Mike Gallegos for NPR
Since the early days of Hollywood, Latin American composers have created theme songs and soundtracks for some of the most classic movies and TV shows.
One century ago, Mary Graves was a maverick in the male-dominated film world. She had studied with the French composer Claude Debussy before returning to her native Mexico where she wrote boleros which were very popular throughout Latin America. Then Grever composed songs for films in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
In the 1944 MGM musical Bathing BeautyColombian baritone Carlos Ramrez sings Grever’s song You said: I love you (accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra) to actress Esther Williams just before she plunged into a swimming pool. The song has been translated into Magic is moonlight.
Grever wrote another song, When I come back to your side, about the disappearance of her husband during the Mexican Revolution. Translated into What a difference one day Makesthe song has become a staple of Hollywood films (Dinah Washington won a Grammy Award for his R&B interpretation in 1959).
In the 1930s and 1940s, the famous Mexican composer and musician Agustn Lara also wrote beautiful songs for the cinema. His Only once became a hit in the United States as you belong to my heart. It’s been covered by Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and many more.
Lara’s first American film composition was for the 1938 picture vacation in the tropics.
“The film itself is about a Hollywood screenwriter who seeks inspiration in Mexico. Then the film features the music of a Mexican who came to Hollywood to record it,” explains the professor. Josh Kunacting dean of the USC Thornton School of Music.
Kun says film studios have turned to successful Latin American composers like Lara and Grever for authenticity. But more often than not, they appropriated “Latin sounds” and generic beats – “either making Latin America feel safe for Americans, or making it seem romantic, or increasingly , making it look dangerous”.
Kun says then and now movies often used tropical music for any Latin American setting. “This idea that there would be a sound was a problem then and frankly it’s a problem now. This set of sounds becomes a sonic stereotype.”
Even so, there were Latino film composers who broke new ground when it came to soundtracks. For example, Argentine-American composer Lalo Schifrin created one of the most iconic 1960s television themes for the show. Impossible mission.
Schifrin has blended jazz and Latin American rhythms and sounds for over 100 movies and TV shows. The 90-year-old composer once described to NPR his ideal musical style: “There is an imaginary world in which a street in Vienna intersects with an avenue in New York. And in this corner, there is a tavern. And in the tavern there is a piano, and there you can meet Gustav Mahler, Beethoven and Dizzy Gillespie, and they exchange ideas. It’s a gigantic jam session.
Gustavo Santaolalla was also born in Buenos Aires, 19 years after Schifrin. He pioneered the fusion of rock and Latin American folk with his group Arco Iris, he modernized tango with his group Bajofondo and I have produced alternative Latin and rock hits in Spanish for Maldita Vecindad, Molotov, Caf Tacuba, Julieta Venegas and Juanes.
Santaolalla has also composed music for films such as love dogs and The motorcycle journals. He won two Oscars for the music of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain and the 2006 movie Babel.
Santaolalla continues to create the sonic fabric for films and shows, often collaborating with musical partner Anbal Kerpel and filmmaker Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu.
“There’s definitely this influence that makes me who I am and…connects to my Latino heritage,” he told NPR in 2021. “It’s Latin music because it’s made by a Latino. But it’s universal music. You can say exactly the same for Irritu’s films.”
When filmmaker Irritu made his Oscar-winning film birdman in 2014, he asked Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez to tag him.
“It was pretty much improvised,” says Sanchez. “It was the kind of score that had never been done before, you know just a full drum score.”
Sanchez grew up in Mexico City, the grandson of Ignacio Lpez Tarso, a famous actor from the golden age of Mexican cinema. He says working on films opened up creativity in his musical endeavors, and he credits Irritu with developing a new style of film composition.
“What Irritu wanted me to do was just be myself, you know, just improvise, react, use my instincts and imprint something in real time.”
Of course, no story about Latino film composers would be complete without Nuyorican Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like his Broadway musicals, his movies, including In the heights, incorporate hip-hop, Latin and musical theater styles.
Miranda’s music will be featured in the new Little Mermaid Disney’s remake, hot on the heels of writing last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Charm.
For Disney Charmhe travels to Colombia to draw inspiration from the various musical styles of the country.
Germaine Franco’s work on Charm brought her to becoming the first Latina nominated for Best Original Score at the Oscars. She says that for one scene, she wrote an Afro-Colombian song and assembled a set of women to perform it for the film.
“I wanted to honor the Afro-Colombian community,” she says. “People forget how amazing it is that they managed to escape from the colonies and have their own communities. The women there sing and play and sing on a special marimba that you can only get there -low. I had one built and had it shipped here.”
For coconut, Pixar’s animated love letter to Mexico, Franco arranged and orchestrated the score. She brought familiar elements from her childhood along the El Paso and Jurez border and added the sounds of folk dancing. Franco also produced all of the recording sessions, featuring 50 master musicians from Mexico.
“Knowing that there’s this connection between my ancestor’s Mexican music that goes back, you know, hundreds of years,” she says. “We were there, and I was like, ‘put on the sound that you want, what he should be, not what I want. This should be your sound.'”
Producer Camilo Lara, from the band Mexican Institute of Sound, also worked on coconut. “I even made an appearance in the film. I’m the DJ of the evening,” he says from his recording studio in Mexico City. “It was fun to be portrayed as a skeleton.”
Lara has sampled hip-hop and electronic music to create loops and beats for movies like And your mom too and Thor. And he produced a Santa Fe Klan song for the new movie. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Lara says he was inspired by the lounge and mid-century Latin music of Mexican composer Juan Garcia Esquivel. And he is grateful to all those who came before him. “I thank Maria Grever, Lalo Schifrin and of course Gustavo Santaolalla and a bunch of amazing people who worked hard in Hollywood to give other Latin composers a chance,” he says. “All are my idols.”
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