While much of traditional Mexican music draws influences from Europe and Africa, there is no question that this bright, joyful music — with multiple sub-genres, from Son Jarocho to Musica Norteña — is, ultimately, the creation of Mexico’s indigenous people.
On October 1 and 2, that creativity will be in full voice when Hermanos Herrera, one of traditional Mexican music’s most acclaimed ensembles, performs as part of New West Symphony’s “Master of Melody” concerts in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. Known for playing with an aggressive and energetic style that is both passionate and exhilarating, this Fillmore-based sextet of five brothers and their younger sister has earned numerous honors and awards over more than three decades.
“When I speak to performers and composers about traditional Mexican music,” says NWS Music Director Michael Christie, “one word keeps coming up: joy. The music is joyful, there’s dance, there’s such an elevation of the spirit. And that is what Hermanos Herrera brings to its performances.”
That joy is rooted in a rich heritage that encompasses more than 500 years and is influenced by Spanish classical guitar and harp, African percussion, German accordion and French brass, each brought to different parts of Mexico by immigrants and would-be conquerors.
“You can start with Veracruz in the south,” says Jorge Andres Herrera, co-founder of Hermanos Herrera and an ethnomusicologist who teaches at Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Chicano Studies. “When Spaniards landed in Mexico in 1519, they brought their typical instruments like guitar and harp. The indigenous Mexicans took those, adopted them for themselves and in some cases even changed them.”
The Mexican jarana, for example, is a smaller, narrower version of the Spanish guitar. “They played in very percussive manner, very different from the plucking style of classical music,” says Jorge. “That amalgamation or combination of European and indigenous Mexican and African music combined to form Son Jarocho, the sound of Veracruz.”
Among the various regional genres of Mexican music, Son Jarocho is particularly interesting, says Jorge, because of its improvisational possibilities. “A song can last not just three minutes but three hours,” he smiles, “because people join in and sing back and forth to each other. Sometimes, it’s mean, sometimes it’s playful, but at the end of the day, everybody’s friends. They’re doing this for the love of music.”
Throughout Mexico, different peoples developed their own regional music. “In the northern states like Tamaulipas,” says Jorge, “they have a song style called Son Huasteco, that utilizes the huapnaguera (an eight-stringed guitar played by Jorge’s brother Luis), while toward the West Coast you have mariachi music. All these pockets of amalgamated music happened throughout Mexico, and most of these genres still exist.”
During the German Revolution of 1848, many fleeing the country arrived in south Texas and northern Mexico, notes Jorge, bringing their button accordions, polkas and waltzes. “So what do the Mexicans do? Just like with the Spanish 330 years before, they adopt that German influence, and make it their own, adding lyrics over time to the waltzes and polkas.
“The same happened 20 years later in the 1860s during the Franco-Mexican war. The French bring in their brass bands, their military bands, the Mexicans adopt it, and now we have that great genre Banda, with horns and percussion, that you hear at every party on the weekends.”
On the weekend of October 1 and 2, the New West Symphony audience should expect to hear “authentic Mexican sounds and music,” says Jorge, performed with harps, accordions, jaranas, requintos, and a variety of other traditional and Mexican folk instruments played by Jorge and his siblings Luis, Rebeca, Juan, Miguel and Jose. As graduates of UCLA, all have established themselves as well-rounded scholars and academics, who have shared the stage with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Jose Feliciano and Los Lobos.
The selections for “Masters of Melody” include Carlos Ramirez’ “La Malagueña,” Alvaro Carillo’s “Sabor A Mi,” and Juan Díaz del Moral and Emilio D. Uranga’s “Allá en el Rancho Grande.” They reflect what Jorge calls “traditional and Mexican folk songs, including boleros, corridos, and the ever-popular ranchera.”
All of which means, Jorge says with a smile, that when Hermanos Herrera takes the stage, the audience can expect to do more than simply listen. “It means a party.”
Additionally, Jorge Herrera and featured guest artist Xavier Foley will join Michael Christie for the pre-concert “Hear and Now” talk Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in Thousand Oaks and Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. in Camarillo.