At the 2023 edition in Setúbal, Portugal of EXIB Música, the excellent annual expo showcase of music from Iberia and Latin America by consistently fine and engaging performers from both sides of the Atlantic, one who particularly charmed, a considerable discovery, was Mexican artist Laura Itandehui.
Though back home she often plays with other musicians, at EXIB she was solo, accompanying herself on guitar and, for one number when she walked among the audience in a lovely convent church venue, just a pair of claves. The Covid lockdown meant she couldn't work with others, and so her current fluent ease on nylon-strung guitar was the result of getting down to learning to play it during that period of enforced isolation.
This is her debut album, made just before lockdown. It features other musicians, but it has that same appealing directness and lightness of touch. The booklet notes, by guitarist and the album’s producer Gustavo Guerrero, accurately describe these eight songs as "canciones mexicanas honestas,” and her voice as "dulce y serena.” (Her surname, by the way, is of Zapotec origin – her family roots are in Oaxaca and Tampico – and means "flower that fell from the sky.”)
There’s a lovely clarity in the album’s sound, with her voice always floating clear and direct over beautiful, varied arrangements. It’s worth knowing what her lyrics say, though of course they sound better in Spanish, so I’ll translate some extracts from them.
It opens with that same claves-accompanied number, a rendition appropriate to its title “Yo no necesito de mucho” (‘I don’t need much’), in the son mexicano style (different from Cuban son). Her voice dances lightly around the sparse clave clicks, with lyrics the first verse
I don’t need much, so little do I need,
Other simple things of life follow, including "only two sticks to mark the clave, someone who inspires me, and a touch of voice.”
The airy, gently reflective “Trataré” brings in rippling guitars, then double bass, tenor sax, piano, congas and drums, as she sings:
I’ll try to look at the sky and,This is the first song she wrote. All on the album are her compositions, all with memorable melodies and largely in traditional musical forms from Mexico and its South American neighbours. The next track, “Ojalá me olvides,” is a bolero. The first verse says "I hope you forget me, you don't say my name again, and you don't remember the love I gave.”
“Días de tristeza” (‘Days of sadness’) takes full and clever advantage of a clash of Mexican regional styles. It begins with quiet humming to piano, clarinet and guitar before bursting unexpectedly into a chilena oaxaqueña (an uptempo musical genre from the Mexican coastal state of Oaxaca and its neighbours) with full band of guitars, bass, trumpet, baritone horn, sax, congas, timbal and drums, then switching tempo and style to the caressing vocal of a well-known Mexican genre, ranchera, with ranchera-typical ‘volver’ lyrics and characteristic mariachi band of slithering violin phrases, trumpets, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón bass. Then back to the chilena, and finally to the long-held high notes of the ranchera.
“Rancherita” is, as its title indicates, a ranchera, in a slow-trotting 2/4 rhythm, with the same mariachi band, Miguel Darío’s Mariachi Potros de México, plus Carmen Serrano on an instrument little used today in mariachis, the salterio (like a hammered dulcimer but picked, not hit).
There’s always one more door to leave by
“Tiempo al tiempo” begins as a reflective, rubato song with guitar, then snaps into rhythm and becomes a cha-cha-cha, using a melody by Venezuelan Augusto Bracho and an arrangement written and played by Spanish clarinettist Nacho Mastretta and Argentinian cellist Marina Sorín, with piano, guitar, clarinets, bass, percussion and a wordless, largely male vocal chorus of the sort that, in my mind at least, evokes the soundtrack of a film sequence, perhaps in an Italian film, of open-top motoring along a sunny Mediterranean coast. "I have to give time to time, I have to give time to the love that I feel is already there between us.”
More outreach across the Spanish-speaking world with “Queriéndote en silencio,” a waltz in chugging Peruvian style that alternates between in-tempo and stretched hovering, with guitars, vibrato organ, cajón and a honky tenor sax break.
I don’t know what I hope for, loving you in silence
The closer, “Cuido tu recuerdo’ returns to the simplicity of the opening song, a short caressing bolero with just her own guitar accompaniment.
I cherish your memory as a last gesture of loveLaura Itandehui presents us with short but perfectly formed album, with not a note wasted; a luminous, melodious gem that deserves to be a classic. I won’t blight her life by foreseeing stardom, but…