Five Essential Ibero-American Ballads

By: Marcelo Báez

Vintage balladeers—with their serious, unaffected personas—used to be more chic and dignified than the current wave of metrosexual wannabes with high-pitched voices *cough* Romeo Santos *cough.* Not all, of course, but looking at the current offerings, the once-prominent art of the Ibero-American ballad now seems largely lost. I say lost because all the Marcs and Enriques in the biz are only putting out two kinds of songs: the boring, cloying love song, or the lamenting, sad, you-did-me-wrong counterpart. That’s it. The old masters had those, too, but they also explored a more complicated tapestry of feelings, settings, emotions—and they did so with grace and finesse. Let’s look at five examples.

ONE. “Detalles” by Roberto Carlos (Brazil) 

A relationship is all about the small things, right? “Our small details are too big to ignore, and they’ll become apparent all the time,” croons Roberto over a catchy flute. He plays the role of a bitter passive-aggressive asshole in a post-breakup. Resentful, he makes all kinds of assumptions as to how his replacement won’t be as good as him, and twists the knife by throwing in that you’ll be “thinking of me” while trying to “get there.”

TWO. “Libre, Solterito y Sin Nadie” by Leo Dan (Argentina)

Leo is actually a major cheeseball, but “Libre, Solterito y Sin Nadie” is a solid hit (even when it, technically, qualifies more as an upbeat pop song than a ballad). In a nutshell, the tune is about hitting on a woman by outlining the obvious: we’re both single, lonely and need companionship. While Leo wrote the song when he was still young, the lyrics read like something an older, mature man would have written: “Since I’m not committed, married or anything / And you’re not committed, married or anything / Why don’t we talk for a while? / So we won’t feel so lonely.”

THREE. “Miénteme” by Camilo Sesto (Spain)

Camilo is the perfect lothario: he’s deadpan, good-looking, charismatic, effeminate, and has a powerful and flexible voice. Lyrically, “Miénteme” is nothing short of a masterpiece. The song is about a couple that has grown bored with each other, but neither partner is willing to admit it. Instead, each do their own thing while lying to each other, and now the lies are the only thing they have in common.

FOUR. 40 y 20” by José José (Mexico)

José José has a lot of hard hitters, but many are corny and not quite as elegant as “40 y 20”—a song about a man in his 40s trying to justify his relationship with a woman half his age. The analogies are hilarious: “[T]hey say I’m like fall in your life, and you’re sweet spring / But they don’t know I keep a summer inside me / Which burns every time I see you.” (It’s getting hot-o-phile in here, so you may want to take off all your clothes...)

FIVE. “Échame a Mí la Culpa” by Albert Hammond (England)

Albert Hammond is mostly known for his English-sung hits, but he used to do pretty good for himself in Latin America with songs like “Échame a Mí la Culpa.” (Rocio Dúrcal does a phenomenal cover of this song.) If you were the bigger person in a recent breakup, then this one is for you (“[B]lame whatever you want on me”). There is a somewhat cryptic line in the chorus (“May you find glory instead of hell in the next world”), but then Albert unleashes in his inner-Goth at the end: “So that a cloud in your memory will erase me.”

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.