut full-length Lo Sagrado (30 Amp Circuit, 2017), created with her band Ciudad de las Flores, as well as jazz guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter.
Estrada loves composing in 5/4 time, and I have nothing but praise for that. Listen to “Pena Lunar,” with an upright bass that paves the way for her unique high-pitched voice, sort of like if Joanna Newsom sang in Spanish.
Hunter’s electric guitar then freestyles over the trance-inducing irregular beat that segues into the next track, “El Agua y la Miel,” a tune with the spirit of a folk song, but the rhythmic precision of academic jazz.
Nano Stern (Chile)
His long mane may make him look like a 1970’s metal-head, but Nano Stern is one of the most vibrant singer-songwriters in Chile today. Stern combines his deep, mellow voice with solid guitar riffs over South American rhythms like chacarera and zamba (which is different from samba, by the way).
His EP Santiago (NSP, 2017) is basically an operetta dedicated to his hometown. Sample “Abramos los ojos,” a track in 7/8 time (you can tell I love irregular time signatures) where he shows off his skills not only on guitar, but also on a Swedish nyckelharpa, played somewhat like a violin with a bow.
Let that track flow into “Voz de Cristal,” for a contrasting, yet equally satisfying melody. The warm, wooden notes of acoustic guitar, charango, violin, and Andean bombo create the perfect musical frame for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the endless urban grid, as Stern himself sings in the first lines: “I have a secret corner in the middle of the city/ where I breathe calmly, and embrace clarity.”
Ine Güemes (Argentina)
Ine Güemes has a distinctive voice, one where you can feel the vibrato of a flamenco singer and the calm, yet with a volume ideal for a lullaby. However, what I like the most about this Argentine singer-songwriter is how she makes her guitar sing as beautifully as she does.
Her sophomore album Corazón de Alcaucil (Self-produced, 2016) is a journey through all sorts of genres, from bossa nova to ragtime and swing. However, she sounds best in folk-inspired songs, such as album opener “Lo Natural,” a sonically rich track where vocal harmonies combine perfectly with warm guitar arpeggios.
Güemes is an exceptional singer, but her instrumental work is just as impressive. Let yourself go with “Desvelo,” an Andean-style melody where her guitar takes center stage. It’s like she knows we love how the instrument’s deep notes resonate and she doubles down on them. It’s wonderful.