Simple Idea, Spooky Result: Latin American Ballads Get A Ghostly Makeover

Aug 24, 2016
Originally published on August 24, 2016 4:23 pm

Los Angeles musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker had a problem: A few years ago, he was asked to tackle the weighty subject of Latin American modernism in sound. His response was to invent a new persona, and to restrict himself to a spare and specific set of tools. Under the new name Frankie Reyes, he set off to record a dozen instrumental versions of Spanish-language ballads and waltzes from the 1930s through the '60s, using only a vintage analog synthesizer.

The resulting album, Boleros Valses y Mas, is a novelty record in the best sense of the term: making something new and unusual by mining older songs and technologies. If you're familiar with the original songs, you'll notice that Reyes isn't doing anything dramatic with his arrangements. The Oberheim synthesizer isn't even that old — it hit the market in the late '70s. But in using it to remake these standards from generations earlier, Reyes disrupts our sense of where, and especially when, these songs first came out.

One of my favorite things about Boleros Valses y Mas is how every listen inspires new metaphors to try to describe it. So far, I've come up with: "It's from an old Puerto Rican sci-fi movie soundtrack," or, "It's what you'd hear during a graveyard carousel ride," or, "It's what a band might play if your quinceañera happened to fall on the Day of the Dead." And though those all work to a degree, the magic and mystery of Frankie Reyes's sound always feels just outside the realm of description, but well within that of imagination.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Los Angeles musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker had a challenge. A few years ago, he was asked to tackle the weighty subject of Latin American modernism in sound. His response was to invent a new persona, Frankie Reyes. And he set off to record a dozen instrumental versions of Spanish-language ballads and waltzes from the 1930s through the 1960s. He used only a vintage analog synthesizer. The result is the album "Boleros Valses Y Mas," and reviewer Oliver Wang says it is both gorgeous and ghostly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANKIE REYES SONG, "ALMA, CORAZON Y VIDA")

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: The central conceit behind Frankie Reyes' his new album was take a handful of classic Latin American slow jams and remake them using an Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer - simple idea, spooky result.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANKIE REYES SONG, "ALMA, CORAZON Y VIDA")

WANG: If you're familiar with the original songs, you'll notice that Reyes isn't doing anything dramatic with his arrangements. For example, this is the hit 1940s version of the Mexican ballad, "Flor De Azalea."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOR DE AZALEA")

JORGE NEGRETE: (Singing in Spanish).

WANG: And here's what it sounds like translated through the Oberheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANKIE REYES SONG, "FLOR DE AZALEA")

WANG: "Boleros Valses Y Mas" is a novelty record in the best sense of the term - making something new and unusual by mining older songs and technologies. The Oberheim synthesizer isn't even that old. It hit the market in the late 1970s. But in using it to remake these standards from generations earlier, Reyes disrupts our sense of where and especially when these songs first came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANKIE REYES SONG, "ESPINITA")

WANG: One of my favorite things about the album is how every listen inspires new metaphors to try to describe it. So far I've come up with - it's from an old Puerto Rican sci-fi movie soundtrack. Or it's what you'd hear during a graveyard carousel ride. Or it's what a band might play if you're quinceanera happened to fall in the Day of the Dead. Those all work to a degree, but the magic and mystery of Frankie Reyes' sound always feels just outside the realm of description but well within that of imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANKIE REYES SONG, "LA PUERTA")

SIEGEL: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State, Long Beach, and he's author of the book "Legions Of Bloom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.