Rael Home Page | Este Ensayo en Español
Enrique R. Lamadrid
University of New Mexico
The array of musical traditions found along el Río Grande del Norte, unique in the Hispanic world, is due to Nuevo México's geographic situation and historic destiny. From 1598 to 1821, in Spain's most northerly colonial province, colonists were stranded at the very rim of Christendom, a geographic frontier determined by deserts, mountains, and the harsh clime of the northlands. Their music, especially the heroic, novelesque, and burlesque romances, were necessary inspirations in the daily struggle for survival. As in other isolated areas of Spain and Latin America, versions of these famous and colorful ballads survived into modern times. In the lyric vein, the two ancient themes of Eros and Thanatos, love and death, are constantly renewed in the canciones or lyric compositions of each passing generation. A more enduring repertory of religious music extols the passions of the spirit.
The remoteness of the province contributed to a chronic shortage of clergy that lasted well into the 1870s. The resulting vacuum was filled by some of the most extraordinary religious and ceremonial music in the Hispanic world, the florid alabado hymns sung by the Penitente brotherhood, the entregas or delivery songs, which marked important rites of passage, and the despedimientos or farewell songs with which the dead are buried. Folk theater that flourished in the region also inspired its own poignant music, with the widespread pastorelas or shepherds plays, as well as other religious plays, including "El Niño Perdido" ("The Lost Child"), "Los Tres Reyes Magos" ("The Three Kings"), "Las Apariciones de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe" ("The Apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe"), and others.
Instrumental music found its main expression in bailes or village dances, which have always been a lively focus of frontier community life. The music of the bailes is a catalog of the popular dances and tunes accumulated over three centuries. The sensational and somewhat scandalous valse (waltz), polca (polka), and chotiz (schottische) of the nineteenth century joined older favorites like the cuadrillas (quadrilles) and redondos (round dances) from more remote times. Regional dances like the cuna (cradle), indita (little Indian girl), and vaquero (cowboy) are found only in Nuevo México.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Stanford Professor Aurelio M. Espinosa, the mentor of Juan B. Rael, lamented the fact that much valuable material had already been lost. As was to be expected, styles were evolving, and musical forms popular in previous eras were giving way to new tastes. Gone were the trovos or singing duels that entertained travelers on the yearly wagon train caravans to Chihuahua. The ancient romance ballads, relics from another age, were being replaced by newer forms that featured more local and contemporary events, the décima, indita, and corrido ballads. Only the latter type would survive into the present. The canción or popular song had begun its rise. Each new generation would decide what would remain and what was to change.
The close military alliances and cultural ties between the Spanish and the Pueblos of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set the stage for a uniquely New Mexican mestizaje or fusion of cultures. The Matachines dance drama, still performed in Indian Pueblos and Hispano villages alike, is an allegorical representation of the meeting of cultures and the coming of a new religion, Catholicism, to Nuevo México, all set to charming violin and guitar music, European in its melodies and Native American in its use of insistent repetition. The indita (little Indian girl) is another musical form that contains elements from both cultures. Its rhythms and melodies show definite Puebloan influences, to the extent that a European ear can assimilate them. Its themes range from love to tragedy and almost always feature dramatic interaction between Hispanos and Indians.
Another cultural frontier came with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 and the arrival of the "Americanos," which pushed Nuevo Mexicano culture into an unfamiliar and self-conscious ethnic role. In a modern setting of cultural struggle and assimilation, a simple canción de amor or love lyric sung in Spanish, becomes an assertion of cultural loyalty and ethnic identification. In this context, musicians take on the additional role of purveyors of cultural resistance.
The rough-cut, unpolished, "frontier" qualities of music in Nuevo México were noticed from the first by early American observers and collectors like Charles F. Lummis, who arrived on foot in 1884. In the introduction to his songbook, he wrote: "In arid, lonely, gaunt New Mexico . . . music has taken the imprint of its surroundings." He wondered why the flawless singing styles and prodigious musicianship so easily found in Mexico and the South seemed to be absent here. Then as today, the music of the region speaks not of embellished refinement, but rather of a stark sense of necessity. As times change, so does the definition of what is necessary for survival, both physical and cultural. With modern communications and technology, geographic barriers have given way, but cultural barriers loom as large as ever.
In the summer of 1940, Juan B. Rael made a portrait of this musical landscape that reveals his own interests in folk theater and religious and ceremonial music. He recorded eight hours of music in six communities: Cerro, Arroyo Hondo, and Taos in New Mexico; and Manassa, Antonito, and Alamosa in Colorado. Four women and fifteen men were recorded. The fact that fifteen were age forty and over is an indicator of Rael's interest in the older residual traditions rather than the new and emerging ones. Three-quarters of the 146 tracks on 36 acetate discs are vocal music and the other quarter is instrumental.
Recording technology makes the Rael collection the first significant documentation made of the classic repertory of Nuevo Mexicano violin and guitar music used so extensively in the bailes. A literary folklorist, Rael leaves the analysis of this singular regional style to later generations of musicologists, who made note of unusual melodic structures and unique methods of bowing and tuning. Often termed "Spanish Colonial music," this tradition actually only dates to the 1860s in Mexico, when the latest European dances were brought to the court of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico City. There are many valses or waltzes in Rael's collection, twenty-three in number, with evocative and curious names like the "Valse demócrata" ("Democratic Waltz"), "Valse de cinco pesos" ("Five Dollar Waltz"), "Valse del coyote" ("Coyote Waltz"), and "Valse de Rosana" ( "Rosana Waltz").
Next in number are the marchas, so popular as processional marches during wedding receptions. The collection includes five versions of "La Varsoviana," known in English as the "put your little foot" song. The title translates as the girl from Warsaw, an international song and dance craze, inspired by the emergence of the first Polish republic in the early nineteenth century. This European hit parade also includes one chotiz or schottische, which is what the international community imagined Scottish dance tunes to resemble. The most notable absences in the Rael collection are the polcas and some of the older forms.
Like his mentor, Aurelio M. Espinosa, Rael was fascinated by the older music and its link to peninsular Spanish traditions. Both shared a tendency to overlook Indo-Hispano traditions or more modern Mexican or American influences. Even though there was a local tradition of indita ballads and an Hispano Matachines dance tradition in the village of Arroyo Seco, only a few miles east of his home village, Rael included only one example in his collection. "El Tecolotito" is an intercultural love song about a little owl who flies back and forth between Indian and Hispano villages. Strangely absent from the collection are the narrative ballads, perhaps because Espinosa's book Romancero nuevomejicano had collected them so comprehensively, except for the contemporary ones.
Since the regional repertory of canciones includes so much recent popular music from Mexico, Rael chose to represent the lyric tradition with only two songs, both of them satirical. "El medio muerto" ("The Half-Dead One") mocks indecisiveness in the face of life and death. "Los Bienaventurados" ("The Blessed Ones") is a kind of parody of the "Sermon on the Mount" sung to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman." The list of the blessed includes male and female readers and newspaper subscribers and chastises them for their credulity and flights of fancy. The allusion to widespread, home-taught Spanish language literacy contradicts the stereotype of illiteracy among Hispanos.
Besides Rael's love of the music of the folk plays, one of the interests reflected in his collection is ceremonial music. Two of the instrumental waltzes, "Valse de los Días" ("Waltz of the Days") and "Valse de los Manueles" ("Waltz of the Immanuels"), are performed not at the bailes but rather on the festivities of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day respectively. Select groups of revelers go singing from house to house all night to bring in "Los Días," or all the days of the New Year. Since January first is the Feast of Immanuel, the visits concentrate on the houses of all the people named Manuel or Manuela. A number of songs are sung during these visits, but especially popular are the coplas or improvised couplets, composed on the spot to honor or poke fun at a particular individual. During the recording sessions, several singers honored Rael himself with couplets like this one:
Juanito tiene por nombre
Johnny you have as your name
Improvised verse is also one of the components of the "Entrega de Novios" ("The Delivery of the Newlyweds"), a folk wedding ceremony first researched by Rael. The community would gather to sanction new couples and "deliver" them in song to each other and their respective families, creating an opportunity for everyone to bless them. Priests would bless the union whenever they finally came around, or if the couple went to find one -- there was a chronic shortage of priests in outlying areas in the early days. To the accompaniment of a lively waltz, the singer begins with an invocation to the Virgin, several verses describing the biblical unions of Adam and Eve and Joseph and Mary, and descriptions of the wedding ceremony, especially if it took place in a larger town. Then come serious and humorous verses offering practical advice and admonitions to the new couple. After each person present files by to bless the couple, the concluding verses are sung to honor specific individuals such as the in-laws, best man, and maid of honor. The wedding dance at which the entrega was sung also includes La Marcha, a triumphal march in which lines of couples divide into single files of men and women who rejoin after dancing in concentric circles and reform with their hands joined and raised to make the tunnel of love from which the new couple are the last to emerge. These same wedding traditions are still popular today.
Beyond the plays, bailes, weddings, and songs, Rael's primary interest in the summer of 1940 was the religious music of the Nuevo Mexicanos. Fully half of the collection is dedicated to the alabado hymns of the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, the Penitente Brotherhood, who for over two centuries have kept the repertory in their living memories and in hand-copied cuadernos or ledger notebooks passed down from generation to generation. Several, like "Con mansedumbre y ternura" ("With Docility and Tenderness") and "Por el rastro de la sangre" ("Along the Trail of Blood"), are religious romance ballads dating from seventeenth-century Castille. Musically, some are closely related to even older Gregorian chant, and their modal melodies are indicators of their antiquity. The poetic structures of the alabados indicate that some are of erudite origins and were undoubtedly introduced by Franciscan priests, while the eight-syllable quatrain structure of the majority is an indication of humble, more recent origins locally and in northern Mexico.
In performance, the alabados are a kind of triple meditation, whose power lies in their poetry, their music, and the specific services and devotions with which they are used. For instance, "Soy esclavo de Jesús" ("I Am a Slave of Jesus") is replete with references to the estandarte or holy standard or banner carried in procession. This alabado is therefore sung in processions. "Nos dio su cuerpo el Señor" ("The Lord Gave Us His Body") is set at the scene of the Last Supper and is sung during Communion, on Holy Thursday, and whenever the Hermanos and their families gather to eat together. "La Pasión" ("The Passion") is sung during Viernes Santo, Good Friday services. "Considera, alma perdida" ("Consider, Lost Soul") is sung during the Estaciones de la Cruz, the Stations of the Cross prayer service. In many communities, the Fourth Station is dramatized with a procession of women carrying the statue of the Virgin and singing "Madre de Dolores" ("Mother of Sorrows") who meet a procession of men carrying the statue of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, and singing "Por el rastro de la sangre" ("Along the Trail of Blood") or another alabado describing what they are enacting.
The Penitentes and their families are devoted to the Passion of Jesus, and the alabados bring forth an outpouring of sentiment and remorse, for personal shortcomings and offenses are seen as the cause of the Crucifixion. Of the sixty-nine alabados Rael recorded, nineteen narrate different facets of La Pasión and another seventeen center on the suffering of the Virgin at the sacrifice of her son. Another fourteen are hymns of praise for the Virgin in her various aspects and vocations as Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows; Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude; Guadalupe; Carmel; and Nuestra Señora del Socorro, Our Lady of Succor. Hymns praising the Virgin and saints like San Pedro and San Antonio are sometimes called alabanzas, which like alabado translates into hymns of praise. In the alabados, Jesus appears as Jesús Nazareno, the Nazarene or Man of Sorrows at the moment of his trial, his scourging, and the way to Calvary; Cristo, the Crucified Christ; El Señor de Mapimí, the Lord of Mapimí, a regional devotion based in Sonora; and El Santo Niño de Atocha, the Holy Child of Atocha or Jesus as a pilgrim boy, another regional devotion based in Zacatecas. Seven alabados are classified as rogativas or entreaties focused on diverse issues like the souls of purgatory, divine mercy, the last judgment, and confession. Several more evoke specific aspects of the liturgy like Communion or Extreme Unction, or musicalize prayers like the Ave María or the Apostles' Creed. Many alabados refer to the devotional practices of the Brothers as they emulate La Pasión.
|"Jesucristo me acompañe" ("May Jesus Christ Accompany Me")|
Jesucristo me acompañe
y el ángel de nuestra guarda,i
para hacer el ejercicioi
del camino y las tres caídas.
May Jesus Christ accompany me
|"Ayúdame, buen Jesús" ("Help Me, Good Jesus")|
Ay, Jesús del alma mía,
que mi pecado se alivie,
e imitando su Pasión
y tomando la comida.
Oh, Jesus of my soul,
Like medieval plainsong, the alabados are sung without measure and proceed only as the words and themes progress. They are sung antiphonally, with lead singers alternating verses with group responses, a feature with distinct pedagogical value for missionary priests teaching the stories of the Church. Alabados are sung a cappella, although the pito, a vertically-held flute, is used to play, not melodies, but arabesques that evoke the tears of Mary and the cries of the souls in purgatory. The matraca or cog rattle is also twirled during processions, especially after the bells are silenced after Holy Thursday of Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Alabados are sung in unison to symbolize the unity and devotional convergence of the Brotherhood. Older alabados use modal scales and newer ones use tonal scales. The singing style is highly melismatic, with sometimes four or five notes sung to key syllables in a quavering voice reminiscent of Arabic and Jewish music. To be fully appreciated, the alabados must be heard in their performance contexts, the processions of the Hermanos and the services in moradas, the small chapels scattered in the mountains and canyons of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Juan B. Rael's musical record of them informed his research and initiated inquiry into their origins and evolution. As he often said, they are the musical soul of the Nuevo Mexicanos, and the key to a deeper understanding of a distinct regional culture.