SFS Projects

SFS Archives
by Mary Lytle

Article originally written for Seattle Folklore Society Flyer of February 2001

Did you know that SFS has a collection of over 200 tapes of its concerts beginning in 1966 and running through the 70’s? These tapes have been stored for over 25 years in various locations including the basement of a SFS member’s home. SFS has recently started a project to preserve the contents of these tapes by transferring the old reel-to-reel tapes to the new “modern” CD format. During the early days of the Folklore Society, many great musicians performed for the Society in small concert settings around town. Many styles of music were captured during these shows from blues to folk to bluegrass and more. Most of these concerts were recorded for historical value in the hopes that some day, these recording would be available to others. The early founders of SFS wanted to do their part to help ensure the music of these artists would be known and loved by many over the years to come. Some of the artist on these tapes are Elizabeth Cotton, the Rev. Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Furry Lewis, Booker White, Jack Elliott, Sam Hilton, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Mance Lipscomb and many others. One of the really neat parts of listening to these tapes is having the stories and commentaries these artist told during the shows in addition to the excellent recordings of the songs.

With the help of a student intern, Jennifer White (who came all the way from Bennington College in Vermont to complete an internship with us) we are currently indexing and documenting the collection. We will soon be transferring the entire collection to a CD format. Once this process is complete, The Folklore Society will begin discussions on possible ways to make the collection available to its members and the general public either in part or in its entirety. We are in need of volunteers who are interested in helping to seek out grants possibilities and archiving possibilities with other historical agencies around the Pacific Northwest. If you have grant writing skills or if you have a background in historical archives and want to help, please call Sandy Macdonald, the SFS Volunteer Coordinator at (206) 282-9747 or call the SFS general phone line at (206) 782-0505.

Fiddles for Tierra Caliente
by Paul Anastasio

The Seattle Folklore Society has begun a new program under my auspices. The goal of this program is to solicit donations of violins, bows and all manner of parts and accessories. These donations will then be taken to southwestern Mexico’s Tierra Caliente ­ a hotbed of remarkable folk fiddling ­ and given to musicians who lack these necessities.

Many of the region’s elderly violinists lack the financial resources to repair or replace parts of their fiddling kits as they break or are used up. In many cases this means that they find themselves unable to play, not because they lack the physical or mental ability to do so, but simply because they don’t have instruments and bows in playable condition.

In addition to the older players, I am finding more and more young people who are interested in learning this music. They are the hope for the future, and if they are to carry on the tradition they will need instruments and supplies as well. While inexpensive violins are available for purchase in Tierra Caliente, they are in most cases so poorly made as to be almost unplayable.

In the initial stages of this project, I was able to donate some equipment. In fact, I was very proud to have been able to give a violin to Plutarco Ignacius, a very good player who at the time didn’t have an instrument. Two weeks later, playing that fiddle, he and a group of his students won a prize in a big regional music contest. However, as I met more and more players, it soon became clear that the need for instruments and accessories exceeded my personal ability to give. My plans on future visits to Tierra Caliente include attempting to visit still more players. If during these visits I was able to give away parts, spare strings or even entire instruments to players who were in need this would not only create an incredible reservoir of good will but would have a profound effect on the health of this fragile regional music.

Fiddles for Tierra Caliente is also soliciting donations of cash in order to give scholarships to deserving young players. In one case, a promising young violinist lives just five blocks from a fine older player in the small town of Tlapehuala, Guerrero. The older violinist is eager to teach, but lives on a very small income and really needs to be paid for his teaching. If I were to give the older player $100 it would buy at least ten lessons for the young student.

If desired, the Seattle Folklore Society’s Treasurer will be able to provide donors with receipts for their contributions of equipment or cash. To obtain a receipt you’ll need to provide me with a document stating the fair market value of your contributions, or, if the items donated are new, a copy of the receipt that was given when they were purchased.

For more information or to make a contribution, please call me, Paul Anastasio, at 206/440-1844 or email me at panastasio@w-link.net. I will be happy to travel to pick up contributions.

The response to this program to date has been truly heartwarming. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read this article, and a sincere thank you in advance to all those of you who are able to contribute to Fiddles for Tierra Caliente.

The Music of Tierra Caliente
by Paul Anastasio

Article originally written for Seattle Folklore Society Journal in June and July of 2000

In southwestern Mexico, where the states of Michoacán and Guerrero meet, is an area known as Tierra Caliente–the Hot Lands. Here, along the banks of the Rio Balsas and the Rio Cutzamala, one can still hear stunningly beautiful Calentano music being played on violins, guitars and tamboritas. Although the roots of the music born in this region are shrouded in mystery, we know that as far back as the 1860s people were playing and dancing to sones and gustos in little towns like Corral Falso and Tlapehuala. The son, played in 6/8, is a style that has been played in Mexico for centuries. In the liner notes to the exhaustive 3-CD set Antología del Son de México, issued on the Corason label, reference is made to finding traces of the Iberian music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the modern son. In addition, one can hear both African and Cuban influences in the music of the Hot Lands, and in fact the older players state that the tamborita, or small two-headed drum of the region, was originally brought to Mexico by African slaves.

The musical fabric of Tierra Caliente is indeed complex. For example, an evening’s worth of music played on violin by one of the masters will undoubtedly include one or two danzóns, a style that originated in Cuba and was brought to Mexico in the 1920s, pasos dobles, with unmistakable Spanish roots, tangos brought north from Buenos Aries and waltzes that were heavily influenced by the Waltz Kings of old Vienna. Although at first glance it appears that the American influence on this music is relatively small, Calentano repertoire does in fact include foxtrots and even a few numbers referred to as Tierra Caliente swing, filled with syncopations right out of the Swing Era. The best players from the Hot Lands have committed hundreds, if not thousands, of complex pieces to memory, including numerous vocal verses. Often vocal verses are improvised on the spot as well, making for some hilarious moments late at night at parties.

In then 1920s and ‘30s there were hundreds of small groups playing Calentano music for weddings, christenings, dances and funerals, but with the growth of recorded music and the advent of more modern, rock-influenced styles, fewer and fewer young people took up the style. Learning the music, in the words of the late master violinist Filiberto Salmerón, “takes years,” and many of the young musicians have found it easier to learn a few chords on a guitar and play in a pop music band than to dedicate themselves to learning an old and difficult style. In many respects, Calentano music in Tierra Caliente today is similar to old-time fiddle and banjo music in the middle of the last century, when folks like Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz had just begun to visit many of the old-timers, learning and preserving a tradition that was in danger of dying out in its home region.

Here, far from the mango and coconut plantations of the Hot Lands, we have for the past five years been afforded a priceless opportunity to hear and study Calentano music with the undisputed master of the style, violinist Juan Reynoso. Lindajoy Fenley, a resident of Mexico City, and Peter McCracken, the former director of the American Festival of Fiddle Tunes, conspired to bring Juan to the festival in 1996. No one who attended his performance that year will ever forget the scene. Juan, with his thick, Coke-bottle glasses and limping gait, was helped onto the stage. He slowly opened his fiddle case, removed his violin, and absolutely lit into it, not like a frail old man but like a lion attacking a gazelle, to the astonishment of everyone in attendance. So great was his playing, and so patient and encouraging his teaching, that he was invited to return, not just for the next year, but every year as long as he was able. The year 2000 marked his fifth appearance at Fiddle Tunes, and on Friday, June 30th, just prior to the festival, he performed in concert, giving Seattlites the chance to hear the music that won him Mexico’s highest arts honor, the National Prize in Science and the Arts, in 1997.

The extensive study of the Calentano repertoire that I and others have undertaken since 1996 will, we hope, ensure that these exquisitely beautiful pieces will not die. I am in the process of copying to computer roughly 400 hand-written manuscripts and editing 1000+ hours of audio tape and over 400 hours of video. The project that I call Tierra Caliente-Save the Music is dedicated to preserving Calentano music, creating video and audio recordings, and, most importantly, teaching this remarkable music in order that it will not only survive but thrive. Folklore Society members who might want to become involved with any aspect of this project, or who have knowledge of the grant-writing process, are welcome to email me, or phone me at 206/440-1844, or write P.O. Box 30153 Seattle, WA 98155. For more information about Calentano music and sound samples, visit the Swing Cat website.

The June issue of the Flyer featured Part One of this article-a brief overview of the music of Mexico’s Tierra Caliente. In this issue I’ll continue the story. Calentano music (from the area of southwestern Mexico known as the Hot Lands) is a violin-fueled melange of many old and disparate styles. In addition to waltzes and 6/8 sones and gustos the genre includes a wide range of 4/4 rhythms which, while uniquely Mexican in nature, are clearly influenced by the music of Spain, Cuba and South America. Tracking down the roots of this music is difficult, as even within Mexico the Calentano style is not well-known. The remoteness of the region has been a barrier to musicologists, and it was not until the 1960s that concerted efforts were made to record the repertoire of the area. Fortunately, beginning in the 1960s, some of this extraordinary music began to be captured both in the field and in studios by professional engineers. A few CDs of these recordings from Mexico’s fine Corason label and several CDs and cassettes from local recording companies in Tierra Caliente are currently available. In addition, a fine LP set that violinist Juan Reynoso and his group recorded at the University of Guerrero has recently been reissued on compact disc. In addition, a compadre of Juan’s, Marco Antonio Bernal, recorded over a span of 15 years roughly 20 hours of extremely important home recordings of Juan’s playing. Marco has kindly allowed me to copy these valuable tapes, and I have used them as source material for many of my transcriptions. More recently, I have recorded on DAT the remarkable playing of Juan and his sons beginning at the 1997 Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. To date I have issued four CDs of these performances on my Swing Cat label.

We are fortunate, also, in that many of the violinists of the region read and write music, and my efforts and those of my colleagues who have visited Southwestern Mexico have resulted in the discovery of several yellowing archives of priceless hand-written manuscripts. To date I have purchased one archive (returning a copy of the music to its owner for his own use) and been allowed to copy another. Some of the other violinists who own these manuscripts have been understandably reluctant to sell or loan them for copying. However, my fellow American violinists and I hope to gain their confidence during subsequent visits and be given permission to copy their archives.

Somewhat surprisingly, the man generally considered to be the finest violinist of the region, Juan Reynoso, is unfamiliar with the language of written music. This has proven to be no hindrance to don Juan, however, as his remarkable encyclopedic memory has to date yielded over 400 tunes that I have transcribed. After seven months of long daily lessons don Juan continues to amaze me, pulling from his memory tunes from the repertoire that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes as many as four or five in a single day. At times a lull may occur in a lesson, and at those points I will sometimes jog don Juan’s memory by playing old tunes from other violinists’ sheet music. Sometimes our roles have even been reversed, with don Juan learning a piece of music from me!

I have had the good fortune on my most recent visits to Tierra Caliente to have been accompanied by David Tobin, a classically trained violinist and fellow devotee of this music. His Spanish is far better than mine, and together we have “spread the net” a little further, arranging to study not only with Juan but with don Plutarco and don Zacherias Salmerón, two other excellent violinists from the town of Tlapehuala, Guerrero. In all, David and I have been in contact with over a dozen violinists, most of whom range in age from 60 to 93 years old. One of the most remarkable of these is Angel Tavira, a highly schooled musician who was able to return to playing the violin despite losing his right hand in an accident. Strapping the bow to the end of his lower arm with a ribbon, he outplays many two-handed violinists. When David and I visited him at his house and told him that we wanted to learn Calentano music, he replied, “You can learn it here,” and we have begun to do just that, visiting him in Iguala, Guerrero as our schedule permits.

The year 2000 marked don Juan’s fifth year of teaching at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend. Each year it grows a little more difficult for him to make the long trip, which begins with a five-hour drive to Mexico City, followed by a long plane flight and yet another drive from Seattle to Port Townsend. For Juan, the tremendous amount of appreciation that the folks at Fiddle Tunes have for his music has always made the trip worthwhile. Perhaps it’s true what they say about a prophet being without honor in his own country. It’s certainly true that in southern Mexico these days his music is not appreciated as much as it is by audiences north of the border. Many’s the time that I’ll walk away from yet another stunning session with Juan shaking my head in amazement that this truly remarkable music is being ignored in favor of what to my ears is very ordinary, definitely unremarkable popular music.

The most wonderful thing about this whole project is that there has been a real change in don Juan. He no longer says, as he often did a few years ago, “I’m just playing an old music that’s out of style. No one is interested in it any more. I’m afraid of what will happen to it when I’m gone.” The sea change came two years ago, when Juan was being interviewed by the B.B.C. Then, for the first time, what he said, in effect, was, “there is a man, a gringo, who is learning this music and it will live on after I’m gone.” If I ever had had any doubts that my work was important and worthwhile, that one sentence from my teacher don Juan erased them. Now, due to my work and that of violinists David Tobin and Kat Fritz, bassist Spencer Hoveskeland and his cellist wife Traci, and guitarist Peter Langston, it is clear that this music will not only survive but thrive. It cannot be otherwise-it is too good, too passionate, and too precious for us to let it wither on the vine.

In the June issue of the Flyer I put out a call to Folklore Society members who might become involved with any of several aspects of what I call the Save the Music project. I will repeat that call here. My plans include copying roughly 400 transcriptions of Calentano music to computer using the Finale program and publishing them, editing 1000+ hours of audio tape and perhaps 600 hours of video tape with an eye and ear towards producing a video documentary, teaching videos and CDs and developing a curriculum for teaching this music both privately and in the public schools. My skills lie mainly in the areas of transcription, performance and audio editing of this music. I have much less knowledge of grant-writing, video editing and preparation of curriculum. Anyone with knowledge in these areas who would like to become involved in the project would be more than welcome to join what I consider to be an extremely worthy cause. You can email me, or phone me at 206/440-1844, or write P.O. Box 30153 Seattle, WA 98155. For more information about Calentano music and sound samples, visit the Swing Cat website.