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Miramar at Stanford Bing Concert Hall

In Music
SWEET SADNESS: Richmond's Miramar bring the beauty of the bolero alive, relentlessly tugging heartstrings all the way.

SWEET SADNESS: Richmond's Miramar bring the beauty of the bolero alive, relentlessly tugging heartstrings all the way.

Miramar’s musical knowledge is staggering. Over the course of an hour, pianist Marlysse Simmons Argandona and singer Reinaldo Alvarez cover classical, salsa, reggae, tropicalia and bossa nova.

But what they really want to talk about is boleros.

“To me, the bolero is the ultimate expression of joy, and the ultimate expression of sadness,” says Reinaldo Alvarez, one of the Richmond, Virginia, group’s two singers. “It’s a celebration of sadness, a sadness that’s almost necessary to life. And it’s a celebration of the love, the mad love you have to go through to get to that one dream love.”

In other words, the bolero is romance personified. A ballad form originating in Cuba in the late 1800s, it is slower and more contemplative than salsa, and exalts the tumultuous side of love, wringing it for all its emotional weight in songs of great loss and want.

Like goth, emo and trip-hop music (and as a predecessor to all three), the bolero finds catharsis in the deep end of the human spirit, and it quickly struck a chord across all of Latin America. After emerging in Cuba, boleros spread throughout Puerto Rico and Mexico, into Central and South America, as musicians all over the western hemisphere took up the form.

Among them, one composer stands out: Puerto Rican songwriter Sylvia Rexach.

“She’s a pretty amazing woman,” Simmons Argandona says. “She only released one album, but her name is known because other musicians performed her songs a lot.” So much so that in 2001, Rexach was posthumously inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. Along with composing boleros, Rexach wrote screenplays for radio, joined the U.S. Army during WWII, and formed Las Damiselas, the first all-female group in Puerto Rico.

But outside of Puerto Rico, her name is hardly known. In fact, when Miramar began choosing which boleros to cover, Simmons Argandona didn’t even know who she was.

“I grew up knowing about boleros, but not the ones Miramar does,” says the group’s pianist, who is first generation Chilean American. “Rei is an avid record collector and DJs on the side, so he had a lot of records of Puerto Rican bolero albums, and they were performing a lot of Sylvia Rexach songs. We were discovering these songs and realizing it was all her.”

Soon they found themselves with a list of boleros comprised mostly of Rexach works, songs like “Alma Adentro,” an homage to Rexach’s deceased brother, which, on Dedication to Sylvia Rexach, takes on a timeless quality thanks to the gently purring organ part played by Simmons Argandona.

In addition to covers of Rexach boleros, Dedication to Sylvia Rexach also features three originals by Miramar, songs that are woven seamlessly in with the selection of tunes from the mid-20th century. For their originals, Alvarez looked inside himself, searching for the exact kind of sadness to evoke.

“There’s a word particular to the Brazilian musical culture called saudade,” he says. “And saudade is about finding some kind of comfort or happiness within sadness. I’m definitely trying to evoke sadness, but I want to make it beautiful. When I write a song, I don’t make it about something particular that I remember or somebody in particular that I knew. I try to make it about a particular kind of sadness that I’ve felt before, and illustrate it in a way that somebody can look at the lyrics and say ‘I’ve felt that before.’”

While at first blush Miramar might seem like some curio of a distant past (Cuban music from the 1800s?), Dedication to Sylvia Rexach, the band’s first album, is very much alive, filled not just with nostalgia but with incredible musicianship and a modern spirit—a spirit even more on display on their upcoming single for the legendary soul label Daptone Records.

And though they will tell you there is nothing political about their music, Miramar comes at a time when the U.S. president has demonized Latin Americans and turned his back on Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Coming when they do, Miramar are a welcome counterargument to the blustering of a conman: a moving reminder of the value of Latin American cultures, music and lives.

Miramar
Dec 1, 7pm, $35
Bing Concert Hall, Stanford

 

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