Viva La Musica de Mexico! Exploration of Mexican Folkloric Music Part I.

Trio Azteca & De Norte A Sur -    Viva Mexico
Trio Azteca & De Norte A Sur – Viva Mexico
Trio Azteca & De Norte A Sur – Viva Mexico (Arc Music, 2006)

Son Jarocho de Tlacotalpan – Traditional Music from Mexico (Arc Music, 2005)

Trio Azteca – Folk Songs and Ballads from Mexico (Arc Music, 2006)

Lila Downs Tree of Life (Narada World, 2000)

I signed up to teach Introduction to Latin Music (Brazil, Cuba, Mexico), for a community education program. I chose Cuban and Brazilian music because I have enjoyed listening to numerous recordings from those countries. I chose Mexican music because I live in a community that boasts a large Mexican population. I heard rancheras blasting from cars in the middle of the night and instead of feeling angry, I felt intrigued. I can hardly call this small town, sleepy.During my research, the first thing that surprised me was that Cuba and Mexico share a music style, the son. The son represents the music of the peasants or campesinos in both countries. In Mexico, the son is the root of mariachi, ranchera, son jarocho, arribeño, calentanos, arpa grande, abajeños, bolero, istmeños and son huasteco. All of this music share son in common, but the history, region, and instrumentation differ.

Let’s start with " Traditional Music from Mexico" on the Arc Music label. This recording does not feature any big name acts, but it does feature an array of traditional instruments such as Mexican harp, the requinto (small guitar with 4 or 5 strings), jaranas (lutes), full size guitars (in some regions), pandero (frame drum/tambourine), marimbol (a cross between a cajon and an African thumb piano), and a cajon (from Peru).

The CD comes with a handy informative booklet for novices such as myself. The CD features the music of southern Veracruz, which is actually among my favorite traditional Mexican music because I love the inclusion of the harp. The booklet goes into details about the region, history, and supplies us with information about the sones that appear on the recording. I find this information essential because sones vary by region and possess African, indigenous and colonial Spanish influences.

Similar to the music of Cuba, the sones from regions most affected by indigenous and African influences, feature lush polyrhythms and zesty call & response vocals. Sones also derived from the Spanish colonialists who brought their guitars and vocal styles to the New World. The Spanish brought dance rhythms over from Europe and I am guessing the triple meter, an attribute of sones. Other Europeans would eventually bring over dance rhythms such as the polka and the accordion, along with other western instruments that now have found a home in traditional Mexican music and Southwest (U.S.) music.

Son jarocho hails from Veracruz. The music on " Traditional Music from Mexico" represents specifically from the town, Tlacotalpan (Veracruz). According to the liner notes, "The son of southern Veracruz, son jarocho, is marked by a rhythmic complexity which is noticeably more involved than its counterparts in other parts of the country, most likely due to prevalence of Africans in the early days of the region’s colonization."

The instrumentation includes a harp, jaranas of various sizes and number of strings, and percussion. In some cases the harp has been replaced by requintos. The vocals are sung rapid fire and said to be improvised with lively call & response. In fact, the vocals recall call & response vocals of the Cuban son, although delivered much more rapidly. Cuban son seems laid back in comparison. And that says a lot!

The liner notes give us a solid definition of this type of music. "Son, for example, is primarily vocal-based music sung typically in four-line rhyming stanzas, noted for lyrical improvisations and accompanied by string instruments and the occasional percussion instrument. Rhythmically, the son is played in triple meter, 3/4 or 6/8, and is accompanied in public performance by the zapateo, a dance technique usually performed upon a wooden platform which accentuates the playing of the musicians."

The sones on "Traditional Music of Mexico" were recorded in informal sessions in people’s homes. The town, Tlacotalpan boasts master musicians and schools to pass on this traditional music. This recording features both the teachers and students performing on traditional instruments made by hand and not in a factory.

The CD starts out with the infamous "La Bamba" but only the melody sounds familiar whereas the instrumentation and vocals sound rustic and more intriguing to my ears than Ritchie Valens’ version. The recording brings together some formidable vocalists and instrumentalists in various combinations. Strings, vocals and percussive rhythms create lush rhythms and melodies. I find this recording both informative and entertaining.

Next up we have two recordings featuring the England-based Trio Azteca. Folk Songs and Ballads from Mexico has a nice, warm pop feeling. This CD features 3-part vocal harmonies laced with polka-like accordion, guitars, guitarròn, bass, percussion and requintos. This CD does not contain comprehensive liner notes and only gives a resume of the musicians and the venues where they have performed.

Trio Azteca features Orlando Rincon Padilla on vocals & requinto, Luis Albeiro Aguirre on vocals and guitar and Taidemar Perez on vocals. Other instruments include, violin, timbales (Afro-Caribbean), bongos, congas (Afro-Cuban), maracas and guiro. The songs mainly speak of lost love, but the songs also feature happy couples or people that have found pleasures in life. Overall, the music feels light and enjoyable.

The traditional music groups, Trio Azteca’s and De Norte A Sur’s " Viva Mexico" provides listeners with samples of mariachi, canciòn, and corrido. While many people reading this will be familiar with mariachi music, I will include the liner notes for the other two types of songs found here.

"The corrido means either a type of dance generally performed in two lines with a corrido dance step or more commonly, a narrative ballad accompanied by one or more guitars. The text of the corrido begins with a couplet setting the scene and giving the time and place of the event narrated."

"The canción denotes a musical form not intended to be dance to with a text characterized by romantic sentimentality and pathos."

De Norte A Sur (odd number tracks), features Ricardo Jonas on guitar, requinto and vocals, Vidal López on a small 5-string guitar (vihuela) and vocals. Guest artists provide a backing of bass guitarròn, percussion, violin, harp, accordion, trumpet and vocals. Trio Azteca (even number tracks), feature a wider range of instruments, including instruments foreign to Mexico such as the Indian tabla. Orlando Rincon Padilla supplies vocals and requinto, Manuel Bautista plays the Venezuela cuatro (4-string guitar), guitar, harmonica and sings, Victor Garcia plays maracas and sings. Harp, violin, bass and female vocals round off the instrumentation.

The exuberant music that soars off this CD might remind some listeners of Mexican cinema or Hollywood films of the past featuring Mexican themes. And certainly you have heard some of these songs pouring out of speakers in authentic Mexican restaurants or in sunny plazas in the American Southwest, California, Mexico and beyond. And there is enough variety in the repertoire to keep a listener happy with both lively and slower tracks. The second track, provides us with another version of "La Bamba" performed by Trio Azteca. This one possesses swelling harp and dazzling lute behind rapid mixed (male and female), vocals.

In contrast, De Norte A Sur’s "La Bikina" provides us with sensual vocals over relaxing lute strums. De Norte’s "Mi Ciudad" feels Spanish with its warm trumpets and velvety vocals. While I am not familiar with Mexico’s most popular traditional songs, I have a feeling that this CD includes favorites performed on traditional and non-traditional instruments. I only wish that the folks at Arc Music provides us with lyrics and translation. Other than that, I find this music pleasant and uplifting.

The daughter of a Mixtec cabaret singer and a Scottish-English American Art Professor, Lila Downs has popularized Mesoamerican musical traditions of the Mixtecs, Mayan, Zapotec and Nahuatle cultures. She sings various styles of Mexican music while offering a falsetto voice to rancheras or various other vocals textures to other traditional Mexican musical genres on her recordings.

Lila Downs‘ 2000 recording, Tree of Life focuses on Native Mesoamerican earth-based spirituality. Downs sings about goddesses, death, mother figures, trees of life, and grief. From the looks of it, Downs collected songs from various indigenous cultures with an emphasis on songs from Oaxaca, Downs birthplace. She sings songs from Náhuatl, Zapatec, and Mixtec traditions. Her rich vocal palette (some of her vocal texture suggests regional vocal traditions), swims in a sea of guitar, clay drums, acoustic bass, harp, ocarinas and other instruments you would expect to hear throughout traditional Mexico.

In the funny song, "La Iguana" Downs sings in an animated voice about an ugly iguana climbing a ladder while a harp and lush percussion surface around her vocals. Downs sings a tribute to trees and all they do for us in the song, "Tree, Black Mountain." The beat of a bass drum thunders slightly in the background and Downs’ vocals are laced by slow strums on a guitar.

The Zapotec song, "Soul" with its flamenco guitar and melancholic vocals has quickly become my favorite song on the CD. This song emphasizes Downs’ wide vocal and emotional range. Certainly, after listening to Tree of Life and the two recordings in my collection ("La Cantina" and "One Blood"), Lila Downs has become a favorite musician of mine. Seeing her perform in concert also endeared this vocalists to me.

By the way, Tree of Life is brilliantly delivered from start to finish with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. It’s moody and sometimes brooding qualities lend themselves well to a lazy, hazy afternoon siesta. The heartbeat of the bass drum, shimmering guitars, and strong lyricism provides us with a chronicle of Mesoamerican musical traditions and earth-based spirituality themes at their most intriguing and haunting.

This concludes part I of "Exploration of Mexican Folkloric Music." This article was produced in preparation of the class that I will be teaching. Part II is coming up shortly.

All of the above CDs act as excellent introductions to traditional Mexican music.

Patricia Herlevi produces and hosts a global music show at the community radio station, KSVR-Mount Vernon. She also hosts a healing music blog, The Whole Music Experience and has been covering music for over 20 years.