Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Quick Take —The Future of the Souls is the Present: Sounds and Cultural Memory

By Guadalupe Caro Cocotle

I resisted as long as I could before going to  see Coco (Pixar, 2017). Since my son was born we have watched every children’s film that has come out and some of them, I must confess, I have enjoyed. My reticence to see Coco was caused by the multiple comments and the innumerable tears and wails the film provoked from several of my friends. I did not want to see a movie that would make me cry. I became interested in seeing Coco when I learned that two versions had been made in terms of editing and post-production: one for Mexican and Latin American audiences and one for the U.S. public. Intriguingly, the version released in Mexico was not the dubbed version of an English language original; for the first time, Pixar produced a film in Spanish featuring the vocal stylings of popular Latin American performers. In this essay, I am interested in reviewing the codification of sound culturally speaking, rather than the specifics of the music itself. I am interested in explaining how the processes of memory and forgetting are relevant in Coco beyond life and death as central topics of the film.

Coco is a film about death, life, and family legacy,all articulated through music. Pixar has embarked on the difficult business of explaining to children the complicated subject of death. For this, it draws from the folklore and culture of the Mexican celebration of Día de los muertos, a tradition that happens every 1st and 2nd of November. Día de los muertos is a day in which both the streets and homes are filled with light and color, music and flowers, and, above all, offerings, which indicate that the people that we love have not been forgotten. The idea of the offering is that of a welcoming for those souls that visit the world of the living once a year. Entire families gather in the warmth of the home to pay homage to their deceased and to remember past times placing la ofrenda (an offering) that usually is made of cempasúchil flowers (Tagetes erecta), food (such pan de muerto, candies, mole, tamales, and so forth), candles, pictures, incense known as copal, and several other objects. Coco shines; it takes on the colors of the Día de los muertos. For this film, instead of using Pixar´s technique of world-building, like in Monsters Inc., director Lee Unkrich relied on several research trips to Mexico and personal stories from Mexican team members. Thus it is possible to identify elements from the Día de los muertos celebrations in Mixquic (Mexico City) and in Pátzcuaro (Michoacán).

Cultural memory and sound memories

For the English version, an actor of Latin descent, Benjamin Bratt, was chosen to voice Ernesto de la Cruz, the film’s main antagonist, while the Spanish version featured the Mexican singer and songwriter Marco Antonio Solís, a.k.a. El Buki, in the role. The character of Ernesto de la Cruz is important because in him the iconic images of at least two of the most popular Mexican singers in the cinema are evoked: Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. The choice of Solís is interesting because although he performs the main song, “Recuérdame,” his performance utilizes a completely different vocal style from the one that has marked him as one of most popular singers in the Mexican music industry.

Marco Antonio Solís was the lead singer of Los Bukis, a Mexican grupero balada band characterized by a pop sound with a wide use of synthesizers, and romantic and even corny songs.<1> One example of Los Bukis style is the song “Tu cárcel” in which it is possible to appreciate the nasal vocal style of Solis as well as the extensive use of the synthesizer.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FL_kcn_F5s).

In 1996, Marco Antonio Solís launched a solo career. Since he was the main voice and songwriter of Los Bukis, he was identified as “El Buki.” His solo career was marked by the support of Televisa, the Mexican Television public broadcaster, and many of his songs were recorded by mainstream singers. He also became one of the major composers for telenovela theme songs. In his songs, Solís sings about love, lack of love, disinterested love, and exploits the idea that being poor means being morally good. In terms of his voice, Solís has a recognizable nasal vocal style, somewhat opaque and with exaggerated vibrato, and he utilizes an average vocal tenor range. Solís himself has commented on his characteristic sound, stating, “my singing is ugly but it has style.”<2>

The use of Solís’ voice for the character of Ernesto de la Cruz is peculiar because his performance  deviates entirely from the vocality that had made him a ubiquitous Mexican pop icon.  His performance of “Recuérdame” (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB6rRfUXq0s) presents a mix between mariachi song (canción ranchera) and musical theatre, styles that Solís had never been associated with in the past. This new vocality allows him to be placed in a different cultural position, transitioning from a popular grupero icon to a singer that synthesizes mariachi and musical theatre practices. The shift between Solis’ two vocalities recalls the voices of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, emblematic figures of popular music and film, both of whom are called up in the character of Ernesto de la Cruz, as Jacky Avila notes here. While the two actors embodied a similar persona and even appeared onscreen together, the first was an untrained singer while the the second had formal vocal training and a more polished sound.

Solís’ performance in Coco is useful for understanding how both memory and forgetting works in popular music. In order to accept the authenticity of El Buki’s/Ernesto de la Cruz’ musical performance, viewers need to forget the previous vocal identity of the singer who transforms “Recuérdame” into the film’s hit song. This necessary choice to forget El Buki’s previous musical and cultural associations can be explained using Aleida Assmann´s concept of cultural memory. Assmann analyzes the relationship between remembering and forgetting as part of social transformations and notes that in order to remember some things, to construct  a particular narrative of the past—or of the present—other things must be forgotten (Assmann, 2008, 98).<3> Cultural memory accounts for the ways that individual memory enters into a larger social compact regarding whether to forget or to remember key elements or symbols of the past in order to construct meaning in the present. According to Assman, cultural memory is necessary because it is linked to the process of identity formation.

Cultural memory is embodied and transmitted through performances and practices. Solís’ signature voice and its embodiment in the grupero vocal style is part of the symbolic order forming Mexican popular music and its canon. The audience remembers Solís as the singer who came from nothing to be a superstar of the contemporary Mexican grupero style.<4> As Ernesto de la Cruz, Solis’ voice is transformed and resignified through a process of disembodiment. Not only is his voice attached to a deceased character through the animation process, but it also represents a severing of his familiar vocal practice.  Gone is Solis’ usual nasal, middle vocal range. Instead, he sings in the bel canto style, able to reach beautiful high notes.
Solis’ voice thus moves away from the mainstream pop sentimentality and romanticism that had previously characterized him and instead presents a new sound capable of transcending the mass-mediated pop sound with which he was associated and crossing into another type of musical canon. Solís himself has declared that his vocal performance of “Recuérdame” represented a notable shift.  “Lo disfruté muchísimo porque fue muy divertido. Canté, pero diferente a como lo hago [. . .]—I enjoyed it a lot because it was really fun.  I sang, but differently than I normally do [. . .] ”.<5> In order for the audience to appreciate Solis’ new vocal virtuosity in “Recuérdame,” they must forget his previous grupero sound.
Audience awareness of and appreciation for Solis’ vocal transition is evidenced by the multiple comments that appear following videos of the song on YouTube. For example, a user declares, "Mr. Buki, what a beautiful voice you have!” Another says, “Now I respect Marco Antonio [. . ..] when he sings, you don't realize that is him.” A third person points out, "it [“Recuérdame”] has nothing to do with his original voice.”"<6>

This “forgetting to remember” forms the  turning point of Coco´s pathos and narrative, a necessary and inescapable negotiation of cultural memory that is as much as the requirement placed on the film’s protagonists as they process their connection with the past as it is on the contemporary viewers who must process the film’s interweaving of sonic and visual signs from the near as well as the distant past.   Ultimately, Coco asks us: what do we remember and what do we forget, a process that moves beyond the living and dead.
<1>The grupero balada group  took on the role of what is called as the grupo versátil, live bands that perform at parties such as quince años, weddings, proms and so forth. They are called versátil (versatile) because they are able to perform many different kinds of styles and genres. Alejandro Madrid has analyzed ties between the development of the balada movement and Televisa, the major Mexican television public broadcaster. However, as Madrid explains, in its beginnings the grupero balada did not have the support of televised media and was “music by low-income working class musicians for low-income working-class people”. Alejandro Madrid, Music in Mexico. Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (New York: Oxford, University Press,  2013, p. 63).
<3>Aleida Assman, “Canon and Archive”, Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning eds., Media and Cultural Memory, Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 97-107.

Guadalupe Caro Cocotle, is a Mexican musicologist and singer. She has a master degree in musicology and she´s is finishing her PhD. She is a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey Campus Estado de México.

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