Three Is Still the Magic Number

"Mama, I want to know where the singers are from," announced the Trio Matamoros in their most famous song, "Son de la Loma." Eighty years later that's still a good question.

At the Billboard Latin Music Awards this past month, three young men from Colombia took home two prizes for best album in the curious category of Mexican regional music. What makes the inclusion of the group Los Tri-O in the Mexican regional category seem doubly odd is the fact that these Colombian youths carry on a tradition of balladry in three-part harmony first popularized by Miguel Matamoros in the 1920s in Havana, Cuba. The vocal trio accompanied by guitar originated in the eastern province of Oriente, then spread rapidly to the island's capital, across the Caribbean, and throughout Latin America. By the 1950s all of Latin America resounded with the romantic strains of male voices in triplicate. Wearing shiny slate-blue suits with baby-pink button-down shirts at the awards ceremony in Miami Beach, the fresh-faced kids of Los Tri-O sang a medley of old-time favorites that included songs penned in Cuba, Mexico, and Colombia.

The synthetic boy band recruited through an open audition in Bogotá found itself competing for the Billboard Latin awards against Aztec cowboys and accordion virtuosos because its debut album, Nuestro Amor (Our Love), is a tribute to the legendary Mexican threesome Los Panchos. The sales of Nuestro Amor, which went platinum in the United States and spent 44 weeks on the Billboard Latin Top 50 chart in 1999, also are a testament to the enduring appeal of Mexico's most successful trio. Los Panchos enthralled audiences from Jalisco to Tokyo over the course of a 37-year career that began in 1944. After Los Panchos' founder, songwriter, and requinto guitar player Alfredo Gil and the group's original second voice, Chucho Navarro, announced their retirement in 1981, the trio as a commercial genre fell silent. Nearly two decades later, however, the phenomenal success of Los Tri-O has set off a revival that may have the whole hemisphere singing together again.

As their medley heated up with the conga beat of Trio Matamoros' classic son, the smiling youths of the modern Tri-O slid toward the edge of the Jackie Gleason Theater's stage and spread their legs in a tough-guy stance. Known simply by their first names, Esteban (first voice), Manuel (second voice), and Andres (third voice) worked their supple bodies to the ground in a move associated more with hip-hop than with the romantic ballad.

Quite a departure from both the demure pose characteristic of Los Panchos and the dignified, syncopated stomp of Los Matamoros, Los Tri-O's choreography reveals the dual concept behind the band. Developed by Colombian impresario and executive producer Johnny Gutierrez, Los Tri-O superimposes the image and attitude of teen idols such as 'N Sync over the venerable trio sound.

Musically Los Tri-O updates the ballad with lush orchestral arrangements similar to those that catapulted Mexican soloist Luis Miguel to superstardom. A fourth hunk, John Harby "Dartagnan" Ubaque, accompanies the singers on the requinto for Mexican songs. On Los Tri-O's follow-up album, La Gloria Eres Tu (You Are the Glory) Dartagnan also plays the four-stringed Puerto Rican guitar known as the quatro for Caribbean numbers. Behind him swell more than a dozen violins and violoncellos. The strings underscore the crystal clarity of Esteban's voice, often mixed so as almost to mute the other two, and approaching at times the more modern appeal of R&B vocal styling. Two original songs by Colombian composer Kike Santander perfectly capture the spirit of Los Tri-O's revivalism: The arrangements remain forever faithful to the emotion of the traditional bolero.

Gutierrez selected the singers for Los Tri-O with as much of an eye for their demographic appeal as an ear for their considerable vocal talent. "They didn't change our individual styles," insists Esteban. "We are still who we were before." There was no need for any change; the young men live out the same demographics they are meant to attract. Sitting poolside at the Hotel Sofitel by the Miami International Airport during a long day of interviews, Esteban is strumming a guitar distractedly. With a thin face and piercing eyes, he is, he says, "the serious one." Draped over a lawn chair next to him with black-enameled-fingernails tapping a glass tabletop, Andres is the "rebel." Leaping up to help a reporter to her chair, Manuel is the sweet-faced charmer.

Before the audition the college students crossed paths frequently in the Colombian capital without ever meeting one another. All three studied at different times of the day with the same voice teacher, Claudio Castillo. Andres and Manuel sang for the armed-forces chorus in the consecutive years of their mandatory military service, but Andres was purportedly kicked out for mischief. Esteban performed the traditional music of the Colombian plains with folkloric ensembles and picked up cash singing boleros in nightclubs. All three remember growing up in households full of the music made popular by the Mexican movies imported to Colombia. When Andres begins to play the rollicking riffs of a ranchera on his acoustic guitar, Esteban and Manuel join in, laughing as they sing.

The commercial impetus behind Los Tri-O does not diminish the significance of its commitment to Latin musical traditions, insists Andres. On the contrary agrees Esteban. At a time when many of his young compatriots "only listen to music in English," the first voice of Latin America's new number-one trio sees its success in attracting new generations to the Latin-American bolero as nothing short of a "Bolivarian" cultural project.

Appropriately enough, from the birthplace of the great liberator Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan trio Los Hidalgo joins Los Tri-O in its continental appeal. "Our people deserve better music," protests eldest brother Jesus. In a pointed reference to the popularity of party merengue, he says. "We don't sing to the beeper or the butt. We sing to celebrate the dignity of our women and our race."

The three sons of eminent Venezuelan composer Enrique Hidalgo say they have been singing together for as long as they can remember. "My father set up this kind of workshop," recalls Jesus. "We would all get together with him and compose songs."

In 1985 when Jaime, the youngest, was just thirteen years old, sixteen-year-old Jesus booked the teenagers a gig throughout their summer vacation in the beachside resort town of Puerto La Cruz on Venezuela's Caribbean coast. "I went up there and told the owner of the bar that I was the manager of this group called Urbanda," he laughs. "I asked for all kinds of things, like a seaside villa for us to live in the whole summer. And I got it!" Jesus and Jannio, at fourteen years old, each looked older than their years, but kid brother Jaime obviously was too young to enter a bar legally. "We always had a lookout," remembers Jannio, "to warn us when someone from the police or the radio union was coming in." "Then I would duck behind the speakers," adds the youngest, "and keep playing.

Age was not the only issue that led to a run-in with the law. Their original music got the insouciant youths in trouble with police in sleepy Puerto La Cruz. Inspired by their composer-father, the teenagers played exclusively original songs that sampled joyously from the pop genres of the day. "We played ska, we played rock, we even played disco," says Jannio. "We especially liked the Bee Gees," smiles Jesus, "because they were three brothers, like us." The punk-flavor "It's a CIA Thing" complains about an overzealous girlfriend who keeps close tabs on her furtive lover. A local cop listening in took offense at the song's irreverent references to law enforcement. "We're not talking about the police around here," a quick-talking Jesus reassured the beach cop. "We're talking about the CIA. They're totally different from you, sir."

The summertime jam so delighted vacationing students that Urbanda subsequently became favorites on the college circuit, playing gigs across the nation and recording three CDs over the next ten years. Then each brother went his own way. Jaime attempted to start a business. Jannio got involved in another rock band. Jesus moved to Miami as an aspiring actor and sang for a while with a Brazilian combo, and then fronted a pop flamenco outfit.

When Jannio and Jaime rejoined Jesus last year here in Miami, the success of Los Tri-O had paved the way for a musical family reunion. Roughly a decade older than the singers in Los Tri-O, the self-titled debut of Los Hidalgo demonstrates an impressive maturity and originality. Los Tri-O puts fresh young faces on an otherwise faithful reproduction of an old genre. The more seasoned Hidalgos sift through the archaeological remains of the romantic ballad to create a new, more sophisticated Latin pop.

Papa Enrique Hidalgo composed nine of the twelve tracks on Los Hidalgo. Tending more toward Trio Matamoros than Los Panchos, songs like "Toda Tu" ("All of You") and "Antillana" ("Antillean") update the Caribbean bolero-son with a single violin taking the place of the three-stringed tres. As in their teen years, the brothers sample genres eclectically, including here the guaguancó "Rompe el Verano" ("Summer's Breaking Out") and the cumbia "La Carta" ("The Letter").

Here the strings and piano serve as spare punctuation for voices whose harmonies the brothers have honed over a lifetime. "We record in long takes," says Jesus, describing a practice that runs contrary to most contemporary recording. "There's no way for us to sing in bits and pieces." The brothers take turns at each vocal part, sometimes trading places midverse to take advantage of the high and low timbre of each voice.

The three demonstrate the beauty of such profound vocal familiarity when they burst into an a cappella performance of "Pero Te Amo" ("But I Love You"), during an interview at the Airport Hilton. "What will I do to fool my heart?" the siblings ask, their heads bent close. "What will you do hide your emotion?" Taking the first voice, Jesus closes his eyes with emotion: "If your words keep turning into poems./And my poems keep turning into song."

From the Bolivarian project of Los Tri-O to the brother act of Los Hidalgo, the three parts of the trio turn the diverse genres of Latin-American music into a single sustained harmony. "We're not salseros; we're not merengueros," explains Jesus Hidalgo. "Our music is a kind of pressure cooker for contemporary music."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado