Self-described ethnographer-composer-academic-musician Alex E. Chávez shares a playlist and excerpts from his new book Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño, which explores the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and poetics of huapango arribeño, a musical genre originating from north-central Mexico. In Sounds of Crossing, Chávez follows huapango arribeño’s improvisational performance on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to demonstrate how Mexican migrants use music to construct meaningful communities amid the United States’ often vitriolic immigration politics.
An accomplished musician and multi-instrumentalist, Chávez has performance experience in an array of styles ranging from American popular music to traditional Mexican folk. He has recorded and toured with his own musical projects, composed documentary scores (most recently Emmy Award-winning El Despertar  & Where Soldiers Come From ), and has collaborated with various artists, including Grammy Award winners Quetzal and Grupo Fantasma and Latin Grammy Award-nominated Sones de México, in addition to Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Charanga Cakewalk/Lila Downs, and Ocote Soul Sounds. He has contributed to the volumes Making Sense of Language (2016), Latino, American, Dream (2016), Iconic Mexico (2015), Celebrating Latino Folklore (2012), and Con La Música a Otra Parte: Migración e Identidad en La Lírica Queretana (2010).
Sweat is trickling down the side of your face, welling at the back of your neck; the heat and humidity are smothering. It’s a typical sweltering July evening in Central Texas, close to ten o’clock. The incandescence of city lights in the distance washes over the starry night sky, an amber glow that crowns the ballroom outside of town where Mexican migrants have gathered. Some sit along concrete bleachers, others lean out across the flanking metal railing and peer leisurely toward the crowd of several hundred below. These soon-to-be dancers are nestled in between two stages, positioned at opposite ends of the dance floor. An indistinguishable murmur of laughter and conversation nervously crescendoes every now and then, in anticipation of the musical duel everyone is awaiting.
The multitude sways to and fro, wave after wave of shifting bodies stirring the dust beneath them into a cloud. Four silhouettes appear on one stage, moving leisurely with their instruments—two violins, a vihuela (small five-stringed chordophone), and a guitarra quinta huapanguera (larger modified eight-string bass guitar, similar to the more common six-stringed version). They assume their positions, exchange glances, and confer quietly, subtly coaxing the music about to be played. They gaze over at the other stage, now similarly occupied by a matching ensemble, waiting patiently. A collective sigh rushes across the congregation, quieting the chatter, tilting bodies forward as everyone focuses on the shadows emerging before them. Suddenly, the strumming of instruments booms out through the sound system; elaborate fiddle melodies erupt, followed by the soaring voice of the troubadour poet. The pulsing 2/4 cadence echoes forcefully, measured, trembling through the body, ascending upward, embracing those present, as do the unraveling verses. These eight musicians—composing two identical huapango arribeño ensembles—will face off in a bout of musical and poetic flyting, exchanging fiddle melodies and improvised verses all night long.
When I describe this type of musical duel—referred to as a topada (from the verb topar, to collide with)—to those unfamiliar with it, they are often amazed at the thought of an eight-, ten-, or twelve-hour back-and-forth at that level of intensity on the part of both the performers and the audience. The excessive nature of the time and energy spent is unlike so many other performance styles. In that very excess lies the conviviality, the tones and tensions, and the laborious explorations that are crucial to huapango arribeño as an intertextual and polyphonic locus of aesthetic enactments and responses. Think of huapango arribeño as a dense, musical architecture that yields a rhythmic and poetic complex. It has jagged, sharp edges in structure, timbre, and tone. There is gravity behind the sudden drops and shifts between verses and melodies. You become attentive to these modulations; they snag the ears—extreme changes that move you, catch you, confront you. Yet, despite this seemingly intense and virtuosic performance style, most of the Mexican public is unaware of this musical tradition.
Huapango arribeño originates in the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, and San Luís Potosí, and takes its name from the Nahuatl word cuauhpanco—cuahuitl meaning ‘wood,’ pan designating ‘atop,’ and co ‘place,’ signifying ‘on top of the wood’ and referring to the wooden platform (tarima) atop which people perform patterned footwork (zapateado) to vernacular Mexican stringed music. This seems to indicate that huapango refers explicitly to ritual dance, and in part it does, for it may be seen as synonymous with the fandango, a social gathering centered on dance and music-making in 18th-century New Spain. The term arribeño (highlander) refers to the mountainous region of the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro (known as La Sierra Gorda) and to the midregion of San Luís Potosí (La Zona Media), which sits higher in altitude than the huasteca portion of the state, home to the Téenek (or Huastec) Indians and the more widely known huasteco style of huapango. The huasteco variant, specifically, is one of many regional string musics popularized in the years following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) as state-sponsored cultural education efforts featuring sanitized folkloric performances of select aires nacionales (national anthems) played a role in deeming certain musics ideal expressions of Mexicanidad (Mexican cultural nationalism). At the same time, radio and cinema emerged as powerful commercial vehicles for disseminating the huasteco variant. The resulting streamlined popular huapango style quickly became an emblematic sound of assumed national tradition.
Given this, the term huapango—in a more general sense—typically references its signature rhythm, in a galloping 6/8 meter. Indeed, most appreciators of Mexican music can recognize huapango in many of its variations, whether it be the accordion-based stylings of Mexico’s música norteña or rendered with dramatic bel canto air by the immortal stars of the golden era of Mexican cinema. This latter image exists as an archetype of a sort of “classic” huapango. And again, while the popularity of this music outside its region of origin owes much to the silver screen, this stylized representation lays bare the complicated relationship between music and nationalism in the 20th century, and subsequently sheds light on the relative absence of huapango arribeño from this story.
My book Sounds of Crossing represents the first extended study of huapango arribeño, a topic otherwise absent from scholarship on Mexican music. And although ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and linguistic anthropologists will be able to glean the details of its formal musico-poetic properties—particularly its extensive use of the Spanish décima (ten-line stanza) and its topada performance style—this book follows moments of this music’s lush and improvisational performance within the lives of both audiences and practitioners, from New Year’s festivities in the highlands of Guanajuato to backyard get-togethers along the back roads of Central Texas. In doing so, it provocatively uses “sounds of crossing” as a graphic model to map the bindings and cultural adjacencies produced through the enactment of huapango arribeño’s music and poetics across this transnational geography in the late twentieth and early twenty- first centuries.
As a student and practitioner of various Mexican folk musics for over two decades, I have engaged in music-making alongside my interlocuters, transforming my own experiences into a unique perspective on the body politics of performance that has shaped my understanding of how people cross various types of borders. This was certainly the case with the research that informs Sounds of Crossing. And while my musical curiosity first compelled me to make performance a cornerstone of my ethnographic process, I soon realized it was vital to gaining a deeper understanding of huapango arribeño music-making more generally given that very few sources exist on the topic. Consulting extensive written sources of any kind was not an option, and furthermore, recordings of the music are rare and have only been made by a few select musicians. So, apprehending both the conventions that govern performance and the rhetorical logics of composition required not only that I observe performances, but also participate in them as a practitioner.
Years later, one such relationship built through research and performance resulted in a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute where I was able to serve as lead producer of a Smithsonian Folkways recording of Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú entitled Serrano de Corazón (Highlander at Heart) (2016). This first-ever recording of its kind by an esteemed cultural institution of this caliber highlights huapango arribeño at its finest and makes anthropological knowledge of this music-culture accessible to a global audience. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, and is dedicated to supporting increased awareness of peoples from around the world through the documentation and dissemination of sound recordings.
In this same spirit, the playlist I have compiled consists of music that represents the contemporary world of huapango arribeño. And while certainly not a definitive list, this sampling of transnational artists performing in Mexico is an excellent glimpse into both the sounds of this music and its various performative contexts. So, sit back and listen to the music and poetry of troubadour poets you probably never knew existed.
Tali Díaz y Los Díaz del Real—“Para que el tiempo no se quebrante” (poesía, valona, & son)
Featuring the young troubadour poet Tali Díaz and his group Los Díaz del Real, this track captures the typical huapango arribeño musical piece, which consists of three distinct components: (1) poesía— recited décimas anchored by a musico-poetic refrain; (2) decimal/valona—sung décimas accompanied by ornate violin interludes; and (3) son—violin-centered portion that displays the typical 6/8 galloping rhythm and showcases virtuosic fiddle melodies.
Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú feat. Maria Isabel “Chabe” Flores Solano—“Brota mi canto y se ufana” (valona & son)
This track is taken from the Smithsonian Folkways album Serrano de Corazón (Highlander at Heart) featuring Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú. Chabe Flores takes the helm on this decimal/valona, showcasing her trademark voice. Here, she addresses the topic of women’s empowerment and self-determination with a commanding and powerful performance. The valona is crowned by a traditional son arribeño titled “La rosita arribeña” (the rose from the highlands).
Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú—“Serrano de corazón” (poesía-inspired composition & son)
Also taken from the Smithsonian Folkways album Serrano de Corazón, this song typifies both the lyrical virtuosity and musical energy Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú bring to their live performances. The song is a hybrid form that alternates between recited décimas—in the spirit of the poesía portion previously described—and a lively canción portion played in 6/8 that features harmonized lyrics in the style of the huapango-canción and canción típica genres. The track ends with another variant of the son “La rosita arribeña.”
El Conjunto de Pedro Sauceda—“La virgen tendió su manto en la tierra del placer” (jarabe)
Taken from the set of albums titled Antologia del Son de Mexico released by Discos Corasón in 1985, this track features El Conjunto de Pedro Sauceda performing a traditional jarabe arribeño. The name jarabe is an analogous reference to the drug of the same name, which is made of various healing herbs, and the musical jarabe is similarly composed of various musical sounds and melodies that give it structure.
Toño Escalante y Conjunto Los Gorrioncillos de la Sierra—“El pajarillo” (son)
Also taken from the Antologia del Son de Mexico (1985), this track features Toño Escalante y Conjunto Los Gorriones de La Sierra performing a traditional son arribeño “El Pajarillo”.
Las Palomitas Serranas with Ángel González (jarabes & son)
This is a live performance featuring the all-female huapango group Las Palomitas Serranas with veteran troubadour poet Ángel González. The group is performing a traditional jarabe arribeño as they arrive in the rural hamlet of Palomas, Guanajuato for an artistic summit centered around Ibero-American music and poetry.
Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú—“La topada de poetas”
Also taken from the Smithsonian Folkways album Serrano de Corazón, “La topada de poetas” is Velázquez’s magnum opus on this album, which both narrates and performs the atmosphere of the topada, vividly detailing the portions of the marathon encounter, as night turns into day. It begins with a shortened poesía with a narrated ending, followed by an instrumental polka (typically called a pieza) with narration. Another shortened poesía with a narrated ending ensues, which then introduces two poesías de bravata (boasting poesías, wherein poets engage each other in banter and jibes)—here, Vincent Velázquez and Nicacio López take on the roles of opposing poets. Finally, Guillermo Velázquez performs a valona, followed by an extended jarabe, which captures the climactic energy of the topada in full bloom, when violinists are locked in after several hours, stretching out the music while the zapateado of the audience echoes out in percussive response.
Ángel González with Las Palomitas Serranas (pieza [polka])
This is a live performance featuring the troubadour poet Ángel González with members of the all-female huapango group Las Palomitas Serranas. The group is performing a traditional instrumental polka (typically called a pieza) in the rural hamlet of Palomas, Guanajuato.
Santa Vibra feat. Maria Isabel “Chabe” Flores Solano & Tali Díaz—“Llegar al mesón” (huapango)
While not a traditional huapango arribeño, this track is nonetheless in the galloping 6/8 huapango style and features a duet between Maria Isabel “Chabe” Flores Solano and troubadour poet Tali Díaz. The group Santa Vibra provides the musical backing.
Los Tiradores—“Otro ratito nomas” (valona from Michoacán)
Taken from the album Michoacán: sones de la Tierra Caliente produced by Fonoteca del INAH (the official sound library of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History), this track features the group Los Tiradores performing a valona typical to the stringed music genre of the state of Michoacán known as son de la Tierra Caliente. I have included this example to demonstrate the musical and poetic similarities the valona maintains across genres. As you will hear, both valona variants feature décima poetry, and the principle violin interlude—referred to as the valoneado in huapango arribeño—expresses some melodic resemblance in both styles.
Los Caporales—“Jarabe ranchero” (jarabe from Michoacán)
Also taken from the album Michoacán: sones de la Tierra Caliente, this track features the group Los Caporales performing a jarabe typical to the son de la Tierra Caliente of Michoacán. This example likewise demonstrates the musical and poetic similarities the jarabe expresses across genres, particularly the virtuosic bundling of violin melodies.