Los Tres Reyes: the enduring sound of the Mexican romantic trio

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When I first took a look at the cover of Romancing the Past (Smithsonian Folkways), the beautiful new album from veteran Mexican trio Los Tres Reyes, the tux-clad, guitar-wielding musicians called to mind the strolling troubadours I've attempted to avoid in local Mexican restaurants. But once I dug into the album (elsewhere in the package, they're pictured in less formal attire), the splendid, pitch-perfect performances made it clear these guys are no duffers.

Los Tres Reyes began in 1958 in Mexico City, when fraternal twins Gilberto and Raúl Puente (born in Nuevo Laredo) recruited the great singer Hernando Avilés. Fourteen years earlier Avilés, a native of Puerto Rico, had formed Trío Los Panchos, the group that still defines the Mexican bolero trio—with three-part vocal harmonies and a dazzling mix of acoustic guitar and requinto (a higher-pitched lute, created by cofounder Alfredo "El Güero" Gil, that's tuned a perfect fourth above the guitar). His involvement allowed the Puente brothers to first master and later update that sound. Over the years Los Tres Reyes extended their repertoire beyond the bolero—a romantic song form that landed in the state of Yucatan from nearby Cuba at the turn of the century—to include homegrown rancheros and pasillos and folk styles from Peru, Venezuela, and Cuba. The original version of the trio lasted until 1966, and they re-formed in 1991 after being enlisted to sing on Linda Ronstadt's Canciones de Mi Padres. Their current lead singer, Bebo Cárdenas, is Cuban.

Romancing the Past is undeniably nostalgic, but the exquisite vocal harmonies and rich lattice of contrapuntal guitar are hard to resist even if you've never spent much time with the music to which it's paying homage. The sweetness of the voices reminds me a bit of the great Cuban vocal group Los Zafiros, and the state-of-the-art studio production makes the precision of the singing much easier to hear than on most of the old Trío Los Panchos recordings. Below you can check out Los Tres Reyes' version of "El Lunar de María," an old Cuban guaracha. The album comes out March 27.

Los Tres Reyes, "El Lunar de María"

Today's playlist:

Various artists, The Real Bahamas in Music and Song (Nonesuch Explorer Series)
Joel Frahm Quartet, Live at Smalls (Smalls Live)
Delirium, Green Side Up (ILK)
Stanley Turrentine, That's Where It's At (Blue Note)
Iro Haarla Quintet, Vespers (ECM)

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