Silvana Estrada never danced as expected. As a little girl growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, the singer-songwriter tried to find her rhythm in ballet like every other little girl, pairing metronome ticks with pointy toes and perfect right angles. But other people were quick to point out that the delicate piano inspired her to sashay her bigger body in all the wrong ways. “No necesitamos eso,” her mother said, and with that they ditched the dusty pink leotards and satin-covered shoes for dance classes in which she could move freely, focusing on more intensely impactful dancing and liberator of African descent.
She fell in love. From that point on, everything became a hunt for those soulful, all-consuming percussive beats that could inspire anyone within earshot to drop their thoughts and get moving. “The sense of rhythm [that being in those kinds] of dance lessons gave me is something I still have. This idea that music is good, it feels good in your body,” Estrada told NPR. “For me, it’s like I really need some rhythmic structure.”
The young singer-songwriter made her debut to a wider audience in 2017, when she released Lo Sagrado with the famous American guitarist Charlie Hunter. The collaborative album was a soft and masterfully delicate work that showcased the artist’s jazz roots but lacked the rhythms and structure necessary to show the inner workings of her dancer’s soul. Yet many in Latin America and beyond were hooked by his unique ability to harness the physique, and after the release of his own EP Primeras Canciones, she was approached by the great folk/indie label Glassnote.
To know Estrada’s work is to be captivated by what follows, and at 24, she comes with her recently released debut solo album, Marchita. The album is filled with strong percussive moments and gripping rhythms, stitched together with clapping, stomping and guttural, almost unrecognizable vocal passages on tracks like “Un Día Cualquiera”. With sinuous melodies and softer rhythms found on songs like “Carta”, she presents a full and authentic Silvana Estrada – pulsating in equal parts “fuerza” and heart, earthbound by the limits of her imagination alone.
The child of musicians and instrument makers, Estrada grew up in a sanctuary away from critical scrutiny and ripe for freedom of expression. Home was where the artist could embrace his instincts and navigate the wooden bodies that surrounded him in all the right ways. Growing up listening to the greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Mercedes Sosa – she tried to find the space and time where their bodies met. She focused on the moments when their sounds overwhelmed her “corazón”, just as she had experienced in her African dance lessons, and let them dictate the way she chained the songs. It was these moments that gave Estrada the space to play, imagine and connect with the body using the parameters of a rich, layered musical structure.
“We have this misconception that anything to do with the body has to be incredibly happy, that kind of rhythmic dance music,” Estrada says, adding that this misconception is limiting. “If I listen to Billie Holiday, it absolutely crushes my chest and, you know, it’s physical. It’s so timeless, that feeling.”
At Marchita, she manages to chisel concrete structures out of the ethereal feelings she was trying to imitate using the two best tools she discovered in her studio: her voice and the cuatro venezolano. “Producing my album is just letting my voice travel and have the opportunity to go straight to your chest and make your chest vibrate,” Estrada shares. “And that’s something that I worked on without knowing that I was working on it. Like, oh my god, if I sing that way, it feels good. It feels good in my chest or in my stomach and it always creates something [for the people] on the other side of the story, the people listening to this are feeling something.”
Following his voice, Estrada has an appointment with Billie and Mercedes, and the Marchita his voice is the stuff of legends. In its silky tones and enchanting vibrato, the space-time continuum is subverted and eternities of preserved passions flow in. The cuatro venezolano grounds her vocals in the present, turning stolen kisses and rambunctious affairs into dependable melodies and buttery-smooth harmonies, a couple that keeps her firmly centered. The other instruments add all sorts of nuance to the music, but it operates in thin, dark lines, the rhythmic center anchoring its multilingual, global audience into the soul of the music.
In her careful hands, abandoning themselves to her cuatro and her voice, those who see her in concert are drawn into a meticulous exploration of eras. They are often guided less by the substance of his words and more by the way they come and go, changing shape and swirling through the bodies in the room. “I try to make all my music go beyond language,” Estrada says. “I’m about to tour the United States and I know that not all of the audience will be Spanish speaking. But I know that all of these people will have souls, hearts or experiences, [and] bodies that will feel something.”
For those who can guess the meaning of his textured poetry, a whole universe unfolds. The utilitarian body resurfaces, used less as a flat paintbrush to blend worlds than as a scalpel to incise its heart and reveal its own limits. “Tengo una voz y una piel / Que quieren que tu las descifres / Tengo la vida muy corta / Para hear lo que dicen (I have a voice and a skin / Who want to be deciphered by you / My life is too short / For understand what they say)”, she sings on “Te Guardo (For You I’ll Keep)”. In a moment of self-imposed weakness, she lets her naivety weigh in, losing her greatest asset to someone else’s definition.
To the casual ear, moments like these can validate a desire to throw Marchita aside as just another debut album about first love. But closer listening reveals Estrada, once again, employing his subversive “brujeria” to transcend experience. She uses her own supposedly youthful naivety to expose raw truths and delve into painful subjects that most seasoned artists find difficult to confront, let alone address directly.
Applying a seemingly antithetical, joy-filled sense of rhythm to exploring themes like death, loss, and longing – “marchita” translates to withering in English – she makes even the most unpleasant and painful of lives enjoyable. I ask her questions about this tension, how she was able to build the layers of her universe, find a space for joy, dance and death. “I’m Mexican,” she laughs.
Beyond the walls of the picturesque Estradas “greater” is yet another stratum, a world with a different set of emotions and politics. Veracruz, Mexico is an extremely intricate painting filled with rich colors from cultural history – as well as darker hues. In 2021, it was ranked the Mexican state with the highest rate of violent attacks on politicians according to consulting firm Etellekt, a reality that has colored the way Estrada sees death and life and the line of d emotions that separate them.
“We’re so close to horror, really,” says Estrada, of living in Veracruz. “But at the same time [we have] delicious food and amazing music and have all those contrasts. At the end of the day, I think it’s like a lesson in the whole, the whole picture has beauty [in] her, not just on one side.”
Marchita will not be found accompanying swishing hips in salsa clubs or bouncing bodies in discos, but the young singer’s honed instincts and deep knowledge of much of what life has to offer – the exuberant and the horrible – give it a beating heart and “mas fuerte que” dance power most early albums. At 24, she constantly relies on her own ability to bring herself back to Earth. “Above all, every word, every concept again [happens] in our body, right?” she said. “I am a body that can create sounds like any other body.”
There’s a brevity to the way Estrada behaves that fills every nook and cranny of Marchita. Songs like “La Corriente” rely on powerful prose and stunning strings to render immortal beautiful imagery. Summoning a lightness of soul to dig the calcified crevices of reckless love, she coos, “Cambiaste mareas y corrientes / Dejaste tu lumière en el mar / Volteaste la cara sonriente / Y yo que no supe nadar (You changed the tides and the currents / You left your name on the sea / You turned a smiling face / And I couldn’t swim.) Even on weirder pieces like the organ-powered “Casa” or the harrowing “Tristeza”, he there is always an air of mysticism and fantasy guiding the carefully laid out tracks.
“I guess it’s really important to internalize joy, isn’t it?” she says. It took him a minute to find the right word for “internalizing”, probably because it’s one of those frequently felt and so rarely talked about experiences, something that lives closer to the chest than the brain.
Over long days on the tour bus and nights spent sharing secrets with throngs of strangers, she found herself revisiting her first love, the one that introduced her to effortless joy. Whether she spends five minutes slipping out dance moves backstage or an hour tapping into an old class routine, she finds it crucial to maintaining her own well-being and continually cultivating honesty in her life. job. “Whenever I have a joyful physical experience, I kind of relate that joyful moment to what I’m doing because singing is also a joyful physical experience,” Estrada says.
In Estrada’s studio, joy and loss sway to the same melodies. When you have a seismic vocation, all you can do is follow the rhythm of your bones and the vibration of your vocal cords to a higher level. At Marchita, she invites the listener to join her there, and to let go of whatever respective worlds or languages they come from. Estrada asks us to defy expectations and look within, to the song in our souls, to see if, even just for a moment, we can dance all the wrong ways together at the exact same frequency.