Documentary and news photographer Chris Vail covered much of Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain for Reuters during the 80s and early 90s before he returned to Latin America from 2002 to 2005. What started as a photo essay for the Los Angeles Times on music in the Mexican state of Veracruz turned into a personal project that inspired him to delve whole-heartedly into documenting various genres of traditional Mexican son music, which differs considerably by geographic location and historical influence.
“What’s interesting about regional Mexican folk music is there are 7 major regions culturally in Mexico and each region has its own musical form based on ‘son,’ the Spanish word for sound,” Vail says.
“Each region interprets time signatures in a different way. So, you have a region like Veracruz, where they play son jarocho, like the Ritchie Valens song, La Bamba, for example,” Vail says. “Veracruz is a region where the music is popular and continues to grow. A lot of people play son jarocho. It’s the kind of music, like rock n’ roll, where you can just sit down with the guitar and play it, practice for 3 months and then get together with a bunch of people and play away while people dance.
“I got started on this photography project when I was doing work for the LA Times in Mexico,” Vail explains. “One of their cultural writers flew into Mexico City, where I was living at the time, and I gave him about 8 story ideas to pursue and one of them was music in Veracruz. I was the photographer so we hooked him up with people who knew and could guide him through the local traditional music scene. It’s a very small family in Mexico and people seem to know each other all over the country. The different people I hooked him up with urged him to attend the Candelaria Festival in a beautiful town called Tlacotalpan, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.”
“I later ran into a lady at a party who asked me how it all went and I told her the assignment had been great, that we had a wonderful time. I asked what she was doing and she told me she was working with a violinist named Juan ReynosoTierra Caliente. Reynoso had won the Premio Nacional, the top cultural award given by the government in Mexico.
“In fact, he’d won the prize years ago and people assumed that, by now, he was dead,” Vail says. “This rumor had been going on for 10 years when she and her boyfriend made the point of trekking out to the Tierra Caliente after hearing an old cassette tape of his. She found Reynoso to be very much alive and this began her odyssey of promoting him and his music and, actually, the music of the region, which was dying out. She said she was going to be traveling very soon to take Reynoso, who was 90 years old, on tour. I said I would join her because if this guy was the greatest violinist in the country, I had to take his picture.
“Tierra Caliente is very similar to Appalachia in the U.S. in terms of being very poor, rural and agricultural. The drug trade is very present here, lawless and rough, and it is, as the name indicates, hot. Really hot. It is not a place people would go to have a nice time. It is hot and full of bugs. But it has its own kind of beauty.
“What I found when I went out there, and this is what really pulled me in,” Vail says, “is that all the primary practitioners of the local music, called the Son Calentano, were over 70 years old and many of them were even older. They were not going to be around for much longer. So I decided to photograph these people before it was too late. It was fortunate that I did because 8-9 years later, most of those guys were gone. I wish I had done more videotaping but I didn’t.
“Their music is interesting because some of its historical details are based in verifiable fact and some of it is pure conjecture,” Vail says. “Son calentano is supposedly a combination of classical Spanish music dating from the 16th C., which is the foundation of its violin music. So there is a principal violinist accompanied by one or two guitarists who play a rhythmical accompaniment along with percussive tamborita players. Tamboritas are drums made from a Parota tree. The musicians claim the drum rhythms come from all the way from Africa and Cuba. So this combination of classical Spanish music with Afro-Cuban rhythm is what gave birth to son calentano. It’s complex music. It’s hard to learn. It’s not something you can learn in just a couple of months. And for some reason, this music started to die out.
“One of the questions I asked myself when I was photographing the musicians was, if everyone who is playing is currently 70 years of age and older, and if most people decide what kind of music they’re going to play by the time they are 20–what happened 50 years ago? I found many different answers,” Vail says.
“Some answers were: electrification came to the area. Roads were paved around that time so musicians started traveling and bringing their influence into the region. Some said the braseros who came to work in the U.S. for the defense plants during World War II mixed with one another from different regions so when they came back home, they brought back various musical influences. That was possibly part of it as well. I don’t know that there is just one answer,” Vail muses.
“Certainly now, the music is dance music, party music. It’s the music of people who have made their living playing weddings, parties, funerals, birthday parties and any kind of celebration. This music was considered entertainment and now it is amplified. Now they still have music from Tierra Caliente. If you go into any music store that carries Latin music, they’ll have it, a huge selection of it—with pictures of these combos, massive speakers and the trucks they drive around. It’s not this, not the tamborita.
“I became curious and started looking at other regions in Mexico, meeting new musicians and photographing them. I couldn’t have done it without the help of a woman named Lindajoy Fenley, the American who had been living in Mexico for years. She was the one who created the music festival, Dos Tradiciones, and she would bring musicians from the U.S. traditional and have them play with the traditional musicians of the Tierra Caliente and they would have these concerts in the town square and everyone would come. People would play Cajun music with those who came from Montreal. They would exchange musical ideas in this very remote area. It is a remarkable even to experience.
“I’ve been shooting with different generations of digital cameras, dating from 2002,” Vail says. “I would make prints and take them back as a way of letting people know what I was doing. Over time, I built up an archive of these musicians from different regions. On my last trip back to Costa Chica of Guerrero, the most African part of Mexico, which extends just south of Acapulco into the state of Oaxaca, I found they have exceptional musicians. It is now a violent region. In fact, some of those areas in Tierra Caliente I would have a hard time going back to today because they’ve gotten so out of hand in terms of the violence.
“Significant credit goes to Lindajoy because I never could have gone into these places and done this work in the time that I did. I’ve made numerous trips back and people got to know me and that was all fine. Certainly in the Tierra Caliente I never would have gotten through the door very easily. Lindajoy had their trust and she vouched for me.
The following video is of Vail’s friend Chucho Paredo, a guitarist, musicologist and producer who lives in Cuernevaca, Mexico, who plays son calentano. “He performs fairly frequently in concert settings and is one of the people who has spent much of his career working with traditional musicians,” Vail says.
“The reason I came to know these guys is because, the Jesuits set up a short wave radio station called Radio Huayacocotla or Radio Huaya for short. Many indigenous languages are spoken there and of course, the music coming from the state radios was all tropicale and norteña, the kind of stuff you’d hear anywhere in Mexico. Yet there was a tradition in this area with these Otomi Indian brass bands that pretty much had been lost. So the Jesuits set up the radio station—and they just obtained their license after many years.
“Their radio station is set up at the highest point in the area and they bought 200 Chinese short wave radios, which they took into the communities to distribute all over so people could hear their signal,” Vail says. “And they opened up their studios so musicians could walk in at any time, night or day, to play on air. When that started happening, other people wanted to play too. So there was a tremendous demand to become part of these bands.
“Also, at about this time, approximately 10 years ago, people started coming to the U.S. to work and many of them came to New York, actually—to Queens and the Bronx. They worked at car washes and similar manual labor jobs. They lived in their own little bubble, basically. When everybody left home, the one thing everyone made sure to take with was a piece of paper with the phone number of this radio station. So someone in New York or San Francisco or wherever it was, called the radio station to say, ‘Tell Maria to be at the phone kiosk at 4 PM on Thursday and wish her a happy birthday.’ Every day, the station would broadcast announcements like this. So everybody out in the countryside back home could hear these announcements streaming in.
“One guy said his cousins in San Francisco called the radio station to say, ‘Don Jose he needs to be at the phone kiosk at 4 PM Thursday,’ with the kiosk being a 4 hour long walk away, for example. A woman in her house heard this and knew Don Jose was working in the fields across the valley. She went outside and shouted to him the message she had just heard on the radio.
“This was the main line of communication. So this essentially became the lifeline for a lot of people who came to the U.S. to work but it also became the listening center for a lot of this burgeoning music that played brass band music,” Vail says.
“The Jesuits offered to introduce me to people and invited me to attend carnival. The mountains where the Otomi Indians live takes hours to drive in and then you must leave your bus and walk another 3-4 hours into the mountains to reach a town that had been there since the 11th century. I went around from town to town during Carnival and, because I was vouched for and hosted, I could pretty much free to photograph whatever. People took us in and fed us and it was really hospitable.”
“I started that story in Veracruz in 2003 and in 2004 I started photographing and my last trip was a couple years ago. Most of it was shot 2004-2006. That was the bulk of the work.
“The brass bands play from dawn till dusk. The French brass bands might have influenced them—the French had been in this area in the 1800s and might have influenced this tradition.
Son Huasteco is played in the region called La Huasteca, on the eastern side of Mexico, an includes parts of five states: Tamualipas, Veracruz, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosi, Queretaro and Puebla.
“Music is a fairly living thing in these these regions yet there is a real split in these areas between the indigenous community and the Spanish population. The music is different in style though they are playing the same songs. There is a tradition of women singers, for example,” Vail says, “though music is mostly a male-dominated experience. Costa Chica is the most African influence, south of Acapulco. Traditional mariachi is without the horns. The flashy suits and horns arrived on the scene through the influence of Mexican cinema. Another popular musical style is musica romantica. Always, the guitar is a foundational element and the headliner is a violinist.
“Many of the musicians had what you would call ‘good time’ lives but one guy made his fame playing minuets for children’s funerals. That is what he was known for, as there is a high infant mortality rate in the countryside when he was a young man,” Vail explains.
“When Barack Obama was first elected to office, the people in the Costa Chica were euphoric. One musician, Efrén Mayren Santos, who is in his 70s, even wrote a song in Barack Obama’s honor. The locals started to take up a collection so they could hire a bus and go to the inauguration. The local priest stepped in and told them they had no chance of stepping past the U.S. border. They were not aware of the issues such as passports, border control, etc.
“It just so happened, the following spring, the Smithsonian was going to feature African music from the Americas at their annual music festival so they came down to Mexico and found Santos. They invited him to Washington to play at the festival and he landed his chance, after all, to sing the song he’d written for Obama. He sings it a capella in this video, pounding out the rhythm on top of an cajon that he travels with,” Vail says.
“Another story I have from the Costa Chica is of a guitarist named Don Bucho, who won the Premio Nacional,” Vail says. “He is Africo-Mexican and lives in a very small community along the Costa Chica. These are areas where you cannot simply show up in town. I had made friends with a guy who was the head of the Casa de Cultura and he said to me, ‘I’m head of the Casa de Cultura pero no hay casa,’ because there was no official building. He was an event organizer and told me he would introduce me to Don Bucho, which he did. He took me there.
“We drove into this town of a couple hundred people and there was this old guy sitting on a corner next to a house. My friend leaned out the window and called out, ‘We’re looking for famous musicians!’ And this old guy looked up and said, ‘Aqui estamos. Here we are!’ So we went into Don Bucho’s house and got to meet him, his wife and one of his daughters. We spoke about music and different things and simply hung out. When we asked if he would play for us, Bucho said, ‘Well, I’d like to but I don’t have a guitar. I know there is one in town here somewhere.’
“Think of it: this is a guy who won the top national cultural prize for his guitar playing and he was talking about how he was going to use his recording money to set up an institute to further the music but he doesn’t have a guitar. He said to us, ‘If you come back tomorrow, I know where the guitar is. I’ll go find it and I will play for you tomorrow.’
“I think he played fairly often—it’s just that there was one guitar in this town. In Mexico, it is more important that both of you leave a relationship feeling good rather than anything be actually factual,” Vail says. “So no one is every going to say no. He was not going to say, ‘I won’t play for you.’ It was a long trip for us to return, about two hours from where we were staying. We said our goodbyes that evening and then returned the following day.
“We found Don Bucho had a new, crisp white shirt on and his cowboy hat but he still didn’t have a guitar. He sent his daughter to go find the guitar. She returned and said, ‘I can’t find it. I don’t know where it is. I think it is at someone else’s house.’ He said he knew where it was. So he left, came back about 20 minutes later, and he had this guitar. The key pegs were broken on it and he used a set of pliers to tune it. He twisted the pliers here and there and then BAM! He just burst into song and just rocked, giving us this song and dynamite performance. He sang for about an hour. This is the video.” [See below.]
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Chris Vail has taught photography at San Francisco State University, has received Artist in Residence grants from both the California Arts Council and Duke University. His earlier documentary work on Oakland, California received support from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also the co-editor of the book Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution, a photographic history of the Sandinista years, featuring the work of 47 photographers. He most recently worked on a series on the global AIDS pandemic in the developing world for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).
Further recommended listening and reading: Musica Del Pueblo – Authentic Mexican Folk Music – Cumbia, Ranchera, Nortena Y Mas, Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica (Music in American Life), La Petenera.