Music of Mexico: Manuel Ponce and Beyond

Steve Koenig

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Wherever you go in Mexico, there is music. The Metro has piped in music, but it’s not Muzak. You’ll hear Beatles, lots of American ‘sixties music, baladas. Also on the Metro are the sing-song calls of often very young children selling their wares: chewing gum, batteries, datebooks, dictionaries, ices. They all have a similar rhythm, and it is sonorous. At night-time, you’ll hear the steam whistle of the camote cart, the roasted sweet potatoes sold the way winter chestnuts are in the streets of New York, these with cream or honey.

In the zócalo, or town square, of Mexico City, and other places nationwide, you’ll find groups of native dancers in costume with drums and flutes and conch shells playing for money. In the zócalo or in fancier restaurants or outdoor cafes you’ll encounter the traditional mariachi bands, some of them terrible and some wonderful. They, like all musicians, depend on the public for money and tips, and so they do pander to popular taste, and so you can wind up with kitsch (“Funkytown”), or the old romantic songs which make your Mexican grandmothers cry and the most macho men sing along crying in their beer. What surprised me was the high quality of so many bands in a genre I thought I hated. After all, I don’t quiero Taco Bell.

One night, after the type of painful romantic miscommunication that can bring about the kind of lyrics denizens of the USA call country music, I prowled the streets looking for drugs, that is to say, discs. I wanted to drown myself in new music, but I had already bought nearly every possible release of contemporary Mexican composers, and years ago had helped clear the city of any remaining vinyl of indigenous music the government had subsidized. Then I spied the perfect joint.

A cube it was, and I have a jones for what the record industry fondly calls “boxed sets’ whether indeed they are in a box or slipcase. The jewel struck my eye, for indeed it was adorned by a jewel-like logotype, and I saw a seven-disc chunk of the first ever complete piano music of Manuel Ponce. This struck me as strange, for he’s the father of Mexican composed music, and many of his pieces had been based on folk music, or had been so popular it had seemed so. My immediate instinct to buy was tempered by my lack of knowledge about Ponce’s music. Except for a string trio which I thought surprisingly strong, the few pieces of piano music I had heard of Ponce’s had been pleasant and nothing more. Salon music rather than chamber music,if you will. Nonetheless, I was craving something new and the box felt so good in my hand I threw plastic to the wind, I mean cashier, and swaddled my foundling home, tearing the shrinkwrap off before I decided to return it home.

It was a lot of money to spend for an unknown quantity, but I don’t buy lottery tickets and in my life, this is the correct method of gambling. If I didn’t like it, it would make a mighty nice gift for someone, or I could trade it in the tianguis del Choppo, the weekly outdoor music swap market where mostly young folks meet each other to hang, show off the latest punk or “darkie” (here we call it “Gothic”) fashions, and hold out armfuls of discs for trade. In a nation where the minimum wage is akin to four dollars a long day, discs are a luxury, as the cost is the same as they are in the USA, and pirates are not waterpeople with parrots and eye patches.

Everywhere in the city are street vendors selling pirated copies of the latest hits, or compilations, to make music available to the people for four to seven dollars. (I’ve always held to the theory, regarding the USA, that the way to avoid the public buying pirates is for the majors — or is there only one major now?– to lower all prices and sell more of them.) You can find pirated copies of the latest EuroHouse music or Mexican banda music or compilations of the Beatles and the Doors, the latter way more popular now than they were during their lives, which their respective labels would. Judge pirates the way you would anything else: look closely. Ignore the slogan “Di No A La Pirateria,” for the pirated copies too tell you to say no to pirates, of course. Why not buy pirates? Despite the fact they’re guaranteed by the vendors, and truly you can return and find them the next day in the same place, many won’t cue up in my home player, although usually they play in my Mac’s CD-ROM drive. That’s not my preferred mode of listening. Also, the majority are ugly, ranging from near-duplicates but most covers or booklet bad color (or often black and white) photocopies, and often without labels or generic pirate labels not giving nay information, just like the vinyl rock bootlegs of yore. I’m not endorsing such, but the public should know the difference between pirates and bootlegs, as used in common parlance. A pirate is nothing more than an illegal copy of an already existing legitimate release. Bootlegs refer to illegal, unofficial recordings of live concerts or studio rehearsals and unreleased alternate takes. The definition of legal, as far as bootlegs, or even pirates, depends on the copyright laws of any given nation. Several smaller countries have not joined the Copyright Convention and literally all is fair game for copy.

Nearly running back home, every molecule of my being is on edge as I rip the shrink wrap off this cube of Ponce, unlikely ever to be pirated. I doubt Sony Classics worries much about such things, although the pop division does. What surprises me as I read the chunky booklet is not so much that this is the first-ever complete piano recordings, but that nearly half are world premiere recordings, and each of the six discs is filled to the brim. I throw myself on my bed and the first note starts and I listen, and play another track, and other, and try another disc and I say, hey, this stuff is real music. Hurray! (Before you raise your eyebrows, think how you react when you get a winning lottery ticket.)

I was so smitten and so surprised that I like so much of the Ponce, the nbext morning I immediately call Conaculta, the national arts council, for assistance contacting pianist Hector Rojas, the force behind this project, and shortly find myself in his living room, with his spouse, sculptor Ruth Beltrán, the graphic designer and producer of Manuel M. Ponce: Obra Complete Para Piano (Sony Masterworks Mexico CDEC7 486228, seven CDs, slipcase and booklet.) I told Rojas that I’d heard many Ponce works on guitar, and a few on watery new-agey piano, and they left me cold, and was shocked at the strength of even the minor pieces here. The guitar influence, he explained, is because when he was in Europe, Ponce encountered Andres Segovia, who became his champion, and if you have someone like Segovia to perform your works, well, you’re going to write works for guitar. Most of Ponce’s work, however, was written for piano.

Each disc has detailed notes about each piece, in Spanish and in very clear and informative English. The booklets also contain Ponce’s history and chronology, and some amazing photographs which reveal much if you believe the adage about the company one keeps: one photo with Arthur Rubinstein, another with Henryk Szeryng studying Ponce’s violin concerto, a 1934 group shot including Ponce with Claudio Arrau, Ernest Ansermet, Carlos Chávez, and other painters and writers, plus an undated group shot taken in Paris with Paul Dukas, Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Permit me to list each disc separately as they give an idea of the breadth of the genres he worked in, and also now, a year later, the discs are finally available individually, although they are not as yet imported to the USA. (You can buy them directly from the artist via email at ruthbel@compaq.net.mx, or probably via sonymusic.com.mx.)

Volume 1: Preludes, Fugues and Ancient Dances. 67:13

Volume 2: Concert Studies And Works Of His Youth. 68:16

Volume 3: Romantic Collections. 69:54

Volume 4: Mazurkas. 67:13

Volume 5: The Nationalistic Ponce. 69:35

Volume 6: Remembrances [Homages to Folk Music and To Other Composers]. 68:21

Volume 7: Romantic and Modern Pieces. 67:35

In following installments, I’ll cover more of the Ponce story, and offer individual articles on important Mexican independent labels Quindecim (classical and jazz), Urtext (classical), Opcion Sónica/Lejos del Paraíso (rock, experimental, and folk), Discos Pentagrama (folk and trova), Global Entertainment (a little of everything) and the prog-rock label Smogless. Of the majors, BMG Mexico has amazing back catalog of popular music as well as classic (Euro and Mex) classical performances by Eduardo Mata and Enrique Batíz, and, not to be outdone by the Ponce box, it just released a six-disc box of the first complete piano works of Carlos Chávez by María Teresa Rodríguez (BMG CDC7 43217028329), who also records for Quindecim. Live concerts won’t be slighted either. Nor will be the grand pop scandals; there as elsewhere, it takes the folks’ minds off politics. Forget Michael Jackson. We want to know what will be the fate of Mexican pop rebel Gloria Treví (a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper), accused of corrupting a minor in an international intrigue.

Mexico extends, as all nations do, beyond its borders. The American label Dorian has done excellent service to Latin American music in general, often via the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, which I hope won’t be insulted if I tag them the Kronos of Latin American Music, and the Tambuco Percussion Quartet. The British label ASV offers Chávez and Revueltas conducted by Batíz, as well as performances of European classical music by Jorge Federico Osorio, who just performed an amazing live set of the complete Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano at the Sala Manuel Ponce of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with British cellist Richard Markson. Their double-disc of the same is on ASV QuickSilva CD QSS 235 , and one of my three favorite sets.

Interviews in progress include composers Mario Lavista, Raúl Tudón (of Tambuco), and Julio Estrada, and pianists Osorio, Rojas, Rodríguez, Armando Merino, and others. As my Mexican friends continually tell me: Relax, we’re on Mexican time. We work hard; everything will happen, but slow down, and enjoy it as it comes. Meanwhile, listen to some music.