Houston Music

Barandúa / Sisters Morales

The last 20 years have seen an explosion in Latin cooking in Houston. Where once we had only Tex-Mex, today Houstonians can choose from a score or more south-of-the-Rio styles, and several that straddle borders. And now that diversity is spilling over into local music, as these two discs attest. Sisters Morales represents the old guard, Barandúa the new.

The members of Barandúa come from Mexico, Spain, Ecuador and Argentina, and it shows on their pan-Latin fusion album. Though they call themselves "Latin folk pop/flamenco," that description is both inaccurate and incomplete. On the one hand, they are much more than some watered-down local answer to the Gipsy Kings, as bossa nova, salsa, bolero and zamba argentina also come in for the Barandúa treatment. On the other hand, the album is far too cosmopolitan-sounding to comfortably fit under the word "folk."

The band is led by brother and sister Carlos and Maria Francisca Gonzalez Rimbau. The guitarists are the children of two famous Spanish musicians: the soprano Maria Rimbau and opera and zarzuela composer Carlos Arjita. (Carlos's son, Carlos Gonzalez Blum, guests on the album on flamenco guitar.) Luis Montes de Oca, of Mexico, plays the zampona (Andean pan pipes), and the quintilingual Patti Gras handles the lead singing (in Spanish, Portuguese and un poquito de English) while pounding out the beats on a variety of South American contraptions that boom, rattle and hiss.

The instrumentation on these 13 original tunes may be folksy, but the overall vibe is not. Neither is it very American, North or South. Instead, the album reminds one of Spain -- of the Rioja-soaked marcha (nightlife) of Madrid or Seville rather than that of Bogotá or Houston. At times, the effects are jarring. Playing pan pipes on a flamenco tune is the Latin equivalent of bagpipes in the blues, and though it carries off that particular piece of fusion pretty well, Barandúa could benefit by narrowing its scope a touch. Sometimes it seems like it's trying too hard to break down borders -- as when an overzealous Latin fusion chef serves up, say, plantain fajitas slathered in coconut habañero salsa. While it's never boring, it's not always tasty.

Sister Morales's Para Gloria is far more traditional and localized. This disc could come from only one place: the Tex-Mex borderlands. Since relocating to San Antonio a couple of years ago, the former local girls have obviously been simmering in the caldo of the Alamo City's culture, and this disc is the aural equivalent of a meal in that city's mercado -- not entirely authentic, but comforting, delicious and none too challenging.

All of the material here is Mexican, save for "Algo Tonto." And yes, it's the same "Something Stupid" made famous by the Sinatras. Here, a knowledge of Spanish is a curse. It's better to not understand those lyrics -- some of the cheesiest known to man.

Eleven backing musicians -- playing guitar, guitarron, accordion, violin, trumpet, vihuela and percussion -- drop in on the Morales ladies' first all-Spanish-language album. Dedicated to their mother, it features 11 of her favorite songs -- mostly traditionals and standards from the middle of the last century. It's not hard to guess where the sisters got the idea. In 1987, fellow Tucson native Linda Ronstadt did much the same thing with her Canciones de Mi Padre.

While they share similar guiding spirits, this album feels less like that one than it does Los Lobos' La Pistola y el Corazon, though it lacks that album's fiery instrumental brilliance. Not every band can have a David Hidalgo…

Still, Lisa and Roberta's swelling, gorgeously lush blood harmonies -- check out "Gugurrugugú Paloma" and "La Media Vuelta" for cases in point -- almost make up for that. And songs like the Jalisco-style mariachi tune "El Jilguerillo" ("The Goldfinch") could make the dead dance.

Bottom line: If you're a fan of Café Red Onion, go for the Barandúa. If Ninfa's or Irma's is more your speed, Para Gloria is the ticket.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax