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‘Latinas!’ offers continental style

Times Staff Writer

Pop music compilations can be mere marketing devices for record labels to exploit their catalogs, especially in the Latin industry. Rarely are the concepts particularly revealing or meaningful. But one label, New York’s Putumayo World Music, has made a mission of producing compilations that enlighten as well as entertain by spotlighting the best in pop music from around the world.

Now, for the first time, the company is taking its show on the road with “Latinas! Musical Divas of Latin America,” a concert tour that stopped Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The show, based on a recently released album, features three singers whose styles span the continent: Belo Velloso from Brazil, Mariana Montalvo from Chile and the headliner, Toto La Momposina from Colombia.

It’s tough to translate an album concept to the stage without losing the scope or depth inherent in good compilations. But Velloso, Montalvo and La Momposina, who performed separately with their own musicians, displayed qualities common to colleagues on the collection -- alluring vocals, innate rhythm, natural gracefulness and a firm grounding in their cultural roots.

This tour marks the U.S. debut for both Velloso, the young niece of acclaimed Brazilian stars Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethania, and Montalvo, a seasoned singer who’s been living in France since 1974, when Chile’s brutal dictatorship forced her into exile.

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The show’s sequence created a crescendo, starting with Velloso’s mellow bossa-nova vibe backed by two acoustic guitars. She was followed by Montalvo, who played her own guitars, including the tiny charango, accompanied by two fabulous musicians exchanging spirited solos on guitar (Pierre Bluteau) and flutes (Olivier Ombredane).

After intermission, La Momposina appeared alone at center stage, dressed in a brilliant cobalt blue and gold costume, kneeling while she sang a stunning a cappella hymn that hushed the crowd. Her six male musicians then marched onstage with a festive explosion of drums, guitars, gaitas and maracas, closing the evening with a thrilling display of Colombia’s folkloric fusion of African, European and Indian cultures.

This traveling musical sampler gave the capacity, multiethnic crowd a rare glimpse of the native artistry so plentiful in Latin America and so undervalued by the U.S. Latin music industry, which tends to push the vapid, disposable pop of prefab female singers such as Thalia and Paulina Rubio.

The vivacious Putumayo women didn’t have to show skin or do lurid dances to prove the power of their femininity. Calling them divas doesn’t do them justice. These are natural, likable women who embody the sterling qualities of their craft -- dignity, elegance and tradition.

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