CHAMPIONS OF THE MEXICAN SON
PART 1 – DISCOVERING THE SON
It seemed fitting that a concert of Mexican folkloric music was taking place at the Venice headquarters of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center). Surrounded by murals of mythical farm workers, a hundred or so fans of Alfredo Lopez had crammed into the theatre space of the artfully converted jail. They had come to hear a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist known for his interpretations of the son. A giant idealized portrait of Cesar Chavez hung behind Lopez and two fellow musicians, violinist Jesus R. Carlos and guitarist Isaac Ruben Izquierdo. As Lopez’s robust voice interpreted sones from various regions of Mexico, his face, framed by unruly dark curls, shone with the joy of sharing the music he loves. His fingers unlocked the magic of guitar-like instruments of various sizes. Occasionally, his black leather boots danced a rapid-fire zapateado on planks of wood. Adding to the folkloric effect was the finely woven waist-length beige jacket the five foot-three inch Lopez wore. With sumptuous dark brown embroidery around the edges and lapels – embroidery evocative of the early 20th-century Revolutionary era – the jacket conveyed the dignity of the fine craftsmanship found in Mexico, home of the son.
Why single out the Mexican son?
Okay. What comes to most people’s mind when they hear the phrase “Mexican music”? Mariachi bands and “La Bamba.” Right? Both are outgrowths of a still-vibrant tradition, music called son.
The son represents the unique mestizo culture of Mexico – the fusion of Spanish, African, and indigenous elements. Professor of Latin American Studies Dr. Timothy Harding traces the son’s Spanish roots to 17th and 18th century song styles and popular dances. African-influenced rhythmic complexity and call and response vocal and instrumental interplay provided a framework for regional variations. Indigenous influences include percussion instruments as well as the animal themes found in son lyrics.
“I have a respect and love for the son,” Alberto Lopez explained in our first interview. “But the son as a Mexican genre is very fragile. My goal is to preserve the roots of this genre.”
Alfredo Lopez hesitates to tinker with the tradition as other groups have done. “My purpose is to make sure the roots are protected so that it is assured rather than mix it with other elements. I don’t mind if other people bring new elements to son as long as they respect the roots. To create bridges, you need to understand both contexts.”
If you want to hear one of the most authentic, flawlessly executed, and expertly produced CDs featuring the Mexican son, look up Quetzalcoatl, the 1995 release by the group of the same name that Alfredo Lopez established in the late 1980s. It reflects the years of study that Mexico City-born Lopez undertook from the age of 11, most notably his five years under the tutelage of renowned bandleader Adrian Nieto Arenas of Los Folkloristas. With Quetzalcoatl’s first members, Lopez toured Latin America, Europe and North America to great acclaim into the early 90s. The ensemble touched down in Los Angeles in 1990, playing large and small venues and bringing Mexican musical traditions to school children through the Los Angeles Music Center’s Education Division. By 1992, some of the group members had changed and everyone but Lopez had returned to Mexico.
Now consisting of six members, Quetzalcoatl reunites periodically in LA. They have recorded almost all the material they need for a new CD. These days Lopez patiently plays small concert gigs and teaches traditional instruments while gathering resources for the next reunion with assistance from Lauren Greene, founder of the Latin American culture website lunablanca.com, which distributes the Quezalcoatl CD (as does cdbaby.com).
In April, Lopez was a featured guest performer at the Getty Villa in a concert by visiting band Sones de Mexico. One of the numbers Lopez performed with them was La Bamba. In its older jarocho version, the song barely conjured up the voice of Ritchie Valens.
After seeing Alfredo Lopez in concert three times, questions about the son still percolated in my mind. To find out about my visit with Alfredo’s large family (of instruments) plus conversations with Professor Timothy Harding and Juan Dies of Sones de Mexico, read Part 2 of this Folk Beat column.
PART 2 – FAMILIES OF THE SON
When I entered Alfredo Lopez’s tiny studio apartment, he began by introducing me to the family jarocho. Across the pillow side of his neatly made bed lay the main instruments you would find in a performance of son jarocho one hears in Veracruz State. Deftly picking up the oversized guitar-like, jarana leona, he plucked a melody which resonated like a harp. Then he gave a few percussive strums to the smaller jarana seconda beside it. Next, he picked the still smaller four-string requinto jarocho using a piece of bull’s horn for a pick. Complementing the strings was a tambourine-like percussion instrument called a bandero.
“You hear son jarocho in LA, in Mexico and everywhere,” says Alfredo. “The reason is the rhythm is very attractive and it’s easy to make the sound rich and adapt it, which is really great. But a lot of people are doing that. I want people to understand that there is more than just son jarocho. The rest of the music is also important – like son huasteco and son tabasceno…Son tabasceno is close to son jarocho in rhythm and it’s very danceable. In Tabasco, they dance to it with flutes and drums. The Indians and some mestizos use the flute.”
I gazed at other instruments he had assembled in clusters on the bed and noticed still more instruments peeking out from closets and poised on shelves. “I’ve been collecting instruments my whole life. My instruments are my babies,” says the youthful, 51-year old musician. “I have families of instruments and each family corresponds to a different place in my country, and of course, each state has a different type of weather and (that weather influences) the kind of wood they use to make the instruments.” He picked up another type of guitar. “This instrument is very delicate, for example, and the wood is from a tropical climate. It’s a very typical wood of Michoacan – ojole paharito.”
Each regional son has its particular character, but that character is not rigid but rather in a state of flux, according to Professor Harding. “There are similarities in all the regions and (one is that) the son tends to have a six-eight rhythm, but the most well known son from Veracruz is La Bamba and it’s in four-four or two-four rhythm. In Veracruz, you have a lot of pieces that are in two-four because Veracruz has a very strong African influence. And in the Northeast region of Mexico, called La Huasteca, there’s a style that (has) a violin as its lead instrument and the two accompanying instruments are types of guitars; one is an eight string large baritone-sounding guitar and the other one is a small five string guitar used for chords. I don’t mention a harp, but in certain parts of La Huasteca they have a harp. The (mariachi ensembles) in Jalisco, around Guadalajara, have the same basic things; the violins are the lead. Nowadays you hear the trumpet, but that’s a modern invention. Traditionally, it was violins – two or three violins playing in harmony instead of just one. And (originally) the harp played the bass and treble, and then you had two different kinds of guitar-like instruments. But as it’s evolved, the harp has kind of died away and there are only a few mariachis that still use harp.”
One important element of the son missed by listeners who don’t understand Spanish is improvisational rhyming. With Spanish origins, this poetic tradition took on regional variations in the New World. Rhyme schemes differ in the quintilla, quarteta, terceta, sexteta and so on. Alfredo Lopez studied this art of the versador in Mexico with the acclaimed Adrian Nieto. “It’s very complex to rhyme decimas, for example. It rhymes the first with the third, the first with the fifth, the first with the seventh, the second with the fourth, and the second with the sixth…If you go to an area and (perform without using the traditional) rhyme scheme, people will say you don’t know how to do it right – ‘No es versador.’ In La Huasteca we have a contest between bands of their versadors…It’s very tough because it’s not just (putting together) words but responding to the other guy…It’s not a confrontation in a bad way, but a way of creating something new together.”
The many variations of the son are also a specialty of Sones de Mexico, the group that performed at the Getty Villa on April 10 with Alfredo Lopez as guest artist. Some of the sones they play take their names from places like son jaliscienses, from smaller communities like the indigenous-based son alajenos of Michoacan or from the instruments used such as the sones de marimba found in Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas. “What is common among the many styles of son is that it is festive music. Generally, son is a danceable style,” says Sones musician/producer Juan Dies, who holds a degree in ethnomusicology.”
One piece on the group’s CD, Esta Tierra es Tuya (Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Inc. 2007) highlights the danceable aspect of the genre with a son de tarima. “Tarima is a wooden surface that the dancers use as a foot tapping board,” explains Dies. “Tarimas are very important for the dances I was telling you about, because a lot of the dance to the son is percussive dance. It cannot be done on the ground or on a cement floor or on tile. It is done on a raised wooden box. (That is) used in Veracruz and other places. But in the Costa Chica, where that particular son de tarima comes from, they make a special kind of tarima where they dig a hole in the ground, and they put buckets of water underneath to bounce the sound back and then they cover the hole up with planks of wood. It’s only a space big enough for one or two dancers. So they dance on top of that hole and. And as the musicians are playing, the dancers take turns coming up on that plank. We bring our own wooden tarima with us and our dancers dance on it even if the stage floor is made of wood.”
Although the ensemble has delved deeply into the traditions of Mexico for performance material, it also has experimented with provocative musical fusions. One piece they perform is their interpretation of a Led Zeppelin number. Another on the Getty program was a jarocho version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G major. “We have been criticized by some people who don’t like that we make these experiments but…we don’t want to remain insular in the Mexican community. We continue to play all those Mexican songs that they enjoy but we like to appeal to new generations of Mexican- Americans. We like to appeal to non-Mexican Americans, to people who would never normally pick up a Mexican folk music record but who might see Led Zeppelin on the cover and that might spark their curiosity or they may see the Brandenburg Concerto and want to take a listen to it. It’s a novelty song, but they see that we take it seriously and they see that the rest of the album could also be enjoyable. You could call these experiments an effort on our part to reach a larger audience.”
Over the next several months, Mexican folkloric music will be reaching out to audiences with greater intensity as Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of its independence from Spain. The culmination will be September 16, 2010, Mexican Independence Day. No doubt sones in all their wondrous diversity will mark the occasion across Mexico and beyond its borders to the north.
Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.