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Simple Idea, Spooky Result: Latin American Ballads Get A Ghostly Makeover

As Frankie Reyes, Los Angeles-based musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker flips Latin standards into something ghostly and new.
As Frankie Reyes, Los Angeles-based musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker flips Latin standards into something ghostly and new.

Los Angeles musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker had a problem: A few years ago, he was asked to tackle the weighty subject of Latin American modernism in sound. His response was to invent a new persona, and to restrict himself to a spare and specific set of tools. Under the new name Frankie Reyes, he set off to record a dozen instrumental versions of Spanish-language ballads and waltzes from the 1930s through the '60s, using only a vintage analog synthesizer.

The resulting album, Boleros Valses y Mas, is a novelty record in the best sense of the term: making something new and unusual by mining older songs and technologies. If you're familiar with the original songs, you'll notice that Reyes isn't doing anything dramatic with his arrangements. The Oberheim synthesizer isn't even that old — it hit the market in the late '70s. But in using it to remake these standards from generations earlier, Reyes disrupts our sense of where, and especially when, these songs first came out.

One of my favorite things about Boleros Valses y Mas is how every listen inspires new metaphors to try to describe it. So far, I've come up with: "It's from an old Puerto Rican sci-fi movie soundtrack," or, "It's what you'd hear during a graveyard carousel ride," or, "It's what a band might play if your quinceañera happened to fall on the Day of the Dead." And though those all work to a degree, the magic and mystery of Frankie Reyes's sound always feels just outside the realm of description, but well within that of imagination.

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Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.