Coca Tenorio - An Ecuadorian in the Highlands


Coca Tenorio has two particular memories of the power of her singing. The first came when, aged twelve, she sang at a school concert in her native Ecuador and looked up to find that everyone in the audience was crying. And the second involved a bigger stage and a bigger, more boisterous crowd at a festival when she was sixteen and she reduced the audience to absolute silence.


More than twenty years have passed since that second experience and her life has changed considerably – she’s now a mother and couturier and she lives not in Ecuador but in Inverness – but Tenorio is hoping that she can hold similar powers over the audience on her first Scottish tour, which begins tonight in Orkney, although she’ll settle for making people happy rather than tearful.


“I remember both of these occasions so clearly,” she says. “The first time I thought I’d done something wrong, although it was quite a sentimental song, and the second time I’d just started working with this composer who was going to train me to sing for him and he’d already told me I sang like a man. He’d actually laughed at me when I first sang for him but after I sang at the festival with him and no-one spoke until after I’d finished, he decided that a woman didn’t have to be a soprano and we began to work on my lower register.”


Tenorio was, she says, born singing. Her mother always told her this and when her own daughter started singing back to her at only three months, she decided that maybe her mother had been right and not just showing motherly pride.


Growing up in the province of Esmeraldas, a tropical region of Ecuador’s Pacific coast known for its strong African heritage, she heard music almost constantly, on the streets and at family or school gatherings. It was a social thing and becoming a professional musician or singer wasn’t something that she gave much consideration early on. This was even more the case when her parents – her father was a school teacher and her mother a nurse - were posted to remote areas that were only accessible by boat or canoe and where electricity had yet to arrive.


She did hear a potential role model among the upbeat Latin sounds that arrived over the radio airwaves on occasion, however: Cuban singer Celia Cruz, although Tenorio had to wait until she was living in Scotland and Cruz came to Glasgow before she actually saw her heroine in person.


A more likely career path was as a seamstress and by the age of thirteen she was taking commissions for dresses, something that she continues to this day, working particularly with Harris Tweed. Still, she continued singing and in her early twenties she took up the guitar. By this time she was living in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital high in the Andes, where she could access Andean folk music as well as the melancholic passilos played on the requinto guitar and pop music – Cat Stevens, Tracy Chapman and disco were favourites – as well as salsa dance music.


Indeed it was her salsa experience that came in most useful when, in 1999, having met and married her Welsh-born husband, Ben, she moved to Inverness.


“I didn’t know anyone and I was quite homesick to begin with,” she says. “Then someone who’d seen Ben and me salsa dancing said, if you taught Ben to dance, why not give salsa lessons?”


Thus salsa dancing came to the Highlands and for seven years, until her youngest daughter arrived, Tenorio made her living through teaching salsa and making bespoke couture. She’d also met guitarist Roger Niven and formed a duo that grew into a bigger band but it was Ben who unintentionally pushed her into making her album Todo Transito, which will form the basis of her touring repertoire.


“I was going back to Ecuador to see my family and when I asked Ben what I should being him back as a present, he said, oh, just bring me the latest CD that’s popular over there. This was easier said than done,” she says. “The record industry in Ecuador has been destroyed by pirates and there was nothing genuine to buy, so I decided to make my own CD.”


It was, she concedes, a bit of a rush job, not helped by her snapping a tendon in her ankle during an extracurricular game of basketball – “so you can hear my pain on some of these tracks” – and it had to be remixed back in Scotland. But she’s happy with it and having gathered a group of mostly London-based Latin American musicians around her, she’s ready to take her songs on the road.


“It’s been quite stressful, flying down to London to rehearse,” she says. “But they’re great musicians and they’re all naturally at home with the rhythms I use in my songs. So I think people will have a good time at our concerts – and if the Scottish tour works out okay, we can maybe look at taking this music further afield.”


From The Herald, February 2, 2011.


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