There are certain songs that are so familiar that they seem to have always been around. A good example is a little something called “Maria Elena” — especially the version performed by Los Índios Tabajaras. I can’t remember a time that it didn’t sound like an old standard to me. Of course, it goes without saying – although I am saying it – that what’s familiar to me might not be quite so familiar to you. But even if you don’t recognize the name, I bet you’ve heard the song.
According to allmusic, the song has been recorded in over 300 versions dating back to the early days of the big bands, and was probably first popularized by Jimmy Dorsey’s band, although others performed the song too. It’s origin was thought to be a Mexican folk song, written about a mayor’s wife, but that could be a myth. In any case, it became popular in an era when the US was becoming more and more fascinated with all aspects of Latin America, especially the music.
Part of this interest could be attributed to the US government’s policies, both before and during World War II, when the difficulties of reaching European and Asian markets meant that it was just good business to encourage closer ties with our friends to the South.
Eventually the influences showed up in a number of ways, including colorful movie musicals such as Down Argentine Way and Week-End In Havana, with stars such as Betty Grable, Alice Faye, and the every-present Cesar Romero playfully lifting the spirits of the war-weary public. Disney even got in on the action, with a number of animated musical shorts that featured Latin characters and music.
There was also a decided rise in popularity of Latin music in other venues, including successful bands such as those of Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado. Who knows, my own personal affinity for music with a Latin beat might even be at least in part attributable to my early exposure to this era when the US was awakening to new sounds.
It was around this time that Los Índios Tabajaras began to attract some attention, although there is a lot of murkiness (and probably quite a bit of hyperbole) in the origins of the duo. It’s generally agreed that the Lima brothers were Brazilian Tabajaran Indians from the Amazon basin, and it was said that they were self-taught guitarists who’d learned to play on an instrument they found in the jungle. Whether that was true or not, they continued to learn and grow musically and began building a musical career in South America. Their talent and unique sound was impossible to deny, and after being signed to a contract by RCA they also became very popular in the US. RCA’s own guitar guru, Chet Atkins, took a real interest in them, as did Don Gibson, and both collaborated on albums.
In subsequent years, the brothers sold millions of records world-wide and toured endlessly, playing everything from pop to light classical – including some of their own compositions – and often performing in native costume. Although their musical careers spanned many decades, they never again had a individual hit to approach the popularity of “Maria Elena”, although their second biggest seller, “Always in My Heart”, did very well. And truth be told, my favorite of theirs is neither of these. It’s a song that has been recorded by many artists, and has always been a favorite of mine. It’s called “Amor, Amor, Amor”.
Whatever the truth of the origins of Los Indios Tabajaras, their musical legacy is not in dispute. Talent and originality will always show through.