Front Porch

Coral MacFarland Thuet: Versatility North and South of the Border

Coral MacFarland Thuet. Photo by Liz Abbott.

“I have a tendency to say ‘yes.’ It’s an important part of my life,” says Coral MacFarland Thuet. The singer, teacher, and actress, dressed in a floor-length black gown, is about to sing tonight at Tango Del Rey, the Pacific Beach venue whose interior features some of the best influences of Spanish rococo and 1980s kitch. She is clearly having fun. She drifts from table to table and seems to know many of the guests. “My students!” she says as she greets one table, at another table it’s hugs all around. “There are friends here from first grade. It’s kind of like a reunion. We got back in touch with Facebook,” she says.

For the last 20 plus years MacFarland Thuet has been a prominent musician in Southern California, singing around San Diego and Tijuana where she was born and spent the first few years of her life. Guitarists figure prominently in her music. She has performed and recorded with Steve O’Connor, Peter Sprague, and Jamie Valle. Other musicians she has performed with include Mike Wofford, Holly Hoffman, Randy Porter, Gilbert Castellanos, and Miles Davis alum Kei Akagi.

“Tonight I’m singing in Spanish, Portuguese, and Ladino, the language of the Jews of Spain, the Sephardic Jews. It’s an international musical theme,” she says. The crowd is mixed in age. A few tables are taken up by college students, and one couple has past their 70th wedding anniversary. The show tonight is a Dizzy’s concert, one of Chuck Perrin’s productions that, until recently, had been going through a period in which the venue floated from venue to venue.

Her long red hair framing her face, MacFarland Thuet launches into the evening’s performance. With her tonight are Allan Phillips on drums and percussion, Bob Magnusson on bass, and Jamie Valle on guitar. A soprano, she moves gracefully as she takes her place in front of the band. From the very first song her face takes on a serene countenance, and she gestures like a choral director with her left hand.

While the musicians solo MacFarland Thuet closes her eyes and lets a beatific smile cross her face. A woman sitting at the next table says to her companion, “She looks like Meryl Streep.” After an evening of tangos, waltzes, and Latin rhythms MacFarland Thuet and the band wrap up the concert with the crowd pleasers “Mas que Nada” and “Sabor a Mi.”

MacFarland Thuet has always supported herself with what musicians call a “day job.” But music is not merely a hobby. She takes it seriously “I always warm up and make sure I’m rested. I have to breathe properly. You need a lot of air when you sing. I don’t ever strain my voice during the day. And no alcohol, not at all. I also learned from Peter Sprague to be prepared, and that means being prepared for rehearsal. You show up at rehearsal knowing your stuff. With him you do a rehearsal and go do the gig.”

Monday through Thursday MacFarland Thuet teaches Latin American Studies and Speech at San Diego State. She also teaches voice and music. “They wanted me to teach English, too. But I had to tell them that I could only do so much,” she says. She has been at the university for the last six years. “I had taught here before, after I originally got my degree,” she says. “Then Richard Griswold, from the Chicano Studies Department, called me up 30 years later, to see if I could teach an oral communications class and a border folklore class. I teach four classes now.”

MacFarland Thuet has also acted on both sides of the border. She played the part of Doña Josefa in the Old Globe’s 1993 season opener Ballad of the Blacksmith. She was in the San Diego Rep’s productions of Real Women Have Curves, playing the part of Pancha, and We Won’t Pay We Won’t Go. The same production team performed We Won’t Pay We Won’t Go in Spanish at the Centro Cultural in Tijuana. Other performances include Sleeping Beauty and Confessions of Women from East LA. She has also taught theater and acting through the Old Globe’s Teatro Meta, an in-school program for at-risk youth. Her voice can be heard, both in Spanish and English, narrating and singing for television and radio in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Some twists and turns entered into MacFarland Thuet’s family history. The MacFarland part of her name comes from her Mexican side of the family, as her grandparents emigrated from Scotland to Mexico. Her mother grew up in Oklahoma, and her parents met in Chicago, where her mother was performing as an actress at the Goodman Theatre. “They met and fell in love and Dad took mom back to Mexico,” she says.

“I had a very good upbringing. I went to Catholic School through fifth grade. This was when we were living in Tijuana.” When the family moved north of the border, she was allowed to skip sixth grade because of the more advanced schooling system in Mexico. Although she and her brothers and sisters had grown up with a steady diet of American television and her mother was from American, English had not been a big part of her upbringing. “So here I was, advanced a grade, but they put me in remedial classes because I didn’t’ know how to speak English!” she remembers. “It took them a while but they finally realized that I was smart.”

Music was always a part of MacFarland Thuet’s life. Her mother sang and her father sang and played the guitar. “In a family like this you just pick it up,” she says. “Everybody’s always doing some sort of music so you just follow along as a kid. I played some guitar and sang when I was growing up. My dad always said that I had a good ear. I instinctively knew how to find harmonies. I had no musical training, although mom had me in the glee club because she wanted me to sing in a choir. And I had no music studies in college.”

Her background in speech goes back to when she was in high school. “I wanted to get out of an English class because I didn’t like the teacher,” she says. MacFarland Thuet opted for a speech class as a substitute. “I thought a speech class; what do you do? You sit around and talk, and I can do that. I found out that, in actuality, that besides the speech class, I’d joined the speech team. I didn’t know how to do that, so I was petrified to give a speech.”

As the class proceeded, one of her first assignments was to take part in a big Toastmasters’ competition in Tijuana. “I was so intimidated. There were all these older men there from all over Mexico,” MacFarland Thuet remembers. “I had thought that the competition was going to be for giving an extemporaneous speech, where they give you a topic and you have 30 minutes to prepare. I get there and find out that it’s a prepared speech competition. I had nothing prepared, so I just winged it. And I won!”
Recently graduated from college and managing an interior design office, she had no intention of singing professionally or making music a large part of her life. But an acquaintance, the manager of the Café del Rey Moro (now the Prado), encouraged her to sing for the popular restaurant in Balboa Park. MacFarland Thuet teamed up with a friend, learned about a half dozen tunes, auditioned, and got the gig for a six-month stretch. Despite her success, she was still unconvinced that music should be her life. “For me it was just a hobby,” she says. “I was not thinking that I was going to be a singer.”

She then met the man who would wind up becoming her husband at that first gig at the Café del Rey Moro. The meeting opened up possibilities not only romantic but musical as well. “He introduced me to jazz. I did not grow up with this music, no Coltrane, no Stan Getz. My future husband was a jazz fan and he played for me all this wonderful music. He had all these marvelous recordings. I heard Billy Holiday I couldn’t believe it when I heard her sing. I cried. I was quickly becoming a jazz fan and falling in love with it.”

Trying out her jazz chops she visited a piano bar in National City to get her feet wet. She then sought out Kevyn Lettau for singing lessons. “Here I was on my first lesson with her and she asked me if I wanted to come perform with her band,” MacFarland Thuet remembers. She appreciates the creative element of jazz and how the art form allows her to be spontaneous. “And when I go back to sing Latin or other music, I sing it better now. I have more options and tools because of what I’ve learned through jazz.”
She will be presenting a showcase this month,  “The Brilliance of Mexican Composers,” Sunday, November 11th at Dizzy’s new permanent location. Joining MacFarland Thuet will be Alan Phillips, Bob Magnusson and Ramón Banda. She will also perform at Haritna Mediterranean Restaurant with Irving Flores and Bill Andrews on Saturday Nov 17th.

“San Diego is great. There are all these great musicians here,” she says. “I’ve never been interested in the fame or the recognition. I will not compromise myself. I’m not changing who I am. I sing good songs and strive to be an artist. I’ve never wanted to do tours. I sing because I love music.”

See Coral MacFarland convey the brilliance of  Mexican composers on Sunday, November 11, 7pm, at Dizzy’s new location at 4275 Mission Bay Dr. (San Diego Jet Ski Rentals), San Diego.

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