Three Is Still the Magic Number

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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.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado