Magos Herrera: We Are All Healers

By Kate Quarfordt

Friday, November 17, 2023

A friend sent me Mexican jazz vocalist Magos Herrera’s latest album Aire on a morning when—as on so many recent mornings—I felt like my lungs might collapse from grief. To say that I inhaled this album is not a metaphor. 

Years from now when I look back on what it has felt like to live through these days, deluged with scenes of unlanguageable violence and mounting counter-evidence against any rational hope some of us are still sustaining for humanity’s shared future, I will remember the moment I first hit play on Aire’s title track. How the melancholy pulse of the verse crested in my headphones into an unexpected major chord as Herrera’s fiercely tender voice called out the first line of the chorus, “Todo se ilumina,” like a sacred plea: “Everything floods with light.” 

I will remember how I stopped walking in that moment, how I steadied myself against a construction scaffold. How I closed my eyes and saw a bank of heavy clouds splitting open in my imagination, widening out into a brightness and warmth expansive enough to gather every single person in this shattered world into its embrace. I will remember how I stood there, listening to the track on repeat, eyes closed, drawing in the first full, deep breaths I’d taken in days.

I had the honor of speaking with Herrera several weeks later on Zoom. We discussed her kaleidoscopic musical career, the power of music as a conduit to healing, and the elemental energies animating her masterful new release which she’ll bring to National Sawdust in the company of her jazz trio and special guests PubliQuartet on November 17.

Kate Quarfordt: Magos, I wanted to start by asking you about paradox. I feel this shimmering push-pull in so many of your songs between emotions that seem to sit at opposite poles. Gratitude and longing. Deep tranquility and thrumming aliveness. Mourning and celebration.

Magos Herrera: I try to be as invisible as possible when I sing and write, to really align to the deepest part of my personal process in life. And I think life is paradox, right? In order to understand luminosity, you need to go through darkness. In order to understand the joyful purpose of your life you have to go through grief. The easiest way for me to translate my inner experience is through music. Of course, there are things that are so immense and so indescribable. We do the best we can.

KQ: Have there been specific moments of reflection that have shaped your path as an artist?

MH: The whole journey has been a constant ah-ha moment. I stand at the crossroads of so many things: I come from jazz, but I also love chamber music. I love singing and songwriting, and I also consider myself a vocalist. I’m an artist and also an educator. I’m a Mexican woman, but I’ve traveled and lived and performed in so many places. In the process of becoming your own voice, or the most truthful, unfolded version of yourself, you become so many things. I’ve been thinking a lot about Violeta Parra and her song “Gracias a La Vida” which I reimagined on this album. 

KQ: Whoa, I just wrote her name down as you were speaking.

MH: We are invoking her!

KQ: Yes we are.

“In order to understand luminosity, you need to go through darkness. In order to understand the joyful purpose of your life you have to go through grief. The easiest way for me to translate my inner experience is through music.”

MH: I think her greatness dwells in the fact that with incredible simplicity she talks about the deepest thoughts and questions of our humanity. It’s such mastery to be this clear. As an artist and as a human being, to take all these roads and then arrive at this place where you are so grateful for simplicity, it means you can speak to the whole array of human experiences. 

There’s another song I wrote on Aire that touches on this, called “Remanso.” I wanted to write the lyrics like little haikus, one threaded to another. The sea observing the tree, and the tree observing the leaves, and the leaves observing the bird, and then at the end there is this being, sitting under the tree like a buddha image. This is the way I aim to resonate these days. 

KQ: That buddha figure evokes such stillness and focus.

MH: Yes, I think that this is truly a time for us to focus. “Aire” is a post-pandemic song, so it’s about the will to move forward. And of course it’s also about love and seduction—you know, we weren’t able to hug or kiss or touch for two years, so it’s like, let’s come together, let's dance, let's touch each other, let's celebrate our bodies, right? But on the deepest level, we’ve been through so many years of normalizing darkness, like now, we see the news and these horrifying things and it’s so easy to say, “OK, it’s just another day in the world, next!” But I want to focus—deeply focus—on luminosity. Let’s allow the window to open. That major chord in the chorus is saying PLEASE. I am opening myself to luminosity and joy and innocence and all of these emotions that make life worthwhile.

KQ: Will you tell me about the last song on the album, “Healer,” and the field recording of Maria Sabina that you wove into the beginning? 

MH: Maria Sabina was a great Mexican Chamana, a Shaman. I was introduced to her work by two dear friends within a few days of each other and it felt like, “wow, Maria Sabina wants me to listen. OK, I’m listening!” I decided we should write a new song, something joyful to celebrate life, honor the great traditions of Mexican music, and use the words of Maria Sabina—which are like mantras: so simple, yet they hold so much—as a way to say that we can all heal each other by coming together. I think that this is the magic of music, when you create from this vein of connection and care. My heart is exactly the same as your heart. Everyone’s heart and sorrow and longing, all the same. We are all healers. 

About Kate Quarfordt

Kate Quarfordt is an artist, educator, writer, performer, and school co-founder. Her towering mixed media portraits transform images of iconic skyscrapers–often associated with male-coded values like ego, dominance and hierarchy–into the bodies of women and non binary people whose leadership centers collectivity and collaboration. Quarfordt is a proud member of The Resistance Revival Chorus and a co-founder of City School of the Arts, a celebrated arts-based middle school in Manhattan, where she directs theater with young people and teaches an interdisciplinary course on art and activism. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.