Back to the earth

Mili Bermejo’s aesthetic gravity
By JON GARELICK  |  January 30, 2007

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DIG: Bermejo and Greenspan’s connection to the land reconnected them to music — and the world.

For me, the signature Mili Bermejo moment came at a cocktail party for the now late-lamented Boston Globe Jazz Festival back in the early ’90s. There was free booze, hors d’oeuvre, noise. But above the chatter I found myself drawn — as if by gravity — across the room to a woman singing quietly with just bass and piano accompaniment.

At the time, Mili was pretty much alone in her fusion of styles. Amid the range of salsa and bossa (this was pre–Buena Vista Social Club), she was the only one blending all the vocal music of the Spanish-speaking Americas — folkloric, pop, nueva canción, all informed by jazz. These days, Boston is a hotbed of pan-American vocalists — Sofía Koutsovitis, Marta Gómez, and Teresa Inês come to mind — but in a sense Mili is the mother of them all.

This Tuesday, she and her band, with her husband, Dan Greenspan, on bass, come to the Berklee Performance Center to celebrate the release of De Tierra (Ediciones Pentagrama), an album they recorded at Scullers last May. I sat down with them in their Cambridgeport home to talk about the new album. “The mixing of styles is the story of my life,” Mili says. “It’s the story of my parents, Argentina, where I was born, Mexico, where I lived, and this is my third country. So hopefully life itself takes care of that, making all those sounds part of me.”

Mili’s mother, Luz, was an Argentine tango singer whom her father, Guillermo, part of the famous Mexican vocal group Trio Calaveras, met on tour. At home, the Bermejos were a famous musical family, appearing on a weekly television show, involved in soundtrack work. Mili was trained as a professional from childhood. “My father was very strict with voices, very strict with musicianship. We couldn’t be out of tune or out of rhythm or anything like that. We were musicians, period.”

Mili’s exposure to the greats of pan-American music was first-hand — the first time she heard the legendary Argentine singer-songwriter Mercedes Sosa was in the family living room. Sosa was the type of singer Mili would model herself on. “Mercedes, Omar Portuando, the Celia Cruzes — big, powerful women who had these incredible voices and incredible musicianship, a lot of depth in their expression and a lot of depth on their instrument. Sort of like Sarah or Ella — voices that didn’t need nothing!”

Sosa also represented the ferment of ’60s and ’70s Latin America that Mili felt in Mexico City. “Latin America was surrounded by dictatorships. Cuba had won the revolution — whatever you think of it at this point.” Musicians, artists, scientists, intellectuals of all stripes flowed into Mexico City from other countries. “There was also a renaissance of identity in places like Colombia and Peru — Afro-American music, Afro-Colombian, Afro-Peruvian — the blackness of the music was coming out.” Along with it came “the idealism, and learning to write better — to take lyrics to a deeper place. Love — but with a purpose, a context. Not just political lyrics but amazing stories and new ideas told through beautiful poetry.”

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