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Bay Area Chicana Blues Singer's New Album Is a Celebration of Spanish — a Language She Fought to Learn

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A black-and-white photo portrait of a woman smiling and wearing a top hat.
Singer Marina Crouse just released her second album, 'Canto de mi corazon.' (Courtesy of Pedro Lange)

When singer Marina Crouse was a child in Southern California, Spanish surrounded her but was not a language she spoke. She's a fourth-generation Californian and a Chicana, but when she was born, in the late 1960s, speaking English was heavily prioritized.

"People now value being bilingual, but at that time, and before that, it was not necessarily valued," says Crouse, who now lives in El Cerrito.

Eventually, as an adult, she made a concerted effort to learn Spanish. It was a pursuit she became so committed to that she has since become a Spanish professor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.

But Crouse's study of language and literature came only after she pursued a career in music.

A women sings into a microphone.
Singer Marina Crouse is well-known for her throaty blues. But her new album features Spanish songs originally sung by ‘crossover‘ artist Eydie Gormé. (R Hakins/Freight and Salvage)

“I studied classical music [in college] and I thought I was going to be maybe an opera singer,” says Crouse.

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But it was expensive to hire a teacher, and Crouse’s family couldn’t afford to help support her education. Crouse, who grew up in a lower-income, single-parent home, needed financial security, and wasn’t sure her love of music would translate into a true career.

Still, after college, graduate school, and a divorce, Crouse's daughter encouraged her to return to music. She discovered that her bold, brassy voice was perfect for singing blues, and released her first album, “Never Too Soon,” in 2018.

Now, Crouse is back with a new album , “Canto de Mi Corazón” (released by the Bay Area's Little Village Foundation),  that celebrates her love of the Spanish language. It's also a tribute to an artist whose work has long inspired her.

A woman holds a record cover of an album called 'Amor' by Eydie Gormé and The Trio Los Panchos.
Marina Crouse holds a copy of the album 'Amor' performed by Eydie Gormé and The Trio Los Panchos. Crouse remembers her grandmother playing the record whenever she would visit her as a child in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Marina Crouse)

Like Crouse, the renowned singer Eydie Gormé — who rose to stardom in the 1950s and 1960s — recorded in both English and Spanish. But Gormé’s background was a bit different: Her parents were Turkish-born Jews who emigrated to New York and spoke Ladino, a language derived from Spanish by Jews who were expelled from their homeland during the Spanish Inquisition. Gormé performed in Spanish with a group called The Trio Los Panchos, becoming among the earliest so-called “crossover” artists.

“Her music, and the music she did in Spanish with Trio Los Panchos, was probably the most memorable music for me growing up,” says Crouse, whose new album pays tribute to Gormé, with versions of the songs “Piel Canela, Sabor a Mi” and “Cuando Vuelva a tu Lado.” She sings the entire album in Spanish.

Crouse, who grew up in Los Angeles, says her childhood was difficult. She moved around a lot and attended many different schools, she recalls.

But when she was a child, her grandmother’s house was an anchor for her. And that’s where she first encountered Gormé’s music, immediately noticing how happy it made her grandmother.

A young girl and a baby sit on an elderly woman's lap.
Marina Crouse (left) says listening to Eydie Gormé's records in Spanish with her grandmother is among her favorite memories from a childhood that was otherwise turbulent. (Courtesy Marina Crouse)

“She had one of these big stereos that look like a 1960s TV console,” Crouse says. “And you would lift up the heavy top and put the records on in there and then the speakers were on each side.”

Crouse remembers studying the album covers, reading the names of songs and looking at the pictures. Even though she didn’t understand the lyrics back then, the music — and the experience — left a lasting impression.

“It was this sort of magical thing. And the music was so beautiful,” she says.

“Piel Canela” is one of Crouse’s favorite tracks on the new album.

“The lyrics are just so gorgeous,” she says. “It's about brown skin, and the beauty of brown skin.”

Crouse says singing in Spanish “feels incredible” after the frustration she experienced as a child, when people often assumed she spoke Spanish, and she sometimes felt ashamed because she didn’t.

“I used to sort of phonetically sing along, but I didn't really understand what they were talking about,” she says. “After spending all these years studying Spanish and teaching literature and poetry and really, you know, sinking into words, it just feels … it sounds very cliché — it just feels like home.”

Marina Crouse plans to celebrate her new album at a record release party July 23 at The Sound Room in Oakland.

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