When jazz singer Magos Herrera takes the stage tonight at the Ordway, she won't be trying to channel any of the great voices of her genre's majestic tradition, as much as she admires them.
Instead, the acclaimed international star will draw inspiration from a little known tradition of her native Mexico — African roots that go back centuries.
Mexicans celebrate a largely Spanish and indigenous culture. But Herrera said the unexplored musical contributions of Mexicans descended from African slaves are what is called the third root.
"It's something that even in Mexico we're not aware of," Herrera said. "There was a very important immigration from Africa when the Spaniards came. This culture remained in the Gulf of Mexico and also a little bit in Guerrero in the Pacific coast. But for some very complex reason they didn't actually mix with the rest of the culture."
Herrera is on tour to promote her latest CD, Mexico Azul, a lush recording of songs from the 1930s to 50s. It was the golden age of Mexican cinema when some of the country's greatest composers wrote beautiful songs, tunes that spoke to African culture.
The album includes a tune that many in the United States recognize — "Angelitos Negros," interpreted by Roberta Flack in the 1970s. The song asks why blacks are never recognized. Herrera said the question is still pertinent in Mexico.
Mexico Azul isn't a nostalgic album. Instead, it presents a new vision of a beautiful Mexican repertoire, one that honors and celebrates the nation's African influences. It includes tunes by Mexican masters Agustin Lara and Alvaro Carrillo. Herrera said both incorporated the third root in a very elegant way.
Born in Mexico City, Herrera grew up listening to boleros and Cuban trova. She also has long liked Brazilian popular music and jazz standards. But she didn't realize she wanted to be a singer until some 20 years ago.
While studying fashion design in Italy, Herrera saw a woman scatting at a jazz festival. Taken by the idea of improvising with the voice, she decided after the concert to study music. Jazz was her only choice.
"I love jazz singers because they actually approach the voice as an instrument, and that's a very challenging, beautiful thing," she said.
Herrera bends notes with syncopation, much as a horn player would.
Four years ago, Herrera moved to New York City, where she recorded Distancia, an album drawing on the blues that includes songs of longing. It won her acclaim as a rising international voice in jazz.
Some jazz fans might be surprised to learn that Mexico has a thriving jazz scene, albeit it a small one. But Herrera said there are a number of great jazz musicians in her homeland, and dedicated fans.
"We're in a process of course," she said. "It's not like the U.S. or in Europe but I think we have more young musicians that love jazz and they're serious about it and they're studying."
Herrera has nothing against her country's rich folkloric tradition, but thinks its time for the musical heritage of blacks on her nation's Pacific and Gulf coasts to receive its due — and its rightful place in the national cultural expression.
It's especially time to honor the composers who rescued Mexico's "Africanism," Herrera said of the great poetic lyricists she honors on Mexico Azul.
"I definitely believe if we start exploring more this third root we can help Mexican music evolve in a different direction," she said.
Herrera also includes in her repertoire two moving tunes by composers from the Afro-Antilles, "Obesion" by Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores and "Dos Gardenias," by Cuban composer Isolina Carrillo. The selections are a nod to composers from the two islands who joined their Mexican counterparts in Mexico, enriching Mexican music in the process.
In concert, Herrera will perform in Spanish, Portuguese and English. She plans to explain the songs and their stories. But she's not worried about that a language barrier will keep her from reaching her audience.
"They understand that jazz is... a very organic thing," she said.
David Cazares can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org