No matter how beautiful and interesting your music might be, Disney still offers stiff competition when it comes to attracting young ears. At the moment, the sparkly eyed toddler Aurora is doing her best to belt out the Frozen refrain “Let It Go” while I talk to her parents on the sun-dappled back deck of a house in Oakland’s Lincoln Heights.
Performing as Alejandro y Maria Laura, the couple has gradually established a firm beachhead on the Bay Area music scene in recent years, earning avid fans while opening for local Latin American luminaries like Maria José Montijo and Diana Gameros. They play a diverse array of East Bay gigs over the next week, including a Pinole house concert on Saturday (email@example.com), an intimate show at Studio Grand on Sunday, and the season kick off for the University of California Botanical Gardens at Berkeley’s Redwood Grove Summer Concert series Thursday, June 6.
In an interesting twist, the couple’s whimsical, often brilliantly orchestrated Spanish-language songs seem to fit more naturally into the anything-goes Bay Area scene than at home in Lima, where they’ve fought to avoid pigeonholing. When Maria Laura Bustamante and Alejandro Rivas started performing together 10 years ago, they often worked as a duo, sharing vocals while accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar (Alejandro) and piano (Maria Laura), which led many to describe their music as trova.
But the leftist nueva trova movement of the late 1960s, exemplified by Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, “is all about a concrete message,” Alejandro says. “The songs are not really open to interpretation. Our music is the contrary. I’m much more interested in art that’s open than closed. But the trova cliché is you have an acoustic guitar.”
I first caught Alejandro y Maria Laura about five years ago at Studio Grand, where they played a gorgeous opening set for Diana Gameros, who was rapidly emerging as an important voice with national reach. Purchasing their first two records, 2011’s Paracaídas and 2013’s Fiesta para los muertos—both recorded in Argentina and produced by Jorge Drexler confidante Matias Cella — the projects brimmed with striking melodies and poetic, sometimes fantastical lyrics. On “Villancicos” from Fiesta, they imagine a Christmas song that describes a donkey and a personified hug traveling across the continent.
They’ve returned repeatedly to the Bay Area because Alejandro’s parents settled in Oakland a few years ago, where his older sister is doing a medical residency at Highland Hospital. They released their latest album La casa no existe in 2017, a critically hailed project with contributions from Brazilian singer and actor Paulinho Moska and the Argentine band Perotá Chingó. While proud of their nationality, they haven’t really found a niche at home.
“We’re more part of a Latin American scene,” Alejandro says.
“We share a lot in common with musicians in Argentina and Chile or Diana Gameros here,” Maria Laura adds.
“There is a scene in Lima, but Peru is lacking in singer/songwriters,” Alejandro says. “Of course there are people who write songs, but the marketing is for a rock band, or a reggae band. We don’t ever talk about style. Now the press calls us indie folk.”
Despite the necessity of blazing their own trail, Alejandro y Maria Laura have found a significant audience. Celebrating their 10th anniversary as a musical team in April they played a concert at Lima’s most prestigious venue, the Gran Teatro Nacional, which seats 1,500. Rather than employing a full orchestra, which is the way bands often approach their debut at the venue, they assembled a versatile 10-piece ensemble.
“All the songs had new arrangements,” Maria Laura says. “We’re doing that all the time. We get new instruments or musicians and we try to incorporate the new sounds into the band.”
For the East Bay run, they’ll be joined by Lima multi-instrumentalist Bruno Rosazza on synths, drum machine, percussion, trumpet and vocals. “When he joined the band in January we started thinking differently about the songs,” Alejandro says.
Both Alejandro and Maria Laura were born in Lima, though she spent much of her adolescence in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. They met at college, where she was singing in an a cappella jazz trio and studying theater and he was playing guitar in a prog rock band while studying music. They were dating for a year before they started writing music together, but “in our free time we’d share songs,” Alejandro says. “Making suggestions to each other,” she adds. “It came naturally when we were talking about each other’s songs.”
They started to realize that their musical partnership might be something special while on a study-abroad program in Sun Valley, Idaho. Before long they started looking for places to play together, hitting up every restaurant or spot where they could bring in a guitar.
“We just went and played and sang,” Alejandro says. “By then we’d written four songs together. We did well with the audiences, and by the last month we were playing five days a week, Beatles, Chabuca Granda, Café Tacuba, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ everything we liked. We tried not to discriminate.”
Returning to Peru, they set out to record their first album. They drew most of the songs for Paracaídas from Maria Laura’s senior project, a theatrical musical presentation drawing on her skills as a director, writer, and producer.
Always on the lookout for new sources of inspiration, they’ve created their own musical cottage industry in Lima, with a home studio where Alejandro produces projects for other musicians. “We do a songwriting workshop and I give singing lessons,” Maria Laura says. “We made a soundtrack for a film that’s coming out later this year and did a song for it as well.”
“We do this because we’re really curious,” he says. “We don’t like to keep still too much, to stay in one style and one place. We’ve changed the band members a lot. Our form of creating music is to pick from here and there. If not we grow bored doing the same songs the same way.”