Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Cinco de Mayo

May 3, 2012

Tony Sarabia, Richard Steele and Silvia Rivera

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Tony Sarabia:

Here’s my ideal way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo: a plate of arroz con frijoles accompanied by a stack of my mom’s homemade flour tortillas and Miguel Aceves’ grito blaring from the stereo.

That is the essence of my childhood growing up in a Mexican household. We didn’t speak Spanish in our home (common among a certain generation of Americans of Mexican descent); we left that to the music. 

What better way to celebrate a regional Mexican holiday than by surveying the country’s rich musical heritage? That’s what Richard Steele, Vocalo's Silvia Rivera and I are doing for this week’s edition of Music Thursdays.

Before we get to the music though, a word about Cinco de Mayo: In the state of Puebla, the holiday is referred to as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, which means "The Day of the Battle of Puebla."

On May 5th 1862, 4,000 men from the Mexican army routed the better-equipped French army, who also outnumbered them.  Historians say the battle is an important event in United States history because the win by the Mexican army prevented Napoleon from re-supplying Confederate troops during the Civil War.

But primarily, Cinco de Mayo is celebration of Mexican heritage and pride.

Okay, on to the music. Earlier I mentioned the “grito.” The grito is the shout, cry or ay, ay, ay that is peppered throughout lots of  Mexican ranchera or Mariachi music. But it is also a response from listeners of many types of Mexican music from ranchera to conjunto and son Jarocho. If the music moves you, then feel free to let loose with a grito.

In songs, it’s mostly male singers who use the grito but every now and then we’re blessed with a female singer giving her all in a grito. We get a taste of that from famed Mexican singer and actress Lucha Villa singing a tune that never fails to get a roomful of emotional Mexicans throwing down with the gritos.

"Volver Volver" is a ranchera, which is Mexican cowboy music that came of age during the Mexican Revolution. "Volver Volver" is an anthem to love and longing and was written by Fernando Z. Maldonado, who also recorded under the name Fred MacDonaldo (go figure). It’s a beautiful, sad sounding piece of music and I challenge you to NOT let out a grito when you hear the song.

This next number is sometimes performed in the ranchera style but here it’s a moody bolero by Trio Alazan. "Maleguena," or "Maleguena Salerosa" is about – what else, love. The singer tells the story of a man who’s in love with a woman from Malaga, Spain but she doesn’t want him because he’s too poor. He understands her rejection. Trio Alazan is part of a genre known as trios romanticos.

Next we liven things up with a Son Huasteco. Son Huasteco comes from the northeast cattle country of Mexico and is known for its driving 6/8 beat and three instrument lineup of violin, the eight stringed huapanguera and the five stringed jarana huasteca, which is about the size of a ukele. One of the best Son Hausteco bands is Mexico’s Los Camperos de Valles which has been playing music since 1974.

Here is their rendition of "La Llorona (The Crying Woman)." The legend of La Llorona is a story that I and many other Mexicans were told as kids and used as a warning against not listening to your elders or parents. Read it and then let out a loud grito. Feliz de Cinco de Mayo!

Richard Steele and Silvia Rivera:

Selena was known as “The Queen of Tejano” for her Tex-Mex style of music. She was only 23, and this Mexican-American was well on her way to becoming an international superstar: She had the talent, the looks and the personality. But in 1995, with an English album on the way, the young singer was gunned down in Corpus Christi, Tex., by the president of one of her fan clubs. It was a huge news story and one of the saddest tales associated with the music business.

The song performed here by Selena is “La Carcacha.” It’s about a woman, her boyfriend and his raggedy car. The song lyrics explain that she doesn’t care if the guy is rich or handsome, only that he treats her right. The music video for “La Carcacha” was shot in Monterrey, Mexico, and was the first video ever for Selena.

Juan Gabriel had a tough childhood. He was the youngest of 10 children, and his father died before he was born. At age 13, he left school and began doing carpentry work. That was around the same time he started writing songs. A bit later, he began singing at local clubs in Juarez. In 1971, he got a recording contract with RCA Records, changed his name from Alberto Valadez to Juan Gabriel, and recorded his first big hit. The song was “No Tengo Dinero” (I Don’t Have Money) recorded for his first studio album. The rest is history.

He is one of the most important songwriters and performers in contemporary Mexican music. Gabriel has recorded with numerous artists and has sold more than 40 million albums.          

Learning about Carla Morrison’s birthplace might be a real geography lesson for some. She’s from a city called Tecate, in the Mexican state of Baja California. The next question could very well be: How did this incredibly talented Mexican-American vocalist get the last name Morrison? It turns out that her dad left Mexico as a very young teenager and ended up in San Diego, where he was adopted by an American whose last name is Morrison.

Carla Morrison has this unique personal vocal style that draws people in. Her songs convince you that she can feel your pain and the love that might be part of that experience. She’s not shy about sharing her own experiences through her music. Her performances include her guitar and keyboard work. Last July she was in Chicago for the first time at the “Darkroom” on West Chicago Avenue. She’s also been heard on NPR.This recording is a love ballad called “Compartir” (To Share).