Flute, Guitar, Voice - Music Close to the Heart

From my Soy/Somos series, a real life collage of Latinos in the USA. You can read the introductory post here. Soy/Somos: We Are Many

It’s an unusually hot day in the Bay Area. I grip a small tray with three tall glasses of iced water while Teresa opens the narrow door to the garden. We pass two lemon trees; the walls of a nearby shed are growing lavender bougainvillea. We cross into a small gated area with chairs. Orlando, born in Mexico and a naturalized American, seems more at ease in Spanish. Teresa--first generation American—can hold her own with a slight American accent. So Spanish it will be. After living in the United States for many decades, it is I who will feel the need to rescue myself with a little bit of Spanglish.

I’d been eager to meet the two Latino musicians during a recent visit to California. Both artists--Teresa Orozco and Orlando Castro--are in a highly creative time in their lives with multiple projects. Teresa is a flute soloist, orchestral player and teacher; Orlando, a lyricist, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. I was curious to find out how their Hispanic roots are influencing their music.

Teresa radiates happiness. Her eyes are a startling iridescent blue. Last summer she played with the Wayne Shorter orchestra at the Monterrey Jazz Festival. Born in the province of Sonora just south of California, Orlando is reserved, but he will surprise me. I keep staring at his deep widow’s peak. His medium-cut black hair is sleeked back in a slight pompadour.

Teresa: Orlando has written songs for Mexican artist Luis Miguel. “Suave” and “Qué Nivel de Mujer” were featured on Luis Miguel’s album ‘Aries’ that won the 1994 Grammy for “Best Latin Pop Album.” Mira, mira, los pajaritos!

Hummingbirds are floating like tiny angels, reaching with their beaks into the feeder nearby.

Marlena: I know both of you are involved in many musical projects--with young people, especially--at the Orozco Flute Studio. Teresa, what project is closest to your heart?

Teresa: I have many favorites, but there is something very close to my heart. I’ve been trying to bring algo nuevo to my students...to have them experiment with other instruments...to feel music en su sangre. Much of the essential music for flute is French from the 1800s and 1900s. I teach the classics; I must do that. I teach people from holding a flute to training for performances at Carnegie Hall. But most classical schools are hermetic.

Orlando: They accept jazz, but there is little understanding of folklore.

Teresa: At our studio we will sometimes start with voice and percussion. We’ll begin with an understanding of rhythm. Orlando will come in and help with singing. We bring out congas, maracas, and güiros. Students begin to see that music is not flute, flute, flute. It is also...singing and dancing. La música es una grandísima cosa. Music is a huge and wonderful thing.

I worked with a choir of young people--about 30--at the San Francisco Youth Orchestra for years. I started that from scratch. Now the San Jose Chamber orchestra has asked me to start a flute group for youth. I want to work with a select few—no more than eight—and expose them to all kinds of music, especialmente—Teresa smiles—música Latina.

As he will several times during our conversation, Orlando interjects praises for Teresa’s work (and her beauty). Teresa will do this for Orlando, too.

Orlando: Teresa prepares students on a very high level, many for national competitions in flute. I usually work with children with little musical education. And we work as a team with both groups. My students are often Hispanic, and sometimes in the process of Americanization kids say that being Hispanic is not cool. It shames them. But it’s extremely important to be proud of our cultures. Se forma una imagen equivocada de nuestra gente. A wrong image of our people is formed. We need constructive citizens with a sense of rootedness.

Teresa and I traveled to a very poor rural area with blanquitos, mexicanos y indígenas in northeast California. It’s a “living in wellness” program exposing the community to many things. We arrived with instruments like plastic flutes and gave them three days of workshops. “Music for life.” Now they want a full week next year and are buying trumpets and guitars—and the kids want it, a more formal education. This is music therapy where there are not many options.

Schools in California, many of them, have marching bands and jazz bands as their only option for music, even though there is a large Latino population and other cultures like Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian. We need to bring some of the music that represents our demographic, including music from Guatemala, Argentina, Cuba, Salvador, and Mexico. El arte rescata la cultura. Art rescues culture.

Marlena: I need a little review, Orlando. What can we call Latin American music? How did you begin?

Orlando: I began with classical music, classical guitar. I also listened to folkloric music like “Alma Llanera” from Venezuela. Folkloric music has to do with region and place. There is Romantic Latin American music with rhythms like bolero, joropo, huapango. The song “Nina Camba” from Bolivia uses a rhythm called waino. Our mind is so powerful. Just like we can learn many languages, we can learn many ways of interpreting music.

In our instruction we encourage improvisation. In classical music education students learn primarily to read music. We try the other extreme, using no papers at all. This is how people learn music in childhood. From father to son. Parents teach the sounds of the rhythms with their voices.

Teresa: Music always goes back to childhood. My father era un bailador—he loved to dance—and he sang to us, also my nana Mamachicha. I come from a very tight-knit Salvadoran family. In fourth grade at Reed Elementary in San Jose, California, I was given a plastic recorder and played songs by heart. In sixth grade I could choose an instrument--and I chose the flute. It was love at first sight!

Orlando: I was raised by my mother and grandmother. Both single women who worked. My grandmother had a toy business and sang on the radio. She taught me to sing “La Huerfanita” one day when I was very sad. I think I was five. Then I sang it en primaria with my teacher who played the piano and guitar. After that I sang all the time. I came to Texas in the early 1980s to study music, then performed in festivals in Mexico and other countries in Latin America. After that I studied TV production in Los Angeles.

Teresa: The students are a passion for us, but we also have his music. La voz de Orlando es su corazón. Orlando’s voice is his heart. He has written many boleros. How do I explain the beauty...?

This was the cue, I’d been waiting for, primed as I was to hear Teresa and Orlando’s music. We ended the afternoon indoors. Our hosts--who are also musicians--offered Orlando a chair. Teresa stood by his side and brought the silver flute to her lips. They played for us works they’d created and a sampling of old Hispanic songs. The mini-concert was a stunning mix of guitar, flute and voice. Sweet. Close to the heart.

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