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July 2014
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Bach and Mexican Roots Music

Juan Rivera, c. Todd Winters

Juan Rivera, c. Todd Winters

Live Broadcast, Tuesday at 5:45 pm

This week’s Rush Hour concerts presents Bach in a tantalizing combo of musical styles. St. James Cathedral organist Bruce Barber plays Bach keyboard works at the organ, and Sones de Mexico performs some of their own Bach arrangements on traditional Mexican folk instruments.

When we chose to perform the music of J.S. Bach…some of our instruments, like the diatonic folk harp, have to re-tune several times during the piece…He plays with his right hand while he re-tunes with his left.

—Juan Dies, Sones de Mexico

The name Sones comes from “son,” a whole category of traditional Mexican music with titles like huapango, gustos, chilenas, and son jarocho. Each region’s contribution to the son has a distinct flavor with its own instruments, dances, and singing styles. Sones de Mexico not only learns these distinct styles, but makes their own arrangements. More recently, Sones has expanded the geographical base to include something a little more to the east: Thuringia, that is, Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Producer and CEO Juan Dies spoke to WFMT about Sones de Mexico.

What kind of ensemble is Sones and what kind of music do you play?

Sones de Mexico Ensemble is a multi-instrumentalist sextet that specializes in a large family of regional styles of folk music from Mexico. Many of these styles fall under the generic name of “son,” hence the name of the group. The various regional styles of son are qualified by the region they came from: son huasteco (from the Huasteca region), son planeco (from El Plan), son calentano (from Tierra Caliente region), son jarocho (from Veracruz), etc. The group was founded in Chicago 20 years ago. We became a non-profit organization to professionally preserve, teach, and record this music in the U.S.

How far back does the tradition of playing on those instruments go? What kind of music typically gets played on them?

Some of our instruments like the Aztec huéhuetl and teponaztli drums date back to pre-Columbian Mexico. Many others, such as vihuela and jarana guitars and the harp, and the styles of music played on them, were developed during the Renaissance, in Mexico’s colonial period under Spain (1510-1810). Other traditional instruments like the guitarrón (bass guitar) and the chromatic marimba (xylophone) were invented after Mexico’s independence in 1810.

With the traditional folk instruments, what are some of the trickiest, most virtuosic things that players do on them?

When we chose to perform the music of J.S. Bach, for example, which has several key changes, some of our instruments, like the diatonic folk harp, have to re-tune several times during the piece. Our harp player does this without missing a beat. He plays with his right hand while he re-tunes with his left.


Sones de Mexico with the instruments (click to enlarge), c. John Lowenstein

Where are your bandmates from? Where did they train?

Our band members come from different parts of Mexico: Michoacan, Morelos, Mexico City, and San Luis Potosi. We all met in Chicago. No musician comes to us already knowing all the regional styles of music we play. New musicians who join the ensemble must go through an apprenticeship period that can last anywhere from six months to two years. Even after years playing in the group we continue to learn more as we mine our rich heritage for new material and new challenges.

You are doing some new arrangements of old music, on old instruments that don’t typically go together. Tell us about that.

Some people call this “old wine in new bottles.” Indeed, as we try to preserve these music traditions, we believe that they need to evolve with the times and their surroundings. We call this a “living tradition.” For example, we have incorporated some modern instruments in our ensemble like the drum set and an electric upright bass, but what we play on them can date back hundreds of years.


Sones de Mexico, c. Todd Winters

Does Sones de Mexico have a social mission?

Our social mission mostly revolves around our educational efforts. In a media environment where our home country appears in the news mostly related to undocumented immigration, drug trade, and violence, we like to educate people about the amazing artistic and cultural assets that Mexico has to offer. We feel proud to have been able to take the music of forgotten and under-appreciated rural populations of Mexico to the great stages of the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Ravinia and Millennium Park.

What is Sones de Mexico’s musical mission?

Our musical mission is to maintain the traditions we represent by learning them as well as we can from our elders, by innovating upon them through our original arrangements, and then by teaching them to the next generation so they can carry on.

  • Don Macica

    I enjoyed this concert tremendously. It was a fitting memorial to the late Rush Hour Concerts founder Deborah Sobol, who passed away last January. She loved Bach and she loved building bridges to different Chicago communities. This concert was emblematic of this effort.