Ana Lucia Divins was just 25 years old when she emigrated from her native Colombia to the United States alone with just a few hundred dollars and a single piece of luggage.
“I moved to try to forget, heal and start all over again,” she recalls.
She didn’t stay in Miami long. After meeting her future husband, an American-born Charlotte native, Divins moved to the Queen City to realize her ambitions and dreams. Today, the 43-year-old singer, songwriter, educator and mother of two performs a distinctive mix of jazz, blues and Latin-American folk songs with guitarist Carlos Crespo as Café Amaretto Duo. Divins has also teamed with Charlotte-based jazz singer Tenya Colemon to present a series of interactive and educational performances under the banner Traveling Blue: Live Music from Latin America to New Orleans.
As part of the Culture Blocks program hosted by the Arts & Science Council, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation department, the pair will perform Traveling Blue on Jan. 19 at the library’s Beatties Ford Road branch, and they conclude their concert series at the Charlotte Museum of History Feb. 23 as part of the museum’s African American Heritage Festival.
Between those two performances, they’ll also perform Traveling Blue on Jan. 26 at Nations Ford Road Elementary School as a component of ASC’s Connect with Culture Days, a smorgasbord of arts, science and history experiences across Mecklenburg County.
With her whirlwind performing schedule, Divins seems to have exceeded her 18-years-long wish to begin again in a new country and city, but why was a fresh start necessary in the first place? Divins says she had a happy childhood growing up in Cali, Columbia. She remembers being surrounded by music and falling in love with it at an early age.
“Music was a part of every celebration and family gathering,” Divins says.
Ironically, the music that fascinates her today — Latin American folk genres like bolero, trova and other slower tempo songs — didn’t interest her in her youth. Divins thought of those folk styles as background music, she explains, old songs that belonged to her mother and grandparents. She preferred newer sounds, like contemporary tunes coming from Spain, and she sang those songs in music contests in her hometown.
Then a near-tragedy shattered her world.
“When I was 25 I was kidnapped by the ELN,” Divins remembers. The ELN, or National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), is an armed Marxist group involved in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. Among its many illegal sources of income is the kidnapping and holding for ransom of tourists and Colombians.
In 2000, Divins fell prey to a collective kidnapping in Cali. Four days later, she was released without her family having to pay a ransom.
“To this day I don’t know why I was released,” Divins says. “My family in Colombia is not wealthy by any means.”
She considers her deliverance a kind of divine intervention, a second chance. But Divins’ new creative life in the States only kicked into gear when she returned to her roots. She began to re-examine her culture, including the music that she had initially dismissed as background sound.
“Music became a way for me to reconnect and stay connected with my roots and native language,” Divins says.
She credits motherhood as the catalyst for her exploration. In 2001, when Divins gave birth to her son Nicholas, she began to wonder what language she should speak around the new infant, and again with his sister Natalie, who arrived two years later. Would it be Divins’ Spanish or her husband’s English?
Divins realized that other bilingual households must be asking the same questions, so in 2007 she partnered with children’s author, storyteller and educator Irania Patterson to form Criss Cross Mangosauce. The name of Divins and Patterson’s entertainment and education project was in itself a bilingual mix of cultures — the Latin mango colliding with the American schoolroom term for sitting cross-legged (Criss Cross Applesauce).
The two Latina moms took their act on the road, performing in schools, community centers and libraries to share their Hispanic heritage and Spanish language in a fun, bilingual and educational way. They also released bilingual CDs and books. Criss Cross Mangosauce started garnering attention in Charlotte’s performing arts community, and in 2009 Divins received the ASC’s Latino Artists Initiative Grant. This fueled Divins’ exploration of the music of her youth, but it also fired a new passion — the desire to use music to bridge cultures and introduce a bilingual cultural connection to adult and family audiences beyond the classroom.
“I’m interested in how music goes beyond entertainment,” Divins says.
Often, when Latinx people move to the United States they lose all connection with their “background” music, she explains, and there is considerable power in reconnecting people with their memories through music. Music also brings people together and helps to forge new communities, she maintains.
Witnessing how people react when they participate in a sing-along is an example of that community-building in its primal state, Divins continues. She also started focusing on the educational aspect of many of her performances.
“I’m intentional about explaining the origins of songs, some interesting facts about each song, or some of the cultural connections,” she explains, “and I do it in English.”
In 2010, Divins started devoting more time to her solo music and community projects. Through the social service project Flag of Hope, she collaborated with musician and producer Alonso Ordoñez. Working with Ordoñez, Divins wrote and recorded the single “Land of Hope,” a smooth Latin-flavored combination of blues and jazz.
Divins crafted the tune to dovetail Flag of Hope’s concept of unity, diversity and community, she says.
As Criss Cross Mangosauce wound down, Divins started performing with guitarist Carlos Crespo. As she adapted her lilting alto and powerful-yet-relaxed phrasing to Crespo’s percussive cascading strumming, Divins discovered connections between her beloved Latin music and American blues and jazz. As Café Amaretto Duo, Divins and Crespo started playing art galleries and cultural events and gatherings in 2014, but they realized they could do more to develop their cross-cultural and bilingual exploration of Latin and North American music.
Meanwhile, Divins met African-American jazz singer Tenya Colemon through ASC, and they attended mutual educational sessions together. The two hit it off and planned a collaboration between Crespo and guitarist John Gurske, who was playing with Colemon. They assembled a show in which Café Amaretto Duo performs a set of jazz- and blues-inflected Latin music before Colemon performs jazz and blues tunes in her style.
“At the end we do a bilingual set of songs together where we combine our styles of English and Spanish music,” Divins explains.
In 2014, Traveling Blue debuted at Theatre Charlotte. Audience reaction was extremely positive, Divins remembers.
The show exposed Divins’ music to Colemon’s audience and vice versa, increasing exposure for each singer.
“And once again, there’s no better way to connect people and communities than music,” Divins says. “We have the Latino community and the American and African-American communities coming together and learning from each other.”
Since that performance, Divins and Colemon had been talking about bringing the show back bigger and better than ever. Divins found a way last year when she discovered Culture Blocks. The program, designed to bring the arts into communities by staging performances in libraries, parks, recreation centers and community spaces, proved a perfect fit for Traveling Blue.
Last October, Divins and Colemon kicked off a series of Traveling Blue performances with an open air concert, a full band show featuring Divins, Crespo, Colemon, Gurske and drummer Trevor Cook at Camp North End. The following show in November was in a more intimate setting, the Sugar Creek Library. For library shows like that, Traveling Blue includes a cultural component, Divins says, a PowerPoint presentation where images and song lyrics are displayed.
“We bring up key facts and connections,” Divins explains. “We bring more to the show that is educational and interactive when we do it in these smaller settings.”
A show in December at the Scaleybark Library added guest cellist Victoria Ypres-McLaughlin. For the upcoming Traveling Blue show on January 19, saxophone player and teaching artist Carl Ratliff will join the fold. In addition to encouraging community and cultural connections, Divins hopes Traveling Blue’s co-mingling of soul-stirring tunes will also clear up a few longstanding misconceptions about Latin music in Charlotte.
“Every time you say Latin music, people immediately think of salsa, merengue, and bachata — these noisy energetic genres. Don’t get me wrong. I love those. They’re part of my heritage,” Divins insists. “But I want people to recognize the richness, heritage, beauty and diversity within the Latin music genre.”