When you think about the African element in Latin music, you’re mind usually goes straight to familiar places: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. The folkloric traditions of all of these places were formed out of some combination of European, African and indigenous music. Why is it, then, that we don’t generally think of Mexico in these terms?
The conditions are roughly the same: Spanish conquest, indigenous populations, African slaves. The short answer lies in Mexican identity, one that favors the mestizo blend of Spanish and indigenous while downplaying and obscuring the African contribution. Yet Spain imported upwards of 200,000 slaves to Mexico, and just like in the Caribbean and South America, there was considerable blending between the three peoples.
This African root was largely unacknowledged up until a few decades ago. Meanwhile, of course, the English and French were also busy bringing slaves to North America. Culturally, African music here took a similar path, evolving into the blues and everything that came after. Thus, if you compare salsa to rock and roll, you can easily trace each back several centuries to their common African roots. Why not, then, Mexico?
Sones de México is a Chicago based organization made up of talented musician who are also musical anthropologists. They have studied and mastered the roots of Mexican popular music, and it is no surprise that Africa is present there. Mexico is a huge country, of course, so that presence is more diffuse. It’s more dominant, though, in areas like the semi-isolated Costa Chica region in the state of Guerrero or the Caribbean facing state of Veracruz.
Sones de México has been researching, preserving and performing Mexican roots music for over 20 years, and they have always been very upfront about Africa’s role in its development. Last year, they performed a huge concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park that included guest musicians drawn from the city’s diverse musical culture.
One of these was bluesman Billy Branch, who had his own Mexican-African epiphany while visiting Veracruz several years ago. Billy, a master of the blues harmonica, has led his band the Sons of Blues for over 30 years, and when he stepped onstage to join Sones de México to perform a traditional son jarocho from Veracruz, “La Bruja”, the crowd went nuts.
Sones and Branch then forged ahead with a full collaboration to explore the thematic and musical commonalities between Mexican son and American blues. The fruits of that exploration will take place Saturday, February 21 at the Old Town School of Folk Music with a concert that features all six members of Sones de México and the entire five piece Sons of the Blues. Dancers are likely to take part as well.
While the last few decades have seen an acknowledgement of the African presence in Mexico and its effect on music, to my knowledge this is the first time the music will be presented in this particular fashion. And, of course, there will be a considerable helping of Chicago-style electric blues.
Not that the blues are at all unfamiliar to Latinos. After all, before they made global hits of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and Willie Bobo’s “Evil Ways”, the band led by Carlos Santana, himself the son of a mariachi, called themselves the Santana Blues Band.
Sones de México and Billy Branch: Son Jarocho Meets the Blues. Saturday, February 21 at Szold Hall of the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Tickets at oldtownschool.org or call (773) 728-6000