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How Ella Fitzgerald Is Influencing A New Generation Of Latinx Musicians

Sep 7, 2019
Originally published on September 7, 2019 11:42 am

As one of the most beloved singers of the 20th century, Ella Fitzgerald was admired around the world. She was also one of the most acclaimed, earning a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award; a National Medal of Art and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, 14 Grammy Awards and honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Howard Universities.

As an acrobatic vocalist, revered performer and scatting phenom, Fitzgerald and her musical genius cast a long and storied shadow. Even two decades after her death, Fitzgerald's influence is still being felt today — not just in jazz, but across all kinds of genres.

Latinx musicians Mabiland and Daymé Arocena feel that influence. They both mention Fitzgerald in their official bios and both say they feel a strong connection to the legend's music.

Twenty-four-year-old Mabiland — also known as Mabely Largacha — is a neo-soul artist who grew up in Quibdó, a small city ​on the Pacific coastal plains of​​ Colombia. She remembers the very first Ella Fitzgerald song she heard, when she was nine years old: "Summertime."

"To hear that voice and understand the power of someone who could put her soul into her voice like that — for me, that is Ella," Mabiland explains.
Misael Belt / Courtesy of the artist

"I had no idea a woman could sing like that," she says. "To hear that voice and understand the power of someone who could put her soul into her voice like that — for me, that is Ella."

Arocena, a 27-year-old singer and composer from Havana, says Fitzgerald's music had a powerful impact on her, too. "Any person that wants to be a singer should know Ella Fitzgerald," she says.

Neither singer wants to copy Fitzgerald. Instead, Mabiland says she tries to take what she's learned from listening to Fitzgerald and combine it with hip-hop, R&B and soul to tell her own story. These two Latinx millennials agree Fitzgerald's songs are as exciting and interesting today as they were when Fitzgerald recorded her first hit in 1938. Mabiland says Fitzgerald transcends her time.

"I think there are artists that you know are good, who in their generational moment, they mark that moment," she says. "And there are others who are eternal. Ella Fitzgerald was eternal."

Mabiland and Arocena spoke with reporter Catalina Maria Johnson about the timelessness of Fitzgerald's artistry and how they infuse her influence into their own respective work. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th century. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and 14 Grammys. She was admired around the world, and her influence is still felt today. For the NPR series Turning The Tables, Catalina Maria Johnson spoke to two young Latin musicians about what Ella Fitzgerald means to them.

CATALINA MARIA JOHNSON, BYLINE: Mabiland is a 24-year-old neo soul artist from Colombia who sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DICIEMBRE DEL 95")

MABILAND: (Singing in Spanish)

JOHNSON: Mabiland grew up in Quibdo, a small city on the Pacific coastal plains of Colombia. And she remembers the very first Ella Fitzgerald song she heard when she was 9 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy.

MABILAND: (Through interpreter) I had no idea a woman could sing like that. For me to hear that voice and understand the power of someone who could put her soul into her voice like that, for me, that is Ella.

JOHNSON: Mabiland, whose real name is Mabely Largacha, says her mom even played one of her favorite Ella tunes at bedtime to get her to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Say it's only a paper moon. Sailing over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me.

JOHNSON: Dayme Arocena is a 27-year-old singer and composer who grew up in Havana, Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MENUET PARA UN CORAZON")

DAYME AROCENA: (Singing in Spanish)

JOHNSON: Arocena started singing when she was 8 years old. But she didn't hear Ella Fitzgerald until she was 15, when she was invited to join the big band at the famed Havana Conservatory. What really caught her ear was Ella's scat singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERDIDO (LIVE)")

FITZGERALD: (Scatting)

AROCENA: I said to myself, oh, my goodness. What is she doing? You know what? I don't know what's she's doing, but I want to do it, too (laughter). So my love with Ella was pretty connected to scat. Being honest, one of my dreams is to get that level of scatting one day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY ME A RIVER")

AROCENA: (Scatting)

JOHNSON: Neither singer wants to copy Ella. Instead, Mabiland says she tries to take what she's learned from listening to Fitzgerald and combine it with hip-hop, R&B and soul to tell her own story.

MABILAND: (Through interpreter) I have listened to a lot of artists, and I always put her on because that's what she means to me. When I speak of Ella, I think so much of what I'm sharing with people with my voice, when I interpret a song, when I write a song, when I go through the process of putting my soul into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSTINTO FUGAZ (LIVE) ")

MABILAND: (Singing in Spanish)

JOHNSON: And for Dayme Arocena, it's not so much about the purity of Ella's voice or her perfect diction.

AROCENA: For me, the most impressive thing was the way she could conduct ideas - she could create melodies, rhythms, all the technique that she had to do anything that she had in her mind. Any person that wants to be a singer should know Ella Fitzgerald.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAR ME TALKIN' TO YA")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Rambling man makes no change in me. I'm going to ramble back to my used to be. You hear me talking to you.

JOHNSON: These two Latino millennials agree; Ella Fitzgerald's songs are as exciting and interesting today as they were when she recorded her first hit in 1938. Mabiland says Ella transcends her time.

MABILAND: (Through interpreter) I think there are artists that you know are good, who in their generational moment, they mark that moment. And there are others who are eternal. Ella Fitzgerald was eternal.

JOHNSON: Arocena says she was unique.

AROCENA: Every single day pop up a new singer. But Ella had light, the light from the sky. She had the power from the earth. She had this sweetness from sugar, from honey. She had the colors of her heritage, her ancestors. So I think it could last forever, Ella. She's going to be here forever.

JOHNSON: And Mabiland says Ella Fitzgerald changed her.

MABILAND: (Through interpreter) I feel that my life would not have been the same if I hadn't listened to her.

JOHNSON: For NPR News, I'm Catalina Maria Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW HIGH THE MOON")

FITZGERALD: (Scatting) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.