Seductive Serenade

Miramar explores the longing and beauty of bolero.

Marlysse Simmons, Rei Alvarez and Laura Ann Singh

Photo by Christ Smith

The three members of Miramar never knew they would be in the vanguard of an international resurgence in bolero music.  

“Suddenly a lot of musicians, especially in Puerto Rico, are releasing albums of boleros,” says Marlysse Simmons, keyboardist for the Richmond-based trio, which specializes in the long, smoldering male-female duet singing found in classic Latin American boleros—music fueled with minor chords, sinuous bass-lines and a slow motion groove. “People were asking me, ‘What’s this new movement all about?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know if it’s a movement. It’s a coincidence.’”  

And a happy one. The group’s debut full-length CD, Dedicated to Sylvia Rexach, shot to the top of the Latin music charts on upon its release in June. NBC Nightly News, CNN and NPR have hailed the disc, and a recent tour saw appearances at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center.

“We don’t buy the hype that people will only listen to high energy dance music,” says Miramar singer Laura Ann Singh, a Tennessee native who fell in love with Latin American melodies while attending the University of Richmond and spending some quality time in Brazil. “And there is dancing here, but a much different type. This music has heartache in it,” she says. “It has longing, beauty … I think that people need that in the world today.”  

Boleros, unlike other Latin American song modes, aren’t formulaic in terms of song construction. “Any type of romantic song coming out of Latin American communities could be a bolero,” says Simmons. The genre’s deepest roots took hold in Cuba, but, since the 1930s, it has had a strong and persistent presence in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and other pan-Latin locales. From time to time, there’s a resurgence—the last one was in the ’90s—so it would seem like tortured romanticism never really goes out of style.  

“I love that boleros can bring you to a place of more introspection,” says Singh. “People can appreciate beautiful things. There’s a place for all of it.”

Using simple instrumentation—mostly Simmons’ piano plus guitar, bass, percussion and occasionally a swirling string section—and centered on the tandem lead vocals of Singh and Rei Alvarez, Miramar’s work is intimate and unabashedly passionate. Chilean-American Simmons, and Alvarez, who grew up in Hampton Roads with family roots in Puerto Rico, are best known for their work in Bio Ritmo, a long-running Richmond-based salsa band famous for high-octane live shows. They hooked up with Singh when Simmons enlisted the others to harmonize on a project called Os Magrelos. Afterwards, Alvarez proposed that they form a bolero group, with a sound based on classic ’50s and ’60s bands like Puerto Rico’s Duo Irizarry de Córdova. The trio self-released a seven-song EP in 2010 and much of that material, enhanced and remixed, made it onto the new CD. When they gathered tunes, they realized that there was a common denominator. “Many of the songs we loved the best were written by Sylvia Rexach,” says Simmons.   

Rexach, a pioneering composer who died in 1961 at age 39, is not well-known outside of her native Puerto Rico, but many of her original songs (like “Di, Corazon” and “Alma Adentro”) are considered classics. For Dedicated, they sought the blessing of her daughter in Miami, and took research trips to Puerto Rico. Miramar’s disc presents seven Rexach covers plus three originals.

“We’ve gotten a great response from people who love boleros,” says Simmons. “And I’d like to think we’re turning a new audience on to them too.”

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