Guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada is best known recently as a member of Black Pumas. He has also won a Grammy Award with the Grupo Fantasma. On his new album “Boleros Psicodélicos” he reveals the origins of his passion for Latin American music.
It all began with the psychedelic weirdness of Los Pasteles Verdes.
About 20 years ago, guitarist, producer and Black Pumas co-founder Adrian Quesada was driving in his home base of Austin, Texas when the 1975 balada classic “Esclavo y Amo” by Peruvian band Los Pasteles Verdes played on a local AM station. Quesada was mesmerized by the song’s dark, baroque melodrama.
“I swear to God, I had to pull over because I had never heard anything like it,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was like, what the hell is this? Sounds like a romantic breakup on LSD. It completely, literally blew my mind. I then went to a record store that sold mostly Regional Mexican, got a Greatest Hits compilation and listened to it for many nights in a row. The music was sinister, so overly dramatic in a super funky way that sounded like a hip-hop sample. I almost expected Wu-Tang Clan to come on and start rapping.”
What Quesada had discovered was the sophisticated – and slightly delirious – cultural movement of balada music that blossomed throughout Latin America between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A refined collision of bossa nova smoothness, Beatlesque psychedelia and torrid boleropathos, balada used art-pop instrumentation (mostly strings and harpsichords) and the warmth of analogue recording to maximum effect. It employed songs about heartbreak and longing as a means to transport the listener to an opulent, cinematic fantasy world.
Now, Quesada has penned a love letter to that golden era through Boleros Psicodélicos, a stunning album that lovingly recreates the specificity of the balada sound, adding a stellar list of guest vocalists, intriguing contemporary touches and just a hint of irony.
“I always wanted to pay tribute to that sound that I was already hearing in my head without realizing that people had already done it,” he explains. “I’ve been obsessed since I heard Pasteles Verdes, compiling anything I could collect, but since the beginning of the pandemic I really went through a rabbit hole, finding stuff that I had never heard before. The sound of bands like Los Pasteles Verdes and Los Ángeles Negros was somewhat limited to guitar with reverb and combo organ. Artists like Sandro and José José used a more baroque instrumentation that sounds like a telenovela. I devoured those albums and picked up elements like the harpsichords and the orchestral arrangements. There is so much drama in those songs, and I had to express that musically.”
The process of compiling the list of vocalists was entirely organic.
“I had already recorded a version of ‘Esclavo y Amo’ with Natalia Clavier a long time ago,” he recalls. “I knew that I wanted to revisit it with her because when Natalia sings about something, you believe her. I also collaborated with Gaby Moreno and knew she would be into this concept after we discussed a love for La Lupe. I made a list of people, and gravitated to the ones who understood right away and could find the drama in the music.”
From the combination of vintage organ and achingly beautiful guitar of “El Paraguas,” with Gabriel Garzón-Montano, and the bravado in Gaby Moreno’s delivery on the La Lupe cover “Puedes Decir De Mí” to the vulnerable nostalgia of Tita (Moreno) and “El Muchacho De Los Ojos Tristes” – a cool version of the 1981 classic by Spanish chanteuse Jeanette – BolerosPsicodelicos pulsates with Quesada’s genuine affection for the genre. An original composition, opening track “Mentiras Con Cariño” boasts an elegant performance by Puerto Rico’s iLe, former vocalist with Calle 13 and a GRAMMY-winning champion of Latin revivalism.
“Working with iLe was great because she was very specific about what she wanted to do,” he says. “As soon as we began talking, she sent me a number of tracks that she found inspiring in their songwriting and instrumentation. She was the first one who turned me into [Argentine crooner] Sandro. iLe is a perfectionist. She took me out of my comfort zone and the album benefited by that.”
Psychedelic boleros are just one of the many genres that Quesada has touched during an incredibly prolific career. He has collaborated with the likes of Prince, Los Lobos and Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, and has been a member of such eclectic bands as Grupo Fantasma, Brownout and Ocote Soul Sounds. Black Pumas, the duo he formed in 2018 with singer/songwriter Eric Burton, has been nominated for 5 GRAMMYs and performed during the inauguration festivities of President Joe Biden in 2021.
Quesada is still in awe of this glorious pan-American genre that changed the face of Latin music forever. “If something like that happened today, it would be normal because everyone’s connected on Instagram,” he says. “Think how powerful this sound had to be for everyone to be connected through the songs. As someone who grew up speaking two languages and living on both sides of the border, I love how much music can transcend barriers and boundaries. It really is a universal language, especially back then.”
NMR (photo press Adrian Quesada)