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A revival with elegance

In a rare appearance, Viola Trigo explores the folksy lyricism of her late husband's work.

July 01, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Fans of popular Mexican music revere and remember the great figures of past eras. Pedro Infante and Javier Solis, to name just two, are part of a folkloric pantheon of departed stars whose music still stirs -- and sells. But there's one outstanding artist who has been overlooked in all the tributes and posthumous record releases. He was a guitarist and composer whose stage name rang as folksy and traditional as harvest bells from a village church: Guadalupe Trigo.

On Sunday at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center, about 200 fans were treated to a rare concert by the singer's closest companion and collaborator, his widow, Viola Trigo. At a time when traditional Mexican music seems to have hit an all-time low in creativity and class, Viola Trigo revived the exquisite elegance and lyrical beauty in the songs of her late husband and his contemporaries in the New Song movement of the '60s and '70s in Latin America.

The singer cut a regal figure on stage, resplendent in a traditional, embroidered huipil of creamy cotton and milky silk. Her jewelry was a fiesta of gold and pearl everywhere, including an oversized white rosary around her neck.

The neighborhood center, with its mission-style arches and embossed brass chandeliers, provided an appropriate Spanish-style ambience. In an interview after her warm and intimate performance, she expressed dismay at the current state of pop music in her country.

"Mexico is producing absolutely nothing of quality. Nothing," said the former ad producer and the voice of Mary Poppins in the dubbed Spanish-language version of the Disney film. "The talent is there, but what good is it if they're not allowed to surface? Young people don't know what else to do, so they make their own little records at home. It's so sad."

She said that the decline in good Mexican songwriting dates almost to the time she met her future husband at Mexico City's Club Ipanema in 1968, a year of political turmoil in Mexico.

Maria Viola Esperanza Tapia Flores was instantly struck by the exceptional guitar playing and expressive voice of the artist born Alfonso Ontiveros Carrillo. They fell in love and became inseparable, performing together until his death in a car crash in 1982 at age 40. In a career that spanned 10 years, Guadalupe Trigo recorded nine albums, all on RCA Victor Mexicana, all now hard to find. It's a body of work that almost single-handedly defined the era. Viola Trigo is considering a reissue of his first album and is planning to produce a new compilation of his songs with invited vocalists.

The show was her first in Southern California in 10 years. It was produced by Violeta Mendoza and her husband, singer Esteban Leon, who opened with an excellent set of Trigo compositions. The couple is also working on a new recording of Trigo songs, using pre-Hispanic instruments.

Viola Trigo was accompanied by a fine trio of local musicians, along with Mexico's Miguel Pacheco on salterio. (Luis del Angel also offered a well-received solo guitar interlude.)

The star reserved her husband's most famous number for the end. "Mi Ciudad" (My City), an ode to the Aztec capital co-authored by Eduardo Salas, is a classic, instantly recognizable from its swirling guitar introduction and evocative opening line: "Mi ciudad es chinampa en un lagoescondido" (My city is a floating garden in a hidden lake.) It goes on in a sweeping, impressionistic collage of the great city, which makes the spirit soar and ache.

"Some people say that if Guadalupe Trigo were alive in our city today, he'd die all over again," noted the graceful singer, who's lived in the crime- and smog-ridden capital for 40 years. But she expressed faith in a place so rich in historic sites and ethnic communities that it "identifies and edifies us as Mexicans."

It's that kind of optimism in the face of daunting social problems that marked her husband's work and that of his socially conscious New Song peers. Surprisingly, Viola Trigo focused much more on other top composers of the era, including Chabuca Granda from Peru and Violeta Parra from Chile. The choice reflected her sensitivity to criticism that she exploits her husband's legacy.

"Critics attack me all the time, saying I hide behind his music and who knows what else," she said during the interview, putting her hand to her forehead with a weary sigh. "Ay, no! How tiresome. I've had it up to here with them."

On Sunday she offered a unique and personalized treatment of several well-known standards, such as Granda's "Flor de la Canela" and Parras' "Gracias a la Vida." She made up for any frailties in her voice with a bold and elegant delivery, often altering tempos to extract deep feeling from the poetic verse. Her husband used that same innovative approach in revolutionizing Mexico's folklore.

"If he had lived, I think he would have given us many more surprises, because his music was always in the vanguard," she said. "He just needed more time."

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