Heroes and Horses

Corridos from the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands

Smithsonian Folkways 40475

Tucson, Arizona, folklorist James G 'Big Jim' Griffith is a musician, as well, and this insight served him well in compiling his latest publication, a CD: Heroes & Horses, Corridos from the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands, published by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.  The 71 minutes of music are comprised of 16 corridos, the ballads or story songs which have long served as a musical news service or history book in the Mexican folk culture of northern Sonora, Mexico and southern Arizona.

Corridos are written on almost every conceivable topic, but this set focuses on corridos with mostly Sonoran subjects, and mostly older themes and material, ranging from train wrecks horse races to fights over women to the dangers of working in the mines.  Although some of the songs date from the 20th century as well as from the 19th, not included are songs on more contemporary topics, such as the immigrant experience in the United States and struggles for social justice, the dangers of crossing the border, and the drug trade (a subset of songs that has gained its own title: narcocorridos * - see footnote), because there are already commercial recordings of these songs available.  And, Griffith included some samples that, although culturally defined as corridos, are non-narrative, songs of commentary or description, a class of the corridos that he notes receive less attention from folklorists than those with a clear story to tell.

The singers, in five ensembles, come from both sides of the border.  Luís Méndez (guitar, vocals) and Guadalupe Bracamonte (guitar) are from Caborca, Sonora.  Los Ribereños del Golfo (The Gulf Shoreliners) are a four-piece band from Bahia Kino, Sonora, consisting of Crecencio Ayala (accordion, vocals), Rosario Aguirre (guitar, vocals), Gregorio Ramírez (bajo sexto), and Victor Manuel Velarde (tolotoche).  Francisco Federico and Antonio González come from the Altar Valley of Sonora; Anonio Federico was born in Sasabe, Sonora, but lives in Tucson, and he is joined by Hipólito Polo Romero (guitar and vocals), Paul Romero (guitar), Francisco Moreno (accordion), and Alfonso Molina (guitarrón).  Robert Lee 'Bobby' Benton, Jr (vocals, guitar) and Oscar González (guitar, vocal) live in Tucson.  None of them are full-time professional musicians, but all have played for pay within their own communities.

Included with the CD is a 29-page booklet with an introduction to the art form, the region, and the singers, and extensive notes on each song.  The layout and font are uncluttered and of a readable size (relatively speaking) a feat accomplished by the omission of the Spanish lyrics and their English translations from the booklet.  Instead, the CD has been produced in an enhanced format.  When loaded into a computer CD-ROM drive, a Macromedia Flash program automatically runs, bringing up a page offering the options to read lyrics or play music.  Unfortunately (despite my 2001 purchased Dell Windows Me system), I was not able to access the lyrics at all.  I also discovered that playing the songs through Flash produced a sound quality far inferior to that of Windows Media Player or a regular stereo system.  And, clicking on a song title did not reliably select the track indicated (though a second click usually got it).  The booklet does include a page 'About this Enhanced CD' which notes that 'This enhanced CD may not work on some CD-ROM drives and that a drive with Enhanced CD (Blue Book/Multi-session) compatible firmware is required.'  So, I guess I don't have that!  But, the lyrics and their translations are available on the Smithsonian Folkways web site: http://www.folkways.si.edu/catalog/40475.htm

Aside from the glitch with the transcriptions, the CD is a gem.  I admit to no prior familiarity with corridos, aside from their being part of the background soundtrack of life in Tucson.  I appreciated the opportunity to have this personal introduction by someone I trust.  Most of the songs begin with a come-all-ye verse or two, giving the date and the subject of the song, and close with a farewell of some sort, sometimes reiterating the introduction, sometimes naming the composer:

From El Corrido del Guasiado - The Ballad of the Stupid Fellow:

Pido permiso, señores,
para cantar un corrido,
que en ese mes de febrero,
miren lo que ha sucedido:
se ahogaron dos compañeros.
¡Qué triste fue su destino!
I ask permission, good people,
to sing a corrido,
for in this month of February,
look what has happened:
two companions have drowned.
How sad was their fate!
Vuela, vuela, gaviotita;
vuela con rumbo al estero.
En ese mes de febrero,
se ahogaron dos compañeros.
Que todos los recordamos;
que Dios los tenga en el cielo.
Fly, fly, little seagull;
fly towards the estuary.
In that month of February,
two companions were drowned.
May we all remember them;
may God keep them in heaven.
Griffith points out an interesting local variation that shows up in this example: several other songs end similarly, but the bird referenced is a swallow.  This recently composed song from the coast of the Gulf of California uses a seagull, instead.

Here are the start and finish of El Moro de Cumpas, one of several songs about horse races.  As is typical, win or lose, both horses are treated as heroes (most of these races are match races involving only two horses):

El diecisiete de marzo,
a la ciudad de Agua Prieta
vino gente de dondequiera;
vinieron a las carreras
de Relámpago y El Moro,
dos caballos de primera.
On the seventeenth of March,
to the city of Agua Prieta
people came from all over;
they came to the races
between Relámpago and El Moro,
two first-class horses.

...    ...    ...    ...
Leonardo Yáñez, El Nano,
compositor del corrido,
a todos pide disculpa.
Aquí se acabaron dudas
ganó el zaino de Agua Prieta,
y perdió El Moro de Cumpas.
Leonardo Yáñez, El Nano,
composer of this corrido,
begs pardon of everyone.
There is no doubt that
the chestnut from Agua Prieta won,
and El Moro from Cumpas lost.
The ensembles each produce a slightly different sound.  A guitar or guitars always provide baseline accompaniment, with melodic introductions and occasional breaks, and a steady rhythm throughout.  Some groups add accordion, which provides a melodic introduction and is inserted for short melodic breaks between lines of each verse.  In most cases a harmony vocal line appears, as well.  The songs, whether telling of heroic battles (or skirmishes) like the patriotic El Corrido de Nogales and tragic disasters like the explosion of a train in Maqina 501, or of horse races (4 examples!) and praise of hometowns like Corrido de Oquitoa, always seem to be sung in a similarly dramatic style.  But, the language of the songs varies in such a way that it 's clear that there are little songs and there are important ones.  (Indeed, Joaquín Murrieta, a 19th century story of a social bandit who took revenge on americanos after enduring mistreatment on the California goldfields, has been considered highly inflammatory in some anglo circles.)  I'm curious as to whether, as a non-Spanish speaker (or at least not outside the classroom), I would be able to differentiate among the moods of the songs better when hearing them in person.

Griffith's notes offer his insights into the culture and history of our borderland region, demonstrating once again the existence of a culture for which the international border itself is a relatively recent phenomenon and more of an inconvenience than a real barrier.  His insights obviously come from both his long personal experience of exploring the area and developing relationships with its peoples, as well as scholarly research.  In addition to descriptions of the events which inspired each of the corridos, and their historical or social context, references to other recordings or printed sources of the songs or alternative versions of them and references for more historical information are provided, though not for every song (in some cases because no further information is available).

The voice of Big Jim that we Tucsonans are lucky to be able to recognise from his spots on the local public TV news show or MC-ing the annual Tucson 'Meet Yourself' festival is audible in the notes to the songs.  His comment on the uncertainty of the facts behind one song is that In the long run, as with all good stories, the facts are relatively unimportant.  In another case he refers to the difficulty in translating Mexican names for horse colours which have no equivalent in the colour system used by English-speaking horse folks.  He says, 'In this case, however, a palomino is a palomino'.

Heroes & Horses was a joint project of the University of Arizona Southwest Folklore Center (of which Griffith was director when he started the project; he is now in retirement as a research associate) and Smithsonian Folkways, with the initial inspiration and later assistance for the project coming from the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  The recordings were made by Dave Fisher and Sky Crosby of Tucson and Jack Loeffler of Santa Fe.  The lyrics were transcribed and translated by Enrique Lamadrid of Santa Fe and Celestino Fernández of Tucson.

Becky Nankivell - 18.6.02

*   For more on narcocorridos and other contemporary corridos, Elijah Wald has written Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas (Rayo/HarperCollins) and produced its accompanying CD, Corridos Y Narcocorridos (Fonovisa).  He also has an article in Sing Out! Vol. 46 #1 (Spring 2002), pp. 72-73, Narcocorridos: A New Ballad Tradition, and a web site at www.elijahwald.com  Also on the web, check Jaime Nicolopulos' web site through the University of Texas: http://www.sp.utexas.edu/jrn/work.html

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