Mexico’s port city of Veracruz was alive with music the week before Carnaval. Musicians, dancers, and audiences popped up on street corners, parks, and in driveways. Maybe it was the final stage of rehearsals. Or maybe the performers could not contain their pent-up excitement. The scheduled parades and ensuing revelry were still a week away, but the flurry of activity already felt like one big delightful street party.
Having escaped a New York City winter and landed in the middle of this creative melange, I was surprised to see how often the audiences joined in the singing and dancing. That certainly didn’t happen with musicians on New York subway platforms. But in Veracruz, performance quickly morphed into a communal gathering. I wondered if all these people actually knew one another or if there was something else at work. As I wandered around, I asked people that question. Often the scene seemed to suggest that everyone was someone’s cousin but people also told me “this is our culture and this is how we share it.”
A few years later I returned to Mexico to live and work as a photojournalist. An early assignment took me back to southern Veracruz, this time into the rich world of traditional Mexican music where I witnessed a similar communal vibrancy. With Veracruz as a starting point, I began visiting musicians in different parts of Mexico. I was curious to see if the communal magic in the music existed elsewhere in the country.
The results were mixed. In some places the traditional music was a lively multi-generational cultural experience. In others it was barely hanging on, with performers in their 80’s and 90’s. It felt more a like a vestige of a fading past.
Depending on whom I spoke with, explanations for this discrepancy ranged from the degree of musical complexity to volume (louder is better) to the 1940s bracero program sending workers to the United States, where Mexicans from different regions mingled for the first time. Modern improvements such as paved roads and electricity changed daily life and tastes. Some suggested that state control of radio stations influenced playlists, reflecting the favored regional music of each president. Obviously there were no simple answers to my question. But in this country where past, present and future are often so inextricably intertwined, the fortunes of any regional form seemed more like cultural ebb and flow than a final verdict, especially given the common roots of the music.
The majority of musicians I encountered played some form of traditional Mexican son, which developed from a blend of Spanish and indigenous music and in some cases African rhythms. Regional styles of son vary but the themes remain fairly constant. The music blends bacchanalian pursuits and affairs of the heart with ritual, religion, patriotism and history. Memories are resurrected, wounds salved, hearts broken—and sometimes people just get up and dance.
Traditional Mexican music expresses pride, joy, longing and pain. And in every region I found people devoted to the music and committed to maintaining its role in their culture. For them now, as it has been for generations, the music is the soundtrack for a way of life.
Winter 2016, Volume XV, Number 2
Chris Vail is a documentary and news photographer. He covered Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain as a news photographer throughout the 1980s and early 90’s. He returned to Latin America from 2002 – 2005. He also works as an editor, producer, and strategist on a wide variety of digital projects.
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