Review: '¡Spangled!' is a Protest Album That Takes Listeners on a Tour Through Retro Latin Music

Photo Illustration by Gluekit; Source image Courtesy of Non Such Records

¡Spangled!, put out by Nonesuch records, is a collaboration between Guatemalan born singer/guitarist Gaby Moreno and composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks, has been ten years in the making. But the CD, part a nostalgic tour through several different styles of retro Latin American pop and part lushly orchestrated protest music, sounds perfectly timed to the remarkably ugly and xenophobic political moment America has been living through the past few years.

Moreno, 38, says, "Our plan was to celebrate the diversity that we have in the Americas—so many different cultures, so many different kinds of music. It's so beautiful and I feel it's my duty to celebrate that particularly here in the U.S., especially the contribution of immigrants." Parks calls it "a comfort zone, an escape clause for people who are tired of the present tense."

Now LA based, Moreno, came to the U.S. 20 years ago and began attracting attention first as on opening act for singer Tracy Chapman and then through collaborations with actor/musician Hugh Laurie, Arizona-based indie band Calexico, longtime David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson and appearances on NPR's Live from Here. Along the way, she's been writing her own songs and performing constantly—in three languages (English, Spanish and Portugese). She also composed the theme music for NBC's long-running sitcom Parks and Rec.

At 76, Parks, a longtime LA music scene veteran and self-described "son of the American revolution", is exactly twice Moreno's age. Although he's made his own critically praised records, Parks is probably best known for his collaborations, particularly with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson during the sessions for the group's never-completed mid-'60s album Smile. (Wilson released a finished version under his own name in 2004.) On ¡Spangled!, the vocals are by Moreno, the elaborate orchestrations (including strings, horns, harp and marimba among other instruments) by Parks.

The two first worked together in 2010 when Parks invited Moreno to join him at a performance on the Fourth of July at the annual Roskilde music festival in Denmark. From there, Moreno says, "We were talking about songs that we loved. Van Dyke introduced me to a lot of songs that I didn't know from Latin America."

Parks says from the CD cover (a painting by occasional Klaus Voormann, who may be best known for the cover of the Beatles' Revolver of Moreno and Parks watching an old Yankee Clipper passenger sea plane-land) down to the arrangements and choice of songs, ¡Spangled! was meant to conjure a historical moment that ended sometime around 1960. Calling it "another age" when most Americans had open hearts and open ears "before the age of the ugly American; when people were inquiring; they got dressed up and they got on Yankee Clippers and they went to ports of call and they heard music." Parks adds, "Its Latino music 101."

Most of the songs on ¡Spangled! recall what you might have heard sitting in front of a radio in Managua, San Salvador or in a movie theater in Mexico City sometime in the 1950s. "Nube Gris," for instance, ("Grey Cloud" in English) is a lovelorn waltz originally from Peru. It became standard throughout Latin America after Mexican movie star and singer Pedro Infante had a hit with it in the early 1950s. Parks, who says he first fell in love with Latin music as a coffee house performer in California in the early '60s ("frankly, learning Latin American songs solved my virginity") says the song grabbed him long before he ever knew what the words meant. "'Nube Gris' is just another way to sing the blues," he says.

The more overtly political parts of ¡Spangled! include two more contemporary songs: Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt's "Across the Borderline" and Trinidadian soca star David Rudder's "The Immigrants." The mournful Tex-Mex tune describes the anguish of crossing both physical and metaphorical dividing lines ("you can lose more than you ever hope to find"). It was first recorded by Freddy Fender for the 1982 movie The Border, which starred Jack Nicholson as a morally conflicted Texas border patrol agent. It hasn't dated. Moreno and Parks' version features a guest vocal by Jackson Browne and a slide guitar solo by Cooder. "The Immigrants," meanwhile, though musically upbeat is more overtly angry. It was written in 1998 to protest the arrest, beating and sexual assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by New York City police.

Moreno says the reason the record was so long in coming was her and Parks' determination to do it they way they first imagined it. She says, "In the beginning when we first started talking about it, I would send Van Dyke little demos of my doing songs with my guitar and then Van Dyke would send me these beautiful arrangements, but it was all digital and the dream was to do it with an orchestra. There were constraints, we didn't have the budget, and we had different commitments." Ultimately, Moreno paid for the recording herself.

Parks says, "This record is a righteous act on Gaby's part who financed it, by the way, with hard-won money. This record is entertainment but it thinks about a hot topic politically."