Music News

La Mujer Canta los Blues

MEXICO CITY--Betsy Pecanins' life has always blurred the borders. The 42-year-old singer grew up in Arizona, Mexico and Spain. She is the child of an American father and a Catalonian mother, whose family emigrated from Barcelona to Mexico. She speaks and sings in three languages--English, Spanish and Catalan.

Starting out as a singer, Pecanins performed in clubs around Phoenix and Barcelona before establishing her recording career in Mexico City, where she is considered one of the boldest pop singers in the country. Her new album, which recently went gold, has been heralded for expanding the frontiers of Mexican popular music with its experimental blend of American blues and traditional Mexican rancheras--mariachi-style folk ballads about everyday life and love. El Efecto Tequila (The Tequila Effect) is also the Arizona native's first recording to receive wide distribution in the U.S.

Pecanins was born in Yuma, where her father was a high school Spanish teacher. As a child, Pecanins took voice lessons from a woman whom she says looked and sounded like Doris Day, yet she counts Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, ranchera singer Cuco Sanchez and several Catalan poets among her favorite artists. Her parents broke up when she was young, and she lived with her mother in Phoenix until she was 13. Over the next few years, Pecanins moved with her mom to Mexico City, then to Barcelona.

"From 13 to 23, I was like a Ping-Pong ball jumping from Phoenix to Barcelona to Mexico City," she says. "I went back to Phoenix, actually Scottsdale, by myself when I was 18. I had a need to get back to my American roots. I started singing in restaurants and places where nobody listened."

Two years later, she returned to Barcelona and got serious about her singing, working up a solid repertoire of music she composed and put to the words of several Catalan poets.

Pecanins returned to Mexico City in 1977, this time to stay, and put together a show she called "Union of Roots," which included Catalan songs, Mexican and Cuban folk songs and an occasional American blues song.

A similar mash of cultural, musical and linguistic influences informs her new album, El Efecto Tequila, the singer's seventh studio album. On it, Pecanins rubs together two previously unmarried types of music, with dramatic results.

The songs on El Efecto are classics from Mexico's greatest ranchera singers--Sanchez, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Lucha Reyes. But they're done in a blues style, with a piano and a cello complementing Pecanins' soprano.

Recently released in the U.S. on Milan Records/BMG Distribution under the title Tequila Blues, the album has a quality critics most often call "intimate." It sounds like you're alone with Pecanins and her group in a smoky cabaret at 2 a.m., a few shots to the good.

"The blues has always been in me," says Pecanins. "Everything I would sing would be bluesy. It was my way of feeling music." Still, for many years, Pecanins was reluctant to make a blues album, fearing it would appear imitative, and that she was not yet musically mature enough to make standards her own.

"I felt that I had to put the blues to my own pain, my own sadness, my own humor, my own sensuality. You have to be yourself in the blues, and I didn't feel ready." Gradually, that changed over the years, as Pecanins grew as a musician and began to feel comfortable with her interpretation of the genre.

In 1985, Pecanins signed with Warner de Mexico and put out three pop recordings, including one--El Sabor de Mis Palabras--the lyrics of which were written by Mexican poets especially for the album.

"Betsy is one of the few singers who is consistently willing to experiment and do her own musical search," says Arturo Garcia, pop music critic for La Jornada, one of Mexico City's major daily newspapers. "She's been fearless in the way she approaches certain genres of music. In years to come, I think she'll be seen as having a very important spot in the evolution of Mexican song and music."

What Garcia terms fearless, however, Warner Records executives might call bullheaded. The label dropped Pecanins three years ago, she says, when she refused to let their producers force her work into the bubbly mold of standard Mexican pop. Then in 1994, Pecanins signed with Milan Records, a French indie label.

"Finally, I was with a company that really liked me and was enthusiastic about my crazy ideas," she says. "If I'd gone to Warner and said, 'I want to make a record of rancheras,' but sung in blues style with a piano and cello, they would have sent me home. But Milan said, 'That's a wonderful idea. Let's hear it.'"

Pecanins says her marriage of blues and ranchera isn't really as strange as it sounds. "They are two very similar musics," she says. "They're both painful, they're both passionate, they're both very direct in their language. Both have humor, both have love and a lack of it. Both have this sensuous nature. The two musics are healing musics. You're not singing about anybody's life but your own."

The singer says she decided against using either a mariachi or a blues band in the studio for The Tequila Effect. Either one would have sounded too derivative, she says, and the piano/cello combination allowed her to put a personal stamp on two extremely traditional types of music. By doing so, though, Pecanins also went up against tradition--especially in Mexico, where ranchera music is taken quite seriously.

"One thing that happened in radio and newspaper is that, until they started seeing that there was a favorable reaction in the public, they didn't dare say they liked it," Pecanins says. "Certain people were so afraid of this way of singing ranchera music. It was different. Once I went to this radio station. The man said, 'I like your record. I really like it. But I think that for the public, it's just too, too, too . . . interesting.'

"All countries have these points that touch their identity. In Mexico, rancheras are part of their identity. So if you're trying to get into their rancheras and do something with them, they feel like you're trying to judge their identity."

Judging by Pecanins' album sales and the packed houses at recent Mexico City shows, however, the public has embraced the cross-cultural spin Pecanins has put on their tradition.

Despite her success below the border, the world's first ranchera blues singer says she still longs for the Sonoran Desert, the epicenter of her life. "I feel that my blues comes from the desert because I was born there," she says. "My father loved to camp and he taught me how to love the desert. When I go to Phoenix, I cry sometimes because the landscape is something that I really feel is part of me. I'm much more into the Latin way of life, but I'm in love with the blues of the desert.

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Sam Quinones