Songs From the Latin Soul

From Mayan to modern, Los Folkloristas offers a rich blend from a highly varied culture

ONCE in a while art offers a new view of an old truth. Los Folkloristas, a seven-member group of musician-singers from Mexico, bends all expectations out of shape: the only predictable thing about one of their performances is that something peculiarly true and beautiful will surface during the evening. In the hands of such distinguished artists, Latin American folk music, as varied as rain forest flora, can displace a lot of preconceptions about Latin American cultures. The stage of the Arvada Center for the Arts contained a table laid out with 60 instruments - many of which looked more like sculpture or primitive household utensils than instruments. Dramatic lighting against a white backdrop created an evocative atmosphere. The singers streamed out in single file, the men in Peruvian ponchos from Cuzco, one woman in a hand-embroidered dress from Guatemala, the other in traditional Mexican garb. Every one of them projected dignity and easy grace; every one of them communicated love for the music.

The only member of the company who speaks fluent English is Rosalinda Reynoso, who introduced each song with a little description of its meaning as it reflects the society from which it comes, or described each of the unusual instruments from the various cultures represented in the repertoire. Sometimes Ms. Reynoso introduced a member of the company who continued to describe in Spanish more about the region, its people, or the music. Judging from the response of Spanish-speaking audience members, humor peppered much of these prologues.

Reynoso suggested that each of these songs offered an imaginary trip to its source culture. Some of the songs were sung in Indian languages like Yaqui or Mayan. Most had complicated and penetrating rhythms. Several of the songs had a distinctly African pulse. Reynoso spoke of the blending of cultures - Indian, African, and European - which has created the contemporary Mestizos. The name, Reynoso says, is worn with pride by contemporary citizens of Mexico, though it is often used derogatorily to mean ``half-breed'' among anglos. One of the songs, an original work by Gerardo Tamez, celebrates the Mestizo culture.

In fact, so much affection gleams through each song, all seemed celebratory, even when, as in ``Coplas de Vidala,'' the tone was sweetly melancholic. Each evoked a special feeling different from all the others. In ``Konex-Konex,'' a Mayan lullaby, the sounds of the rain forest - piping birds, whistles, insects, rainfall (through the water stick), and wind among rustling leaves - mingled with the beat of the water drum, flutes, and song to form one of the most exquisite pieces of the evening. In another original piece by Los Folkloristas' own Jose Avila, ``Raiz Viva,'' a variety of flutes, including several in the shape of animals - exact copies of ancient Mayan instruments - attempted to re-create the ancient Mayan music as it may have sounded a thousand years ago.

The lively two hours of South and Central American music did more than entertain. The program was quite deliberately a cultural ambassador to the countries it visits and a living heritage to Mexico.

Reynoso sat straight in her chair, her hands folded in her lap as we talked backstage after the concert. Cultivated grace disinguished her demeanor and conversation as it had her performance. She has been with the group for 11 years, but it started, she says, in 1966. When the group first got together, there were perhaps 20 friends who met regularly to play regional folk music. Gradually, as they became more serious about the music and began acquiring more songs, the group dwindled to seven serious musicians, five men and two women.

Incredibly, only two of the seven are formally trained musicians. Those who remained found themselves really dedicated to the work, and a long period of gathering began. Founding members traveled to remote villages in their own and other Latin American countries, recording songs, gathering instruments and learning to play and sing in the original languages and styles. Ethno-musicologists admired the work of the group so much that they contributed to it, including the American Jose Raul Heller, who left the group part of his extensive collection in his will.

``It is our idea to rescue this music from oblivion,'' Reynoso says. ``Very often there is a rhythm or a song or an instrument that just one last little old man knows how to play, and when he's gone that song is gone for good. All over the world this is happening. So many traditions are being lost.'' Even the beautifully hand-embroidered, hand-woven dress she wore represents a tradition that appears to be gradually passing away.

``We think these traditions are very valuable and should not be lost. We have the privilege of performing all over our country - the United States, Latin America, and Europe - this music with these instruments, which are sometimes esoteric even in Mexico,'' she says. With well over 200 songs in their repertoire, the group has made 20 albums. They no longer actively search for music, but often when they are on tour someone will come and tell them of an old maestro in some village, and they will still go and listen and record the music.

Los Folkloristas regularly conduct workshops in the US and in Mexico for children from kindergarten to college age. ``We give the children in our workshops a kind of history lesson through music and through instruments about the cultures they come from,'' Reynoso says. ``We think it is our contribution to others. It is a very modest contribution, but that's what each can do. The music is a way of learning more about ourselves, too - our traditions, our culture, our heritage. We think the fact of people knowing more about each other will help make war a thing of the past one day.''

Between workshops and a regular concert schedule, each member of Los Folkloristas must make a living. Reynoso does translations and writes scripts for cultural television. One member paints. Two members teach music and perform independently. Another owns a boutique. The group receives no funding. And most of what they make on tour goes right back into the travel expenses (they carry 60 instruments with them on each tour). What keeps them going is love for the music and the hope that they can help facilitate communication between people.

``We've come to places in the US where we've met a certain resistance,'' Reynoso says. ``But they hear us and come up afterwards and congratulate us. This is evidence that we are perhaps reaching those who have had no other contact with our culture. I hope it plants a little seed in people's minds who have prejudice. It is incredible that discrimination still exists, but we still think this has something to do with not knowing about other cultures. Each culture is equally valuable and we could learn a great deal from other cultures if we could just be a little more open-hearted and open-minded.''

Los Folkloristas comes to the United States for concerts several times each year. They will be at the University of Houston on Dec. 5, and then they return for long US tours in February and April, 1991.

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