Saving the Sweet Sounds

by Gil Sperry on September 17, 2010

in Mariachi, Special Report

Lluvia de Cuerdas by Sergio

By Gil Sperry.

Mexico has always been a country that valued the unique multi-faceted voicing produced by its variegated populace. As many aspects of this aural rainbow have become anachronistic, the FONTECA NACIONAL (National Audio Archive) has intervened and started a contest to choose “The Most Beautiful Sound in Mexico.”

Some of the front-runners include those produced by the cacophonous steam whistles of the yam vendors; the three-note squeeze horns of itinerant bread-bakers; the plastic pan-flutes of the knife sharpeners; the six small bells of the ice cream peddler; the tip-tapping of the cobbler’s hammers; the click-clacking of the manual typewriters still used by the scribes-sans-office who serve their illiterate customer base while sitting on concrete walls outside of courthouses; and the hum of the ubiquitous Mexican marketplace. Author D.H. Lawrence described the last “as if all the ghosts in the world were talking to one another.”

For me, however, the salvation of the sweet sound produced by the arpa jaliscience (folk harp) in the hands of an acknowledged master is one of the noblest missions of all. Curiously enough, the FONTECA NACIONAL is not involved here. The protagonist in this one-act masterpiece is perhaps the world’s finest maestro on his instrument. He has taken it upon himself to not only almost single-handedly save its mellifluence, but to expand its horizons for all of those fortunate enough to listen.

Sergio ‘Checo’ Alonso is an imposing figure to those familiar with the mariachi genre. He is a two-time Grammy Award-winner as a member of the prestigious ‘Los Camperos de Nati Cano.’

I first became aware of his prodigious talent while watching The 75th Annual Academy Awards back in May of 2003 when he accompanied the electrifying Lila Downs and Brazilian guitarist Caetano Veloso in a performance of the score from the Best Film nominee “Frida.” I was astounded at his virtuosity and was not surprised to learn that he was a recipient of a Durfee Foundation Master Musician Fellowship. Later that year I was honored to meet him in person (at the home of Lalo Garcia, one of the finest sacred artists in the world) and we have communicated frequently over the ensuing years. I was honored when ‘Checo’ agreed to be part of a panel I moderated at California State University Los Angeles’ “Latino Literacy Now” weekend in October of 2009. The subject was “The Positive Effects of Mariachi On The Education of Hispanic Youth, ”  a topic near-and-dear to both of us in our day jobs as teachers.

When he asked me to listen to the music that would be part of his solo debut album “Lluvia de Cuerdas”…released on August 25th, 2010…I was honored yet again. After enjoying every track several times, I realized that what he had accomplished for his instrument was akin to what the FONTECA NACIONAL was attempting to do for the country.

For me, what makes the CD so remarkable…besides the wonderful arrangements of an eclectic selection of popular, as well as esoteric, classics…is the position of pre-eminence given to his instrument on each selection.

The encyclopedic liner notes are a rarity in today’s mass-marketed milieu…and a joy for the more-than-casual listeners who will most definitely make up the majority of those who choose to own this epic collection. The forward by Daniel Sheehy, The Director of The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, sets the appropriate scholarly tone; ‘Checo’s’ detailed exposition of what each selection offers in its historical and musical context completes the picture.

The great musicians, vocalists, and arrangers who were involved are all given their due…and it is significant.  I do, however, wish that the lyrics in both Spanish and English could have been included as this would have increased the awareness of the stories told by each lyric amongst the numerically significant non-Spanish speaking music-loving population.

Lluvia de Cuerdas By Sergio "Checo" Alonso

Lluvia de Cuerdas

I suggest that the first time you listen to this stunning compilation, read ‘Checo’s’ notes prior to hearing each selection. After that you will only need your heart (and ears) for maximum enjoyment. For me, the best way to appreciate these masterworks is to listen to each performance several times as the nuances are what make them memorable. The arrangements are scintillating, the vocals (by some of the genre’s finest practitioners) are flawless, and the arpa jaliscience solos…for many the raison d’etre for “Lluvia de Cuerdas,” …are not to be missed.

Felicidades to Señor Alonso for saving the sweet sound of his instrument for posterity.

By the way, as an added lagniappe to the aural banquet, the CD’s cover created by Lalo García offers you the challenge of finding his trademark inclusion of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” hiding in plain sight . See if you can locate Her within his visually profound art while you listen to the stunning audio portrait.


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