The Casa de Artesanías in Morelia, Michoacán, is made up of many small rooms, each one replete with crafts from a different town or region of the state. In Paracho, they make instruments, in Uruapan, wooden masks, in Santa Clara del Cobre, copper knickknacks. In the shop with crafts from Ichupio, where the people make animals, baskets, and ornaments out of dried reeds from Lake Pátzcuaro, sits a fiddler, playing away in the shadows just inside the door.
Don Pedro Dimas, the owner of this shop, is something of a legend around these parts. Not only does he play here in his shop, but also all around Lake Pátzcuaro for parties and events, as well as composing Purépecha tunes in the traditional style. Many times, young people can be found here in Artesanías, trying to play along with Don Pedro. Indeed, Don Pedro has his share of followers in the United States as well, after visiting several music camps and sharing Purépecha music with the other side of the border.
Although Don Pedro only attended two years of elementary school, he not only knows how to read and write in Spanish, but also in Purépecha. After he quit school to help herd his family's cows, a man who had studied in Mexico City came to Ichupio to finish his thesis. He would go alone up into the hills and write notes in a notebook, recalls the fiddler, and he had a camera with which to take black and white pictures.
One day he told Pedro, "I'm going to leave on Saturday and come back on Sunday, and I'm going to bring you a book so you can study." The book was in Purépecha, and with it, Don Pedro taught himself to read in his native language. As with most indigenous languages in Mexico, almost all people in Don Pedro's village of Ichupio except for some small children speak the language, but few people know how to write or read it. The alphabet first used for Purépecha, says Don Pedro, which used letters such as an N with a long curving leg and an S with a V on top to make a "Sh" sound, no longer exists.
Growing up in his small village, Don Pedro saw his people's music begin to fade. He says people had begun to listen to songs instead of traditional Purépecha tunes. He sees his composition of music and dance as "a form of rescue."
The first time Don Pedro saw a violin was around 1948 when string bands would play for the festivals of Corpus Christi. "I thought the violin was really pretty, and I got an itch to learn, but I didn't have any instruments," he recounts. Between 1949 and 1950, when Don Pedro was around fifteen or sixteen years old, he helped organized a danza azteca, or stylized indigenous dance where the dancers wear headdresses and buckles around their ankles. He got a group of dancers together, but there wasn't anybody to play. Pedro's father, who knew how to play cello, bought two mandolins, and the young Pedro learned by watching others. When he finally got a violin, he learned to tune and play relatively quickly because of his experience on the mandolin.
Over the years, Don Pedro played with several different bands, all of which added something to his talent and style. Around 1952, he began to play with a group from Santa Fe de la Laguna, including a man named Rafael Medina, who later became Don Pedro's second violinist. At that time, Don Pedro remembers, people only liked to listen to Purépecha music to dance. At a typical wedding, birthday party or baptism, the group would play polkas and paso dobles, saving the traditional Purépecha tunes until after the people were finished eating. Then they would break out the fast-paced traditional abajeños so they could dance.
Don Pedro says he learned the most about violin technique with a mariachi group in Tzintzuntzan, which he also joined in the 1950s: "I began to learn more there, because they played songs in A, in E major, in F major, or any other tuning, according to the song." But when the group went to Mexico City to try their luck in the late 1960s, Don Pedro stayed behind. He had a wife and four children to take care of, and he was still living in Ichupio, making his living as a fisherman and a farmer of corn, wheat, and beans.
Before moving to Morelia, Don Pedro began to form his own group, around 1970. His son-in-law Fidel recalls, "After I got married to Ofelia, I would go fishing with Don Pedro. Afterward, we would come back from the lake and he would start playing. He told me to grab an instrument and I learned." First, Don Pedro taught his oldest son Hermenegildo how to play a small requinto, teaching Fidel the deep guitarrón and later tololoche. At that time, Don Pedro's youngest son Miguel was a small child, excelling at dancing, and it was not until later that he began to play the vihuela.
Because Don Pedro is an excellent musician and composer, one would never think the violin was his second love. But there was a reason that he started to play Purépecha music, and it has to do with his very first love. "What most inspired me to play Purépecha music," he says, "was because I wanted to have a dance group to enter contests."
Traditional dances abound in Michoacán, from the the Danza de las Mariposas (Dance of the Butterflies) and the Danza de los Huacaleros (Dance of the Basket Carriers) to the Danza de los Pescadores (Dance of the Fishermen) and all different versions of the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men). Every town has a special dance. In some places, there are very old dances, like the Danza del Torito (Dance of the Bull) in Jarácuaro, where women on wooden horses dance to the tune of a flute and a drum.
But since there was no traditional dance from Ichupio, Don Pedro could not enter the contests. He relates, "That is how I got the idea to create the Danza de los Tumbís. After composing the melodies, I put together the choreography and the zapateado." He explains there are two kinds of zapateado, or stomping dance step, in the Danza de los Tumbís: three by four and six by eight. Dancing it, he assures, is very difficult.
Danza de los Tumbís means Dance of the Young People, as opposed to the "Dance of the Old Men" which is danced in many other communities in Michoacán. The Viejitos, or Old Men, dance bent over on canes with masks full of wrinkles and beards, while the Tumbís of Ichupio dance erect with masks that show youth and vitality. Barefoot women dressed in traditional white blouses embroidered with flowers, colored skirts, and aprons dance alongside young men in embroidered shirts and white pants with embroidery around the ankles. The woman in front carries a delicate fishnet in her hands, which she swings to the music and later spreads out with the help of the others. With great solemnity, Don Pedro explains that this net means a lot to the women in the community: "When we men would go out to work in the field, the women would go and wade into the water to stretch out that net at night. The next day when they would go get it, it was full of little fish."
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To order Mirando el Lago's CD in the U.S., contact: Swing Cat Records, P.O. Box 30153, Seattle, WA 98113; www.swingcatenterprises.com.
For other articles on Mexican fiddling, see the following issues:
Fall 2005: Playing Music to the Scent of Marigolds: The Day of the Dead in Michoacán
Winter 04/05: "Son Huasteco"
Fall 2000: "Son Arribeño"
Summer 1999: The Bañuelos Archive; Harmony Fiddle – Juan Reynoso Style
Fall 1998: Mexican Fiddling; Juan Reynoso; Mariachi Violinist Laura Sobrino
[Zaidee Stavely grew up listening to her mother play Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes and is now learning to play "son huasteco" on her own fiddle. She lives and works as a freelance journalist in Mexico City.]