Ask a Latina about her ethnicity and you’re likely to get a complicated answer. Products of colonialism, most of us are mestizas, combinations of indigenous and European origin. It’s a culture with two feet planted firmly in each world. After all, there was no great diaspora — the border just changed on us. Many good things happened as a result: Spanglish, the guayabera and green chile cheeseburgers to name a few.
Another is the band Maria the Mexican, fronted by Irish-Mexican sister duo Tess and Maria Cuevas. The band’s sophomore release, South of the Border Moonlight, is a modern painting with an ornate antique frame.
For the Cuevas sisters, that historic embrace is a literal one, with a name: Kansas mariachi pioneer Teresa Cuevas. The sisters credit their abuela for starting their musical careers at age 11, when she put them on stage to sing and play guitar, violin and piano with her legendary band, Mariachi Estrella. When the women formed Maria the Mexican, she dutifully attended every performance until her passing in 2013.
Despite this strong family connection, the eight songs of South of the Border Moonlight were mostly written by Garrett Nordstrom, who the sisters hired to play mariachi guitar in 2011. Though generally in English, Nordstrom's lyrics carry the profound emotion and imagery for which Spanish music is legendary. Although some of the rhyming schemes are less than complicated, the Cuevas sisters breeze through embroidered rhythms and five-dollar words like the academics they are, having studied Spanish internationally.
At the beginning of the album, Jason Riley beckons us in with a modern Spanish rock guitar line, mimicking Tess and Maria's catchy melodic harmonies while Nordstrom's guitar grows around them like a vine. Tess's skillful, precise violin is the perfect lead-in for the sisters' haunting voices.
Local rock guitar hero Chris Meck soon takes control, his lead on “Of Burning Flame” (co-written by Gary Lind) a masterful tête-á-tête with the upbeat vocal line. And Eric Stark tears the page in half with his trumpet on “Que Yo Te Sigo,” one of two Spanish tracks, his classical interpretation of mariachi brass carefully cultivating nostalgic sorrow into bursts of scales.
The sisters inherited mariachi superstar diaphragms, which power the impeccable vibratos mourning an indecisive lover on the record’s sleek and jazzy title track, and lift their flawless harmonies on the last track, “One Eye” (co-written by Jason Mayberry). There, an accordion flits behind their sopranos like a well-dressed stranger trying to catch their attention on the street. A tight string section plays as one multi-faceted voice, while lyrical momentum – “There’s a crimson moon waiting while the sun is still around” – builds to a Roma-like folk tune. Another trumpet solo by Eric Stark would have helped the song reach a climax, but sometimes we’re all left wanting.
What we’re left with is a delightful amalgamation of culture, a record reaching through time and genre to pull from the best of both worlds. It's like popping a Corona, inserting a lime and listening to Abuela's advice. She has good taste.
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at email@example.com.