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This Community’s Lifeblood Is Breath

By Jesús Aguado

Chances are if you are on the banks of the San Damián River, you’ll hear someone playing a tambora (a bass drum covered with animal hide), a cymbal crashing nearly without rest, and a trombone played so vigorously that it seems as if it must be breaking the cheeks of the man who blows into it.

In other words, you are hearing banda, the music genre in San Miguel de Allende’s community of Don Francisco, where banda wind instrument and percussion bands are so prevalent that an estimated 90 percent of the community’s male residents make a living as “chupacobres”—brass wind instrument musicians.

This community of about 1,500 inhabitants is “sick with music,” as its musicians say.

Banda music is played for almost every public or private event: funerals, weddings, fiestas to honor the patron saint, the openings of a road, a public square, or a new well. It is not an exaggeration to say that this community’s economy depends in large part on banda music.

Don Javier González, the patriarch who plays the clarinet

To get to the community of Don Francisco, one must follow the road to Guanajuato and then turn off onto several kilometers of curvy, unpaved road. Curiously, says Don Javier González, patriarch of the El Rosal banda group, the community was not named for a town father or a rich benefactor, but for Saint Francis of Assisi.

When I arrived in the small community, Don Javier was waiting for me with some friends under a tree in a dry riverbed that won’t have water again until the rainy season. From there, we went to his house, where in a short time his wife, children, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren arrived.

Don Javier, 59, does not know how, or when the community was founded, but what he does remember clearly is his father, Rufino González Muñoz, and his uncles, Víctor and Epifanio, who all were banda musicians. He also remembers older banda veteran musicians from the era, people with names like Lorenzo, Ponciano, Tranquilino, Rodrigo, Octaviano, Crecenciano, Nicolás, Teobrán, Tereso. “When I met all of them, they were already musicians. But I do not know how they learned to play,” he said.

“My dad played the saxhorn (a brass wind instrument with valves) and then the oboe. With that, the marches sound amazing,” he said as we sat under the willow tree outside his house. He was 12 years old and already working the land when he realized that he needed and wanted to learn to play a musical instrument. “I did not go to school, not because I did not want to. We didn’t have a school here,” he said.

He remembers his father always saying yes to him learning to play music (and at this he smiles), “but [he said it] like in the song ‘La Negra,’ who says yes but does not say when.” Thus a clarinet arrived in his life when González least expected it, at age 16. “I do not know how my ancestors learned, but I learned by watching, by listening to the sound and watching how they did it.”

As González grew up, playing music, he got married at 17 and had 14 children—six of them sons—and participated in several of the community’s bands, but always dreamed of having his own band.

La Sombra del Rosal: music from the past, music from the present

When his children were old enough, González began to buy them wind instruments so they could learn to play. “Since they were little, I took them with me to play. I wanted to have my own band with my family. I bought them instruments, and they learned.”

Twenty-five years ago, he formed the El Rosal Band, which later spawned Banda La Sombra del Rosal, formed by his sons. “My children do a good job with that band,” he said.

At this point in the interview, his children arrived and joined the conversation; José Luis—who is still in El Rosal—Cirilo, and Pedro. They discussed how in 2003, with the evolution of banda music, they decided they wanted not only to play instruments, but to have a vocalist. “We were one band, but they played as in the old times, and we wanted something more modern, with a vocalist. That’s why my dad said, ‘You’d better make your own band. Work on it’. That’s how we started in 2003, José Luis, Cirilo, Pedro, and I,” says José Luis.

Banda La Sombra del Rosal already recorded its first album, No Me Digas Que, in Toluca, although they did not start promoting it because they were unhappy with how it came out. Now they are revising the recordings in Queretaro, single by single. “Each one costs 5,000 pesos,” said Cirilo. But they have toured throughout the Republic. On the family’s property, you can see the bus they used to travel to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, and Nayarit.

On several occasions, both bands say they have wanted to work in San Miguel. However, according to the bands’ members, government officials have made their participation impossible, not only because of bureaucracy around getting paid but because those who have served as intermediaries for them “have charged more and we are left only with a percentage. It is not profitable, and of course it is not good for us,” said Cirilo.

Even when they have been hired by private individuals to work in the Jardín during festivities, the musicians’ union has immediately blocked them from performing.

The wind band: rich ancestral tradition

Reggaeton and other new musical rhythms may reign supreme on today’s radio stations, but it hasn’t taken the popularity crown away from regional Mexican music like mariachi, norteña, and, of course, banda, if the crowds at live performances for these sorts of band are anything to go by.

In its 2015 book, Bandas de viento en México (Wind Bands in Mexico), the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) says that these groups are a “rich ancestral tradition,” part of Mexico’s evolution as a nation. Since the late nineteenth century, it says, bandas have been present in wartime to scare the enemy or to cheer on parades. The music is interwoven into Mexico’s rural and urban life, an inseparable part of ritual and festivities, present at every facet of public and private life—from religious processions, to bullfights, to governmental ceremonies, to inaugurations, to wedding celebrations and christenings; they’re also a weekly sight in the gazebos in towns’ public squares every Sunday.

The book also contains an article by Felipe Flores Dorantes, a research professor at INAH’s sound library, titled “Las bandas de viento: una rica y ancestral tradición de Oaxaca” (“Wind Bands: a Rich and Ancestral Oaxacan Tradition”). In it he says that the banda genre was born in the religious scene, and later left the churches to the secular life to evolve and offer multiple purposes to the community.

La Jornada, in its article “La música de las bandas de viento pervive como expresión de identidad cultural” (“Wind band music survives as an expression of cultural identity”) reported that the first manifestations of what is now known as banda music was recorded in the nineteenth century when “communities began to imitate the military bands of Emperor Maximilian of Austria [who ruled Mexico from 1863–1867], which played classical music.”

In La Jornada, ethnologist Alfonso Muñoz said that Mexican presidents Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz each promoted the creation of banda groups, mainly in Oaxaca, the birthplace of both men.

The importance of indigenous wind music bands increased at the beginning of the 20th century, when Mexicans partisan to independence and revolutionary movements began to associate the music with freedom.

 

A Primer on Banda Music

A wind music band is a musical ensemble that is executed with wind (brass) instruments such as clarinets, tenor and baritone saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas, timbales, drums, and cymbals. Most of the played pieces are just melodies, but the most modern bands have singers who sing the songs along with the melodies. Famous bands exist in Oaxaca, Morelos, Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Sonora, and Zacatecas. One of the oldest bands is Banda Tlayacapan from Morelos, and one of the most famous is Banda El Recodo, from Sinaloa.

 

A Starter’s Guide to Classic Banda

Very famous banda songs and melodies are: “El son de los aguacates,” “El sinaloense,” “El toro viejo,” “El muchacho alegre,” “El sauce y la palma,” “La marcha de Zacatecas,” “Árboles de la Barranca,” “Pena tras pena,” “El pávido návido,” “Mi gusto es,” “El torito” and “Arriba pichátaro.

 

To hire Banda El Rosal and Banda La Sombra del Rosal, contact Cirilo González at 415-1533-994.

 

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