Canto Latino curriculum header

Making a Musical Mole

How Uniting Voices faculty teach advanced musical techniques and diverse genres through food and memory

For our annual event Canto Latino: Creando Mole, Uniting Voices conductors Veronica Roman-Meyer and Magdalena Delgado turned to another universal language like music to help our singers tackle a complex song: food. In turn, the song they chose helped our singers to understand why we’re celebrating Canto Latino. “La cumba del mole” by Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs is a perfect representation of the theme of Canto Latino, paying a nod to the Mexican community and the traditional dish of mole, and the affinity we have for the people who create and infuse the dish with their love. The song demonstrates how food can bring people together, much like our mission to connect and unite people through music.

While teaching “La cumbia del mole” to Voice of Chicago, Roman-Meyer asked the singers to think of the family member who makes the absolute best dish, like their grandma’s Sunday pasta. She encouraged them to dig into their memories to remember how the dish tasted, how eating it made them feel, and how it enabled them to connect with their family and community. They insert that feeling into their singing, just like Lila Downs does in “La cumbia del mole,” appreciating the molendera and the rich history of mole.

Once our singers have an emotional context for the song, our conductors build on that foundation with a number of techniques and strategies to influence how our singers physically perform the music. Because “La cumbia del mole” is not a traditional choral song, the style of singing and the language or dialect it's in—in this case, Southern Mexican Cumbia, in Spanish—requires them to physically change how they sing. Our conductors incorporate the unfamiliar sounds they need to produce into their vocal warmups, so the singers are practicing it without realizing it. Warmups also focus on keeping the singers moving rather than standing still. Delgado encourages our singers to feel the music and rhythm throughout their whole bodies, not just listen to it, that way they can internalize the song faster and have a collective beat.

One strategy Roman-Meyer uses for teaching how to pronounce a Spanish “t” is to have singers isolate the way they pronounce “the” in English, being aware of how their tongue pushes against the back of their teeth, and use that to say “tu” in Spanish. She also incorporates different breathing techniques and encourages them to use more of a chest voice instead of a head voice. The singers listened to the original song and other songs from the region and genre, so they can hear the difference in how Lila Downs sings it versus other songs they’ve already learned.

Our conductors empower our singers with a whole range of tools while learning a new song. These can be emotional strategies by asking them to draw on their own memories to better understand the meaning behind the music, or technical strategies so they can physically perform music from unfamiliar genres or languages they don’t speak. Our curriculum shines a spotlight on cultures and musical genres that are underrepresented in music education, while also showing our appreciation correctly—for this song, we commissioned Mexican composer Julio Morales to create a choral arrangement. All of these ingredients come together to lead our singers to embrace a leading role on the world stage through their understanding of the message behind “La cumbia del mole” of appreciation and respect for those who cook for us, the connection they built while learning about each other’s family histories and the confidence that comes with mastering technically difficult music by breaking down the sounds and rhythms into something familiar.

You can see this in action at Canto Latino: Creando Mole on September 30.