Carla Canales Navigates Cultural In-Betweens in “Duende”

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in October 2020, Mexican-American opera singer and arts advocate Carla Canales released her new album Duendewhich reimagines folk melodies originating from Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). Duende was inspired by Canales’ lifelong navigation of the space that exists between cultural identities; and getting to the root of García Lorca’s term “duende,” which alludes to deeply visceral and emotional responses to exceptional art.

Breathing new life into these 20th century works, Canales evokes elegant Andalusian classical music, 80s synthwave, alternative trip-hop and more in her exploration of style and genre that never fully settles. Canales, providing multifaceted vocals entirely in Spanish, is joined by violinist Christopher Otto, cellist Emily Dufour, pianist Joshua Cerdenia, multi-instrumentalist John Young, and co-producer Christopher Botta, who come together to orchestrate this journey of self-interrogation and reckoning with cultural “in-betweens” at the center of Canales’ work. 

Carla Canales--Photo by Alberto Caceres Zenteno

Carla Canales–Photo by Alberto Caceres Zenteno

Coalescing her interest in post-genre music and a successful classical voice career, Canales structures the album as though it were an opera with interludes, arias, and recitatives created from García Lorca’s songs. Her voice seamlessly transforms both between and within the different tracks, creating different characters throughout the record. Duende begins with exasperated breathing in “Arrival” as we are thrust into this imagined world before the rhythmic breaths slow into a cyclical but unsettling piano sequence in “Interlude 1.” The voice enters and leans into this feeling of harmonic uncertainty, but ultimately, the song is filled out by the uplifting entrance of a drumset beat and synthesizers.

The third track, “Las Morillas de Jaén” is stunning. One can begin to grasp the meaning of “duende” without even necessarily understanding the text through the artist’s ruminative sound painting. Canales’ stripped down, sultry voice shines especially on this track, supported by lush playing from Otto and Dufour. She successfully creates a cohesive sound that contends with flamenco pop artist Rosalía’s 2018 album El Mal Querer by combining ambient synth layers, solemn string countermelodies, and recitative that is entirely unique and intriguing.

An off-kiltered feeling runs through the heart of Duende. You never know just quite where you are situated, and the mood and atmosphere are constantly shifting. “Anda, Jaleo” is an instantly captivating track with clear hip-hop and sampling influences accompanied by unexpected but satisfying harmonic instrumental movement. A large crescendo led by the strings melts into drowsy vocals, glistening harmonics, and sighing figures. The vocals in “Interlude 2” are edgy and the beat is deep in the pocket–then, all is offset by ghostly melismatic vocal flourishes. Canales demonstrates the wide range and command of her voice with gritty vocal fry, breathy melodies, and operatic vibrato. While certainly a fun listen, the dance music-influenced “Interlude 3” is the stand-alone track on the record that loses the more direct ties to folk music. “Interlude 4,” on the other hand, retains some elements of recitative-like vocals, but perhaps overloads on stylistic ideas in a nostalgic but odd dreamscape. 

Carla Canales--Photo by Alberto Caceres Zenteno

Carla Canales–Photo by Alberto Caceres Zenteno

The production work on this album mustn’t go unnoticed. The smoky “El Café de Chinitas” shines a light on Young’s skills as this new “reinvented folk” sound is developed. Young fuses trap music’s hi-hats with affected Andalusian violin melodies, and transforms Dufour’s cello pizzicato to recreate a Spanish guitar as Canales exhales through the end of the song. The catchy single “Zorongo” (which also has an accompanying music video) is yet another hyperfluid track combining allusion to folky palmas, nods to today’s “hyperpop” music with sped up vocal samples, and lo-fi instrumentals/production techniques. “Nana de Sevilla” echoes this marriage of styles by bringing together similar stylistic fusions in a modern hymn. These combinations are central to Duende, and bring us back to Canales’ focus on understanding what it means to be a hyphenated American in 2020.

The last two tracks, “El Amor Es” and “Final Interlude,” shimmer with haunting beauty. We are brought full circle back to the sparseness of Cerdenia’s intimate piano playing, and a singular breath places a period on a fascinating voyage. Duende weaves together disparate vignettes and stylistic choices that call back to Canales’ fascination with things that live neither fully here nor there. She impressively merges the specific musical vernaculars of her past and present, and employs masterful vocal facility in order to create a refreshing record that feels entirely relevant in this moment of post-genre art that questions cultural identity and belonging in the landscape of an ever-fragmenting society.

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