The Return of the Conga
A chat with local LA musician, Gabriel Tenorio, about his recent cross-cultural/border-crossing project
Yadhira De Leon, Lost Angeles
Originally published at: Lost Angeles
Published on LatinoLA: March 30, 2012
The African roots and influences in Mexico are still somewhat of a mystery to most. Fiercely patriotic citizens boast about Mexico's rich homogenous culture, history, and food, but for some, Mexico's culture is rich in outside influences that have been adapted and remade Mexican. But labels and identity are always far more complex than what you see on the surface. That is why I felt compelled to chat with my friend and local LA musician, Gabriel Tenorio, about his recent cross-cultural/border-crossing project, "The Return of the Conga."
The conga, aside from being an actual drum, is also an African rhythm that crossed to Southern Mexico via Cuba in the 1800s. While the style flourished and became popular in Cuba in the early part of the 20th century it disappeared in Mexico. The conga is still danced and played in contemporary Cuba and continues to be played throughout the salsa world. "The musical style in Mexico took root and evolved its own feeling," said Tenorio.
"I was drawn to Veracruz by many things, initially by being exposed to the music in Juarez and El Paso," where Tenorio grew up. "You also found a lot of Marimba bands. I was in Chiapas in the mid 90's and found myself a child again once I heard that marimba music. With Veracruzana music, it reached me on a more practical level because of the work of the Herreras, Los Lobos, and street musicians. Quetzal Flores and I were very much interested in the style and began to explore it more and more intensely around the early and mid 90's."
Their influences included [/i]son jarocho[/i] bands like Son de Madera and Mono Blanco which led to the creation of their own band, Jarabe Xitlali. "We incorporated African dance into the music and explored that for a while. It laid a foundation for many other projects with people like John Avila, members of what is now Son del Centro, Jacob Hernandez, and others," said Tenorio.
"Personally, I've always felt that old songs were what you are supposed to play and carry with you. My grandparents gave me a distinct love for music that people try to constantly folklorize thus suck the life out of. Old songs are just a way of life for me and a vessel for culture. It is like reading the Bible or learning classical mythology/philosophy or Bach. They provide a context and basis for modern creative exploits."
So back in January of this year, Tenorio released a video of himself talking about a new project working with several LA musicians and internationally acclaimed poet and musician from Veracruz, Mexico, Patricio Hidalgo Belli. See it here: here
Hidalgo grew up in Apixita, Veracruz and was exposed to the Mexican Conga as it waned in popularity and almost evaporated from the collective consciousness. Some congas survived, and can be heard during the Christmas fiestas in the Canci??n Navidena . . . una limosna para este hombre viejo and on ChuChumbe's album Caramba Ni??o. Hidalgo has been studying the form and the history for many years now. He began to compose in the almost forgotten style and even decided to bring back Conga del Gavilan which had not been played in a century. "We did a new arrangement for this album. Since there is no recording or transcription for how this music was arranged or performed, we had to go through a process of re-imagining the sound and the feel based on Hidalgo's research," said Tenorio.
"I wanted to produce this record after Patricio came to our shop in October of 2011," he explained. Tenorio and Jacob Hernandez, executive producer and marimbol player on the album, operate Guadalupe Custom Strings in El Sereno and are members of the group Domingo Siete. "Within a few hours of landing, he had us playing what later became the first track of the CD. I had been listening to a lot of music, but not Congas at the time. I did not want an overtly Afro-Cuban approach, rather I wanted there to be a very Mexican lens through which to perceive, internalize, then reinterpret," said Tenorio.
The resulting Afro-jarocho sound that came from Hernandez's marimbol and Tenorio's cinco sonero (5 course, ten stringed creation of his carved out of one piece of cedar by German Vasquez Rubio - check out the video doc on him below) and Patricio's amazing sense of rhythm--nuanced and rock solid, inspired them to work out a set of songs to perform. "We integrated several other musicians and found the right combination with Alfred Ortiz on percussion and Marisoul Hernandez of La Santa Cecilia fame on vocals. This became to me a super group-worthy recording. I did not decide to produce the record until three weeks later when we realized we only had a short time to make this happen if it were to happen."
The urgency was due to the fast-approaching annual Candelaria festival in Veracruz where musicians, jarochos in particular, gather to pay homage to the Virgin Mary every 2nd of February. With little time and money left, Tenorio created his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds from friends, fellow musicians, and Facebook supporters. In less than a month, the campaign received donations of over $3,700 for the project. The CD was mixed, mastered in the LA Arts District and made its way to the Candelaria in Tlacotalpan in record time.
The reception in Veracruz was tremendous. The band members were hosted by local musicians and welcomed by the locals. Marisoul's powerful voice was a definite highlight of the festival performances. "Performing the music in Veracruz, primarily Tlacotalpan made sense. I had an immediate affinity for the climate and vibe and the public was not only receptive, but had been anticipating the release. This not only represented the return of a style called the conga to Veracruz, but the return of Patricio Hidalgo, himself who was on the brink of death recently," said Tenorio.
"Patricio and many of his generation are definitely visionaries. I would consider someone like Ramon Gutierrez also a musical visionary. Artists such as these are not only rescuing or saving or conserving (for lack of better terms) but are living and breathing this art. It is not something that would be considered folklore. That is for a museum--- this is today and now," said Tenorio. In fact, the conga style never died. Patricio is a part of a larger collection of artists that are keeping the musical traditions of Veracruz alive and vibrant. Groups such as Los Baxin, Mono Blanco, Los Vega, Los Cojolites, Los Utrera are in that milieu as well. "There's way too many group to name and that is a great thing!"
In addition to the now released CD, a DVD of the recording sessions and special interviews will also be made available in the near future. Tenorio is happy to report that the first 1,000 CDs were sold in less than 30 days through direct distribution and from the Kickstarter campaign. The CD is also slated to hit Japan and they are in talks with various distribution options. Currently, the CD is available through Tenorio at Guadalupe Custom Strings at email@example.com or at Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena where the band plays every Friday morning at 9 am. The LA contingency, officially called Municipio33, will be performing next Friday, April 6 at Cities on Chavez and Ford in East LA. Hidalgo returns to join the group in May. Watch for that show coming up!
"We are all extremely proud of the work we produced together and are excited to share this with you," said Tenorio. "Please share this music with a friend or a loved one and support an independent project that is groundbreaking and stirring." Groundbreaking and stirring it is. Not a few days after receiving my copy did it leave my hands at the request of another friend. Not an hour after getting my second copy did my mother ask me for one of her own. The music is now safely stored on my iTunes but I plan on getting another cd soon for safe keeping.
Yadhira De Leon, Lost Angeles:
There is never a dull moment in the City of Angels. Lost Angeles is about my personal experiences with people and places and how I am inspired by them. I hope you like what you read.