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LA-based songwriter Gaby Moreno is Guatemala’s little secret — for now

by Betto Arcos and Oscar Garza | The Frame

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Singer Gaby Moreno performs onstage during The Los Angeles Times and Hoy 2015 Latinos de Hoy Awards at Dolby Theatre on October 11, 2015 in Hollywood, California. JC Olivera/Getty Images for Latinos de Hoy Awards

On a chilly Saturday evening in Xela, a colonial city in the highlands of Guatemala, singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno performs her encore to hundreds of adoring fans who sing along. Moreno says this is one of the country’s most beloved songs.

"'Luna de Xelajú’ is our second anthem," she says. "It’s such a popular song in Guatemala…there’s a sense of pride for that song, and it’s a beautiful song. I love singing it."

Her fans couldn’t be happier. Outside the theatre, 20-year-old Adriana Guzmán says Moreno is a role model for Guatemalans.

"She embodies the idea that we can do better," Guzmán says, "that Guatemala does have a future and it’s because of her that all Guatemalans know that we have a voice, and that we can rise up and be better every day."

Moreno may not be a household name in the U.S., but she’s a rockstar in Guatemala, the country of her birth. She moved to Los Angeles 16 years ago. Since then, her career has gone in different directions. She’s toured with a wide array of artists, from Tracy Chapman to Hugh Laurie, and she’s shared the stage with Andrea Bocelli and Van Dyke Parks. 

Gaby Moreno performs at the Teatro Municipal in Xela, Guatemala.
Gaby Moreno performs at the Teatro Municipal in Xela, Guatemala. Betto Arcos

She has released six albums since 2008. By the time she got the ‘Best New Artist Award’ at the Latin Grammys in 2013, Moreno had already spent almost 20 years singing and writing songs. “Fronteras-Borders” is one of the songs Moreno wrote for her new album, “Illusion."

"Initially, I wrote it for Latin American people, in general, living in the United States, and how we are straddling the fence between two cultures," she says. "We keep our traditions and yet we have adopted new ones from the American culture."

Moreno has embraced a wide range of musical traditions. For her new album she worked with producer Gabe Roth, known for his work with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Moreno pours her heart out with lyrics and melodies steeped in the classic R&B sound of the 1960s. 

Moreno says she started listening to Blues and R&B when she was 12 years old. Over time, her love for this music and other genres has grown.

"If you hear like my first and my second record, you’ll hear a variety of styles because that’s just who I am," she says. "I feel like the common denominator is always going to be my voice."

Jebin Bruni has been playing keyboards with Moreno for the past 10 years. Bruni says she may not be well-known in the U.S. right now, but in Guatemala, she holds court.

"She’s like a rockstar and it’s amazing," he says. "She should be this big everywhere, but it’s sort of Guatemala’s little secret right now, but pretty soon it’s going to explode."

Moreno says she couldn’t be happier, making a living as a singer, especially as an immigrant in the U.S. “That’s what I came to this country for," she says, "to follow my dream of making music and I’m doing it.” 

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