The Mavericks Are Back, This Time 'En Español'
These days The Mavericks are known as a hot, swinging nine-piece outfit. Before that, there were country record deals, and even further back, a stint in the South Florida alternative scene. The one thing the group hadn't done in its 30-year existence was record an album entirely in Spanish, until now; its new full-length is called En Español.
Long before Raul Malo became The Mavericks' famously expressive lead singer, he learned how to communicate growing up in a bilingual Miami household.
"I'm first-generation Cuban American in my family; I was the first child born in the New World. You had to learn English and you had to speak English, and it was part of the curriculum and everybody spoke it," he says. "And at home I spoke Spanish to my abuelita and that was fine by me."
Also fine by him were the jazz and pop crooners, and classic country and Elvis numbers Malo's parents and grandparents shared with him. Sure, he was a teenager living in MTV's early '80s heyday, but he was taken with the openly emotional qualities of all sorts of earlier music.
"I didn't hate it. I didn't rebel against it," Malo says. "As a matter of fact, I loved a lot of it, which in turn made me kind of rebellious anyway because I thought, 'Well, of all my friends were listening to Flock of Seagulls, or whatever.' "
When The Mavericks reached Nashville at the start of the '90s, the band's retro finesse set it apart from other major label acts. And as the band's frontperson, Malo was frequently asked to explain how his Cuban American identity squared with his country music affinities.
Historian Amanda Martinez says that Malo wasn't the first person faced with those questions.
"In the 1970s, both Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez, who were Mexican American, were huge stars," she says. "But they also were thought of as an anomaly within country music."
Martinez's research shows that commercial country music, as she puts it, "was thought of and marketed to a primarily — or exclusively — white audience demographic with a white artist at the center of that."
The Mavericks didn't fit a narrow format. By the early 2000s, the band's evolving sound featured a horn section and a new lead guitarist: Eddie Perez. A Los Angeles native with a Mexican American background, Perez worked his way through hard rock, jump-blues, country and plenty else on his way to The Mavericks.
"To play in a band like what we have," Perez says, "I think you have to have a pretty wide vocabulary because at any moment Raul can say, hey, what about this song?"
The band soon went on hiatus, but Malo never stopped making music during the years-long break — and a little bit of it, including work he did solo and with the supergroup Los Super Seven, was in Spanish.
When the group reunited in 2012, The Mavericks were an even more exploratory unit. In the spring of 2017, Malo flew to Cuba to take part in a music documentary that aired on PBS called Havana Time Machine. Just six months later, the group began reimagining popular and traditional tunes from Latin America for what would become En Español.
"The Julio Iglesias song, 'Me Olvidé De Vivir,' it happened to be my late granddad's favorite song," Malo recalls. "And so there's a childhood connection to it. I heard it all my life, and I always thought it was such a beautiful song. And it made him cry every time he heard it. It's just that kind of song."
Malo wanted to use equally grand, poetic language in the originals he wrote for the album.
"It's one thing to speak conversational Spanish," he says, "and I could do that all day, you know, water cooler talk. I could do an interview in Spanish and so on and so forth. But to sit down and write songs, that required a little more in-depth command of the language. I really wanted to dive deep into that, and so I wrote some songs with my Cuban friends."
"He knew what he wanted people to feel with the songs," says Alejandro Menéndez Vega, a cinematographer and writer who assisted Malo with the lyrics of a few songs. "After he gave me the melody, it was really quite simple, quite easy."
Vega also brought a source of linguistic inspiration to the songwriting sessions: a rhyming dictionary published in Argentina in the '40s.
"It has so many beautiful old Spanish words and I love to use it," he says. "So we put it on the table, and that's usually the center of gravity."
Guitarist Eddie Perez says the songs took him back to family barbecues while the arrangements drew him away from some of his familiar approaches to lively lead playing.
"I feel like this music called for a little bit more subtleties and a little bit more eloquence than it did for like, just to find a spot to shred," Perez says. "[For] so much of this music, I was really wanting to play the part of just being part of the orchestra that is The Mavericks."
"Where I'm at today in my life, I have learned how to become extremely proud of who I am and where I come from and the people that have raised me and the people that were instrumental in my life," he adds. "And so with an opportunity like this record, I've got to tell you, it is really close to my heart, because I feel like it's a full circle moment for me to be able to welcome it into my life, into my son's life and into my family's life, in terms of what it is to be a Perez."
Malo suggests the project's significance is not only personal, but political, too, at a time when immigrants, especially those whose first languages aren't English, face increased scrutiny in the U.S.
"In our own little way, if we could get somebody that perhaps is on the fence on issues and hears us singing in Spanish and perhaps reminds them of the beautiful cultures that make up what this country is trying to be and what it should be, so be it," Malo says. "Yeah, I'm OK with that."
And if listeners are reminded that the Latin American lineage The Mavericks explores is part of American roots music, that's not such a bad outcome either.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.