Singer Azul Barrientos Finds Her Niche
She got the nickname Azul because she was always listening to the blues in high school, explains songstress /songwriter Azul Barrientos, whose original name was Azucena. Then when she moved from Mexico to the U.S. in 2006, people couldn’t pronounce Azucena properly, which was annoying. So she became Azul for good, legally and otherwise.
And it is under this name that San Antonio got to know her as the warm-voiced star of the Noche Azul de Esperanza shows, which have been a programming staple at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center for years. But even before that, this columnist first heard her sing during a dance production choreographed by Erica Perkins-Wilson in honor of Mexican Independence Day at the Carver Community Cultural Center. Barrientos walked on stage, wrapped in a white veil representing a grieving figure, and moving slowly across the space, unfurled that deep, eloquent voice of hers that instantly captivated the audience. I remember thinking that with a voice like that she would go far.
Today, Barrientos’ monthly performances at the Esperanza focus mostly on traditional music from Mexico and Latin America. “I love tangos, rancheras — the traditional ones that are different from the mariachi rancheras — and other old folkloric ballads,” she says. “Also, Romani (Gypsy) music. I look for melodic, passionate songs that connect to my feelings.” In addition, both she and her regular accompanist, pianist Aaron Prado, write original songs for concerts with special themes. Sometimes the theme is strictly musical, such as, for example, tango music, while other times the concert may revolve around a legendary personality like Mexican actress Maria Felix, whose charms prompted several composers, including her second husband, Augustin Lara, to dedicate their compositions to her. La Virgen de Guadalupe and Frida Kahlo have also inspired special performances, which in addition to music feature videos and narrative parts to both entertain and educate the audience.
Through the years, Barrientos has recorded several albums, including a mixed-genre one with jazz vocalist Bett Butler and Butler’s husband, bassist Joel Dilley. She is now looking forward to releasing her “major” new album that will feature “the summit of (her) musical experience” — in other words, her best numbers. “I am at a point in my life where I am comfortable with my voice,” she states honestly. “From more than 100 songs in my repertoire, for this album I’ve chosen the ones that feel like they were written for me. They speak to my soul. I am really proud of it. I listen to the recordings in the studio, and I think, if anything happens to me, I know I have already done a good job.” Recorded with the help of Grammy-winning engineer and producer Joe Trevino at his famed Blue Cat Studio, the album also features Prado and his dad, bass player George Prado, as well as other local musicians.
The Baby of a Musical Family
“My family was already well established as a family by the time I came along,” says Barrientos. “It was like walking into a movie theater with the movie already in progress. I had to do a lot of catching up.” Her youngest sibling was 10 years her senior.
The entire family loved music, yet never considered it as a possible profession. Her father’s “bohemian life” as a musician was already behind him at the time of her birth because he had to run a business to support the family. Nevertheless, he would frequently break into song with his wife or with friends. Little Azul loved to watch them and enjoyed the harmonies they produced. Her grandmother, also a singer, knew a lot of old ballads going back to the Mexican Revolution.
While her siblings grew up to be engineers and business people —“left brain kind of things” — she says, teenage Azul decided that music would be her life. A fan of Ella Fitzgerald, she remembers the feeling that Ella’s music awoke in her. “I did not want to lose that feeling,” says the singer. “There was something in me telling me that I, too, could do something like that. I mimicked Ella’s singing even though I did not speak English.”
Though she studied piano and attended the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, it was only after the 19-year-old Barrientos started visiting the U.S. in 1999 that she eventually picked up a guitar to accompany herself while singing slow-tempo boleros or composing her own tunes. The simplicity of traditional Mexican music packed an emotional punch that appealed to her. That’s when she knew she had found her artistic niche.
In addition to performing at the Esperanza Center, where she has been artist-in-residence since 2007, Barrientos goes on short tours from time to time and appears at special events, including the King William Fiesta Fair. To supplement her income, she also works as a massage therapist. In 2013, the young woman married chiropractor Aaron Root, who greeted her Mexican style with a peck on the cheek the very first time they met. The marriage helped her to “grow roots” here, just at the time when she was wondering whether to return home after her dad died. “Now I feel like I belong here…” she says. “Well, there’s always that feeling of being a bit of an outsider looking in, but you know that you belong.”
Babies may be in her future, but there’s no rush. Since multitasking is not her forte, her focus is on her album right now. “It’s like your baby,” a friend suggested, and Barrientos felt it was an accurate description. And no matter what, she intends to keep on making music. “I do see myself singing on stage until I die,” she says. “My intention has never been to become a rock-type star. Traditional music is not rock-star material. I don’t want to sound too humble, but I really just want to be a bridge that helps people connect with the soul of folkloric music.”
By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography by Janet Rogers