The Argentinean folk artist Atahualpa Yupanqui is an almost mystical figure in Latin America’s musical history. Born Héctor Roberto Chavero in 1908, and with a stage name that means “He who comes from faraway lands to tell something” in the Andean language of Quechua, Yupanqui traipsed all over South America with guitar in hand during the mid–20th century, learning ancient songs and rhythms from indigenous cultures and reinterpreting tradition with his acoustic arrangements. Yupanqui referred to himself as “a singer of forgotten arts who walks the world so that no one forgets what is unforgettable.”
More than two decades after his death, the Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade has presented herself as a kind of kindred spirit—a disciple of Yupanqui’s school of preserving cultural memory. Lafourcade’s own fascination with Latin American folk roots inspired her to make the 2017 album Musas, a stunning compendium of original songs and classic covers, released with the help of the guitar duo Los Macorinos. Musas won Lafourcade a Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album last year and succeeded in introducing many traditional artists and composers to a new generation.
A number of songs recorded for Musas didn’t appear on the finished album, and Lafourcade decided to compile them for a follow-up, Musas Vol. 2, which was released on February 9. With the steady traditional guitar rhythms of Los Macorinos as a guide, Lafourcade forges deeper into the pages of the Latin American songbook on this sequel, which contains boleros, sons, and trovas, early guitar-driven genres that helped lay the foundation for popular Latin music. Musas Vol. 2 also presents lullabies and folk melodies popularized by Yupanqui himself.
Exploring musical roots isn’t necessarily new for contemporary Latin American musicians. Even the most forward-thinking electronic artists have eagerly returned to their ancestors for inspiration: The Ecuador-based DJ Nicola Cruz, for example, works with ancient Andean flutes and Afro-Latin mapalé rhythms to make his colorful compositions. Back in 2015, newcomer Ileana Cabra collected a number of awards for Ilevitable, a debut album of original ballads and boogaloos that could easily have been extracted from the 1950s. The most recent Latin Grammy for Best New Artist went to the Dominican singer Vicente Garcia, a dreadlocked romantic whose songs are reminiscent of the early days of bachata and other Caribbean genres.
But no contemporary artist has delivered evocative traditional sounds as elegantly and tenderly as Lafourcade. She handles each song she covers as gently as gossamer, ensuring that her treatments don’t alter the original melodies too forcefully. On an early song on Vol. 2, “Alma Mia,” Lafourcade offers only her voice and classic guitar arrangements from Los Macorinos, allowing the songwriting to remain the glowing focal point. “Alma Mia” was written by Mexico’s first internationally recognized female composer, María Grever, a prodigious artist of the early 1900s who, rumor has it, penned her first song at age 4. Lafourcade stretches out each syllable to convey the universal longing of Grever’s lyrics as she sings, “Alma mía sola, siempre sola.” (“Soul of mine alone, always alone.”)