The 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington continues this Independence Day holiday weekend with concerts on the National Mall that explore the rich diversity and vibrancy of Latino music.
As the Festival demonstrates, the music has not only become a magnet for people who share the same language and culture, it has also found new and enthusiastic audiences outside the Spanish-speaking world.
The program is called "Nuestra Musica: Music in Latino Culture." Nuestra Musica means 'our' music, explains Daniel Sheehy, co-curator of the festival concert series. "'Our Music' is intended to give that sense that music belongs to people," he says. "Music merges from specific communities of people, and it reflects identify and specific heritage. This is also our heritage, meaning our nation's heritage. 'Nuestra Musica,' this Latino music, is an important part of the heritage and living cultural heritage of the United States."
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival concerts weave together Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, indigenous music from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador and old time dance tunes or sones performed by the Camperos de Valles, a trio of musicians from a cattle-herding region of Mexico known as Huasteca.
"It is really exciting music," says Daniel Sheehy, who goes on to describe it as "hard-edged violin playing with these rhythmic strummed guitars, (and) driving rhythm underneath." He notes that almost everybody "comments about how this group has two singers that sing in a style that has these falsetto breaks that just adds this great beauty and excitement to the music. The Camperos de Valles… are at the top level of their tradition."
The Camperos de Valles are famous for creating lyrics that match the mood of the audience. "Many of the lyrics are traditional lyrics and they can talk about just about anything actually, "says Daniel Sheehy. They are masters of improvisation he says. "One of the verses improvised at the opening (of the Festival) spoke to how great it was for the group to be here in Washington, at the festival. Mr Sheehy says the lead singer "expressed the hope that as he played his jarana -- his guitar -- that the Mexican culture will continue to be more of the cultura Americana (American culture), rhyming with 'jarana'.
Also sharing the Festival Stage is Chicago-based Sones de Mexico. " Sones is plural for 'son' … meaning that they draw from many different traditions of music …especially (from) Mexico," Daniel Sheehy explained to the audience. "But they have been known to draw from many different traditions in Chicago, too. Just the fact that the name itself is plural is a clue to what is going on up here on the stage with this enormous assemblage of instruments, not to mention microphones and cords.
Sones de Mexico regularly takes their brand of regional Mexican party music to outdoor concerts, festivals and schools. Music director Victor Pichardo says the 6-piece band explores new frontiers of the genre. "We've been widely accepted in Chicago," he says. "It's not the words, but the rhythm and the quality of the music that is appealing to all immigrant groups."
That is a feeling shared by Chicago-born Lorena Iniguez. "I have probably learned more about my Mexican cultural heritage by being a member of this group," she says. "That is why I am very grateful for being part of this.".
"Music has no meaning beyond what people give it," says the Smithsonian's Daniel Sheehy, co-curator of the Nuestra Musica program. That meaning, he says, is transformed by connections between performers and the new audiences for whom they play. "It is a great opportunity to get closer to the music, learn something about it as well as have fun at the same time."