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Martirio is in many ways the living martyr of Spanish song. As is implied by her stage name, the alter ego has allowed Maribel Quiñones to defend what she believes in artistically and to unsettle deeply held notions of music in Spain. In the mid ’80s, she rescued the copla from the propagandistic distortions it had suffered during Francisco Franco’s regime, and defied flamenco’s visual status quo with an unconventional, if not campy stage presence.
Later, Martirio formed a union between the copla and jazz, before going on to explore the musical soundscapes of Latin America. On her latest project, Primavera En Nueva York, Martirio borrows from flamenco to sing little known, mostly Cuban boleros from the ’40s and ’50s, accompanied by a jazz trio with occasional additional instruments (guitar, clarinet, tenor saxophone, fluegelhorn).
“In a way, the story of recording [these songs] in New York, with American musicians, is perhaps what the composers dreamt of, because they are fílin from when the influence of American jazz was admitted into the Cuban bolero,” explains Martirio on the phone, shortly after arriving in Miami for a short tour, which included four shows over two nights in New York. “So then it was this idea of creating ballads as if they were great jazz standards in Spanish.”
The elusive and unorthodox queen of Spanish fusion, reaffirmed her fame onstage at the Artime Theater in the heart of Little Havana on a Friday night in May. The former church turned concert venue was just the kind of incongruous space where the artist feels right at home. “I have been so looking forward to this show,” proclaimed one man while waiting in line on the steps that led up to one of the theater’s many doorways. Another, while talking on a cell phone, excitedly declared his disbelief that he was about to see Martirio perform.
Backed by pianist Kenny Drew Jr. on piano, bassist George Mraz and drummer Dafnis Prieto on drums, the singer ambled toward the center of the trio’s half-moon formation in a flowing papaya-colored dress and shawl draped around her shoulders with her tradmark black shades and ornamental hair combs. No preamble needed, Martirio began creating moods and constructing atmospheres with her voice, rich in tonal range and timbral depth. She communicated unique yet palpable feelings to a nearly packed house full of adoring fans, though it was her understated, tremulous whispers, often punctuated physically by a clenched fist brought up against her chest, that evoked the romanticism of a bygone era with all the raw passion of fl amenco.
Born in Huelva, in the province of Andalucia, Martirio was surrounded by music from an early age. Zarzuela, opera, copla, tango, bolero, and popular music were part of her upbringing, as was her parents’ love for theater. “I’m very influenced by theater,” Martirio recalls. “Many times I’ve been told that I wear the scenery on me, I like aesthetics, costumes, and all of that. And yes, it’s true that I represent my songs, I absolutely live in them, that is why I never sing about things that have nothing to do with me. I never sing about an experience I’ve not lived.”
Given her background, it seems only natural that Martirio would have fallen into Madrid’s artistic underground during a time in which the nation was, on the one hand, enjoying the freedoms of democracy, and on the other, polarized by conflicts over what was deemed morally accepatable. In 1975, Franco died, and his military dictatorship officially came to an end. But as in cinema and literature, the rebirth of the performing arts did not wait for the dictator’s demise. Playwrights, theater groups and si