Balladeer of Love

Salvador Duran makes them swoon

The most immediately noticeable facet of any given performance by Salvador Duran, a hugely talented musician and artist from northern Mexico, is his level of concentration. He seems enraptured, caught up in the urgency and passion of what he is singing, even if the setting is a casual one, like when he used to perform in the lobby of Hotel Congress on Thursdays. There is nothing phoned-in about what Salvador does; he means it, every word.

Of course, since he sings in Spanish, many of his gringo admirers, your author included, have no idea what he's actually saying, but what does translate is how heartfelt it is, which makes the actualities of the lyrical content somewhat inconsequential (although understanding Spanish would undoubtedly enrich the experience).

Originally from a mining town in northern Mexico, Duran's early life parallels that of Elvis in one very interesting respect. "I was born in a family of nine children--five girls and three boys. I am a twin, but my twin brother died when he was born. My mother used to tell me that he passed one of the talents to me. She thinks (he) was either a musician or a painter, so that is why I have both talents," Salvador tells me via an e-mail translation by his friend Norma Martinez. He understands a lot of English, but I know very little Spanish, so we decided that it was imperative that we have a translator.

Duran began singing in kindergarten. "(It was) a song called 'El Siete Leguas' dedicated to Pancho Villa's horse, and one of the most popular songs at the time," he says. From that portentous moment forward, Duran has refined his abiding love for the folk music of Mexico. "When I was 4 years old, the radios were less (than) 20 years old, and the folk Mexican music was the most popular in all its version(s): ranchera, campirana, romantica, orquestral. We also got to listen to American music from some of the U.S. stations in Oklahoma and Los Angeles. The musicians that most influenced me were Pedro Infante, Lucha Reyes, Los Panchos and Laurens Welchs." (By "Laurens Welchs," I assume he means Lawrence Welk. Fascinating.)

Duran is perhaps first and foremost a painter ("I am more inclined to art," he says), and thus settled into a warehouse studio space on East Toole Avenue in 2003. Fatefully, it happened to be right next door to Solar Culture Gallery, and its operator, local culture maven Steven Eye, both directly and indirectly opened doors for Salvador that have defined his life since then. "Tucson has been completely enriched by the arrival of Salvador. He is one of our greatest hidden treasures," says Eye, although I'm not sure that he'll be hidden for long, if he even is still.

Eye, a sculptor, first related to Salvador via his paintings, which are sprawling, colorful and nearly psychedelic imaginings of people and places (including a large mural that adorned the front of Solar Culture for about six months). But upon hearing him play music, he immediately procured the Hotel Congress gig for Duran and then subsequently put him in the orbit of Joey Burns and Calexico. (Full disclosure: I worked at Hotel Congress at the time and hired Salvador to play the lobby when Steven Eye brought him to my attention.) Duran, via the auspices of Eye, began opening for and then performing with Calexico at their annual holiday benefits and other local engagements, and this association has proved to be very fruitful for both.

"Calexico has created a very unique musical trajectory. They know how to combine different musical genres from the U.S., Europe and Latin America--something like a 'rock folk,'" Salvador says through the translator. "They are capable of creating music rapidly (in a way) that surprises me. ... They opened another door for me that let me go further in my music. They renew my inspiration and tenacity to continue stronger." And while it is true that Calexico has done much for Salvador, he gives them a sort of "street cred"; he is as authentico as they come, and this bolsters Calexico's credibility as a truly international band.

Since 2005, there has been a seemingly unending series of artistic triumphs for Duran: the recording of his first solo records, Pasion I, mixed by Jim Waters, and Pasion II, recorded in San Diego and mixed by Jeff Claude; his appearance on the title track of the Calexico/Iron and Wine In the Reins EP; touring the United States and Europe with Calexico and Iron and Wine. Duran was a show-stealer every night if various Internet postings are to be believed; the clincher, it would seem, was performing at Lollapalooza in July.

Salvador has done many things and has seen a lot of the world, but playing in front of a massive Lollapalooza audience caused him a bit of stage fright. "My greatest impact was in Lollapalooza when I played in front of 35,000 people. My organism suffered this impact mentally and physically, due to the nerves and enthusiasm. I am proud to have overcome this (to) perform according to the quality of the event and the bands." He also got the chance to make the acquaintance of some giants. "Besides David Byrne from Talking Heads, I was glad to meet Manu Chao and The Flamers" (by which he means Flaming Lips).

This was perhaps his greatest triumph, until last week. "One of the artists that I have (enjoyed) through my whole life is Willie Nelson. I got to meet him personally through Calexico, and I was privileged to play a brief song with his old guitar." The song he's referring to is a just-recorded number with Calexico as the band, Willie on vocals and Salvador on the last verse. The guitar to which Salvador refers is most likely the legendary "Trigger," Nelson's shopworn six-string that he's used for decades. There is no word yet on when and how the song will be released, but when it's a giant hit, you can say you heard of it here first.

This Saturday, Duran will be playing his first solo headlining show in Tucson, as hard as that is to believe for a man with his bona fides. He professes to be nervous and slightly insecure about performing as a headliner in his hometown, but is hugely appreciative of the venue in which the show will take place. "Solar Culture is a belly button in the desert culture to me. They concentrate the artistic expressions not only in music but also in painting, sculpture and theater. Besides being a great friend, Steven Eye represents a patriarch for his association capacity, aid and knowledge in art."