New Life for the Violin in Mexico's Hotlands

By Fenley, Lindajoy | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

New Life for the Violin in Mexico's Hotlands


Fenley, Lindajoy, ReVista (Cambridge)


ONCE UPON A TIME, THE MUSIC OF TIERRA Caliente was hidden treasure-wild and charismatic violin melodies lifted up by guitar chords, rooted in driving bass runs, and punctuated by varied sounds of a little drum called tamborita. The few who knew about Tierra Caliente's sones and gustos-people living in other parts of Mexico-coveted recordings of a remarkably talented violinist, Juan Reynoso. They shared these rare possessions with awe-struck friends and then lamented, "You'll never hear him live; he's no longer with us."

Fortunately, I never heard those rumors before I decided to track down the musician I had discovered on a cassette in a Mexico City music store in 1993. After listening repeatedly to "El gusto federal," "La malagueña de Guerrero" and "La tortolita," I invited a friend to go to Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, to see if we could find the magnificent musician who played those Tierra Caliente classics. To our delight, we spent an entire day with don Juan. He was very much alive.

We found his little blue house in the nearby dusty village of Riva Palacio, Michoacán, seven hours southwest of Mexico City, though the drive had taken us much longer than that. Although we left Mexico City about midday, we had to stop once it got dark, and we didn't pull in to Altamirano until the next morning. Esperanza, his wife and the mother of ten, told us about her husband's three marriages and his numerous children- more than two dozen if you count those out of wedlock-while we waited for him to finish his morning shower.

"I play yesterday's music," he told us, when he emerged. He didn't know he had fans far away who thought he had passed away, or that within a couple of years he'd have many more admirers in the United States as well as Mexico, or that in 1997, the President of Mexico would hand him the country's highest award for an artist, the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes.

But before he could become well known again in Mexico, he became recognized internationally. Through my musical contacts, I arranged for Don Juan to perform at the 20th Annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1996. The standing ovation he received from U.S. musicians led to a standing invitation to the Port Townsend week-long workshop featuring many traditional fiddle styles.

I had only planned to travel with him that once in 1996. However, I soon fell into being his festival escort-translatorassistant year after year, slowly leaving behind my career as a business journalist.

Don Juan returned to the festival as long as he was able, finally canceling his tenth appearance just before what would have been a difficult journey in 2005. For the Reynosos, going to the festival meant a seven-hour bus ride, an overnight in Mexico City, two flights which together took seven or eight hours not counting the layover, and finally a two-hour car ride.

Accompanying him each time he taught and performed in Port Townsend, I was inspired to launch an annual festival in Mexico that featured don Juan and other traditional musicians from Mexico, the United States and Canada. That festival, the Encuentro de Dos Tradiciones, lasted eight years, from 1997 to 2004.

I also began booking Juan Reynoso's performances elsewhere and serving as his media contact. The BBC as well as Mexico City papers contacted me. In addition, filmmakers Pacho Lane and Marcia Perskie produced hour-long documentaries titled, respectively, Viva mi Tierra Caliente and Looking for Don Juan.

I had never imagined that a casual encounter with a cassette would make such a profound change in both my life and don Juan's. I still remember so well that first day with him. Even at 80 years old, he didn't seem to tire, playing music and telling stories about his life throughout the entire day. Occasionally he'd pick up a red bandana and wipe beads of sweat from his brow. Otherwise, the heat didn't seem to bother him. Nothing was more important than the music. …

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