Despite blaring trumpets, violins still dominate mariachi music. And the devil's instrument is definitely the focus of huastecan trios and calentana conjuntos. But even though there are two fiddles in the traditional son arribeño quartets, poets toting large, eight-string guitars called huapangueras steal the show in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Central Mexico.
One fiddle plays lead while the second weaves harmony above and below the melody line. But in a sense, both fiddlers in this genre play second fiddle to the man who backs up improvised verses with his large guitar. Groups are known by the poet's name: Ángel González y los Campesinos de la Sierra; Guillermo Velázquez y los Leones de la Sierra de Xichu; Tobías Hernández y los Xichulenses
Like the poets with their huapangueras and a fourth member of the group playing a small, guitar-like instrument called a vihuela, the two fiddlers are talented marathoners who often play all night long. During holidays -- particularly at the end of the year -- they may stay up all night three or more nights a week and play an afternoon gig or two as well.
The all-night gigs which go from dusk to dawn are called topadas. Two groups, each sitting on its own tall narrow platform on opposite sides of a dance area, alternate three-part performances of music and poetry. When their turn comes, fiddlers must follow rules which define the keys and melodies they play and their poet-leader must respond to his counterpart with a series of ten-line verses called décimas. Although the competition may seem aggressive as the night wears on, friendship between the combatants is evident when they finally climb down from the wooden platforms erected especially for the occasion.
Son arribeño, as played in the Sierra Gorda mountains, has a unique sound even though this 6/8 rhythm can be found in many other parts of Mexico and Latin America. The arribeña version, less known than the flashier forms of son played by mariachi groups or huasteco trios, may seem tediously repetitive to outsiders when they first hear it. However, this music is likely to grow on anyone who appreciates good fiddle music, particularly if they also listen to the poetry that goes along with it.
The musical form known as son varies from region to region, not only in style and melody but also in instrumentation. Son arribeño uses two fiddles, a large huapanguera guitar and a curved-back vihuela which is slightly larger than a mandolin. In the nearby Huasteca, huapangos or sones huastecos are played by trios with one fiddle, which is the lead instrument, a huapanguera and a small jarana. In the Tierra Caliente region of Guerrero and Michoacán, one or two fiddles also lead son calentano groups which include at least one guitar and a small tamborita drum (Fiddler Magazine, Fall 1998). Groups in Southern Veracruz playing son jarocho select from a wider variety of instruments including many sizes of jaranas jarochas (different from jaranas huastecas) and requintos as well as a harp and occasionally a fiddle or marimbol. In parts of Michoacán, one can hear son abajeño with harp, fiddle, guitarra de golpe and vihuela. Mariachi groups, originally from Jalisco but now well established all over Mexico and even abroad, play sones jalisciences, with three or more fiddles, two or more trumpets, a guitarrón and a vihuela.
[This article is from the sold out Fall 2000 issue]
[The town of Xichu, Guanajuato, ushers in the New Year with a topada on Dec. 31, which doesn't end until well after sunrise. Accommodations are extremely limited, but who wants to sleep when you can listen to the best of son arribeño in the town square all night long!]
[Lindajoy Fenley is the director of Dos Tradiciones, A.C., a non-profit organization that promotes traditional music and cultural exchange in Mexico. For information about the association's annual festival in March, write email@example.com.]
Photo by Lindajoy Fenley: Elias Balderas and Higinio Ledesma, on fiddles.