By June Carolyn Erlick
When I was nine or ten, I learned to pick out two songs on the piano. One was “Jingle Bells.” The other was “Que Sera Sera.” My mother hummed that song a lot, and I always associated it with the tales of tropical breezes and colonial forts of my parents’ honeymoon in Cuba and Mexico.
Latin music trickled into my early life. “I Love Lucy” with the Cuban orchestra leader Ricky Ricardo as Lucy’s husband brought an incessant infusion of mambo and other lively tunes into the living room. And then there was Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” whose rhythms I couldn’t keep out of my head. Harry Belafonte and his Caribbean calypso songs also formed part of my emerging Latin soundscape.
One of my absolutely favorite songs—“Lemon Tree,” sung by Mexican-American crooner Trini Lopez—was based on a Brazilian folk song “Meu limão, meu limoeiro,” arranged by Jose Carlos Burle in 1937 and made popular by Brazilian singer Wilson Simonal.
In time, my own personal soundscape blended many influences, Latin and non-Latin. The first trip I ever took to a Spanish-speaking destination was to the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico in 1967. The sounds of the festival were purely classical, but my memories also hold the street sounds of salsa, plena and bomba.
Music is integral to my life experiences. Mercedes Sosa’s “Gracias a la Vida” is inextricably entwined with graduate school and protests against the Vietnam and Cambodian wars. I moved to Colombia in 1975, and soon discovered vallenato music, country accordion music, long before it became popular in urban circles. My friends in Bogotá thought I was absolutely crazy when I traveled to Valledupar for the annual Vallenato Legend Festival in 1977.
“Nicaragua, Nicaragüita” by Carlos Mejía Godoy provided the sweet backdrop to the hopes of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, my first experience in covering war and revolution as a young reporter. And on and on I went, creating my own soundscape through the decades.
We all have these soundscapes, a mix of tunes and sounds that provide the musical backdrops to our lives. As I prepared this issue of ReVista on music (which doesn’t pretend to cover every country and every genre), I realized just how varied Latin music is—ranging from experimental music on cactuses to bachata to boleros and nueva trova and so much more.
When I started to write this editor’s letter, I decided to google the dates on “Que Sera Sera.” Much to my surprise, I found it wasn’t a Latin song at all. The song was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston because Doris Day needed a lullaby for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock wanted a foreign title because her screen husband Jimmy Stewart was a doctor who loved to travel.
The phrase “que será, será” came from the movie The Barefoot Contessa, in which the protagonist’s family motto was “che sera, sera.” The motto in the film was Italian, but Evans and Livingston switched the “che” to “que” because more people spoke Spanish in the United States.
That was a very tenuous Latin connection, I thought. I’d have to start my editor’s letter from scratch. But the next night I went to Villa Victoria in Boston’s South End to hear the Colombian group Gregorio Uribe Big Band and his Cumbia Universal. The audience was dancing when he started to play the Beatles’ “Come Together” to a distinctly cumbia rhythm. If you can play the Beatles to cumbia, why not fall in love with an imaginary Latin tune? After all, that mixing and matching is what soundscapes are all about.