Music as Art in San Miguel
By David Ramsey
The art of the people in SMA is music. As in other parts of Mexico, it is not painting, literature, or bull fighting. Those expat painters who come here to take classes and paint the colonial buildings and the colorful campesinos may question this assertion, but I think most Mexicans would agree. The average Mexican working man who frequents the cantinas may never have read a book or been to an exhibition of paintings. Nevertheless, he is probably familiar with the folk wisdom in the song El Rey: “Una vez me dijo un ariero, no hay que llegar primero, pero hay que saber que llegar.” (One time a mule driver told me, you don’t have to arrive first, but you have to know how to get there.) This composition is by José Alfredo Jiménez, from Dolores Hidalgo, who wrote about 750 ranchera songs. Another verse is often heard at Mexican family gatherings: “No tengo ni trono ni reina, aunque nadie me comprenda, pero sigo siendo el rey.” (I don’t have a throne or a queen, even though no one understands me. I continue being the king.)
Augustín Lara was born in Veracruz. Granada is considered one of the most Spanish of songs, but Lara composed it before he ever visited that country. Generalissimo Franco financed a tour for him in Spain to perform the songs he composed for their beloved country. Solemente Una Vez is a song Lara wrote for his friend, the ex-opera singer José Mojica. It is not about romantic love but about Mojica’s love of God for which he later took on a monk-like religious life. Maria Bonita is a song about the starlet, Maria Felix, one of Lara’s wives, and the good times they had together in Acapulco.
I became enamored with Mexican music and listened to it on the radio to learn the language while I lived in San Diego. After I had learned Spanish well enough, I continued to listen to it because I liked it better than the popular music of the time. I had no idea that I would come to live many years in SMA.
I have a drive to persuade an artist to paint the images evoked by the songs. One could put the words of the songs in Spanish on one side of the painting and in English on the other. Most expats are not sufficiently conversant to understand the meaning of the songs. But if they understand the meaning of the song in English they can appreciate it. I think my idea would promote Mexican culture and help sell paintings, particularly if musicians played a song in front of the painting with its images and words. Any decent painter could render a visual representation of a song such as Mi Casita de Paja: “Hay mi casita de paja, hay mis naranjos en flor, todo se perdió por esa ingrata que me abandonó por otro amor, árboles que lloran con el viento queja de un amor que no volvió.” (Here is my little straw house, here are my orange trees in blossom, all is lost because of this ungrateful woman who abandoned me for another love, trees that cry in the wind complain of a love that never returned.)
One of the directors of the Instituto loves traditional Mexican songs. Every time we meet at a cocktail opening, I ask him: “When are you going to find some struggling young painter to paint the songs.” I hope one day he may find such a person.