I: The Basics
“I quit having a job in 1969, and I’ve been very lucky to do what I’ve loved since then,” aural historian, radio producer and co-curator of the annual Nuestra Musica Festival, Jack Loeffler, announces gleefully over coffee. We’re coming up on the 16th iteration of Loeffler’s annual event, long a joyous occasion for folk music lovers to indulge in la musica del Rio Grande del Norte. He seems to beam at the very thought of the quintessential New Mexican artform, and his stark white beard all but announces he’s kept tabs on the music of the region forever, as if he has practically given his life to the stuff, even writing grants over the years to pursue this music in place of traditional employment.
Loeffler is like a one-man Smithsonian Folkways, the label that seeks to record and distribute culturally rich folk music from around the country. Yet he's focused with laser precision on this corner of the world. He's written books, produced radio programs, released compilation albums and promoted live music showcases. He lives and breathes New Mexican folk music.
And his enthusiasm is infectious, as is the entire musical style, really. I'm sitting in front of him because of what began as a simple phone interview with Greg Glassman, guitarist of local Hispano folk trio Lone Piñón, and spurred me on a journey to find all the information I could. How could a style of music that is so specifically located survive for so long? How had it come to be? Who is out there keeping the traditions alive, and why do I have to be such a stereotypical white person all the time? It's easy to simply accept the things one's town has to offer without bothering to look at the deeper histories and effects on the community, and it's obvious that communities all over the planet boast their own kinds of music. None that come to mind, however, are so hyper-specific to just one locale, and now that it has become important to me as a longtime New Mexican, it's scary to think that it might not be around forever.
With a little help from retired history professor/musician Hilario Romero, Albuquerque musician Frank McCulloch and beloved Hispano folk champion Cipriano Vigil, we’ve put together a few of the terms associated with the folk music of Northern New Mexico. With words like these, you can get out there and totally trick people into believing you’re knowledgeable, kind of like I’m doing to you with this article right now.
Think of it like the second officer. It’s the job of the compay segundo to make the maestro, that’s the main guy, look good and sound good by singing backup or playing an instrument like the requinto, which is this small guitar that’s tuned up a fifth and is designed to harmonize with a regular guitar tuned standard. The compay segundo doesn’t do solos.Hilario Romero
It’s like a history of something, a story of life or battle. The corrido is usually about anything that has impacted society in some way. Sometimes these songs can be a little dry, but there is usually a valuable lesson of some kind. HR
The decima started as written poetry, and it’s usually got four stanzas and four 10-counts. It’s similar to iambic pentameter, but with a little more leeway with the count. These can be about things like dueling. HR
These songs were the ones that were ritualistic. Some were used for baptisms, some for weddings and others for death. They’re there for the big parts of people’s lives. Cipriano Vigil
They’re kind of like the corridos but have more of the Indigenous flavor. CV
A lot of the songs we sing and play are old and passed down forever, but there can still be and are newer ones or songs written today. HR
It’s more important what is said rather than the musical form—it’s humor; it can be silly. Frank McCulloch
These are love songs, and while they can definitely be happy, they can also be of tragedy. They can even be about things that were violent if you take out the blood and guts. HR
"Without this music," Loeffler says, "the biggest window into Hispano culture would be closed."
The folk music of our region is a style and sound not even heard in its country of origin anymore. When the conquistadores and priests made their way to New Mexico from Spain 400-some years ago, the joining of their own musical styles with that of the Indigenous peoples and Mexican music created a wholly new sound. The development of this specific brand of folk may have been accelerated due to isolation (in some cases, it would take three years for supply carts to make their way to certain areas), but it grew and evolved during the occupation by the Spanish in 1598, throughout the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and then the De Vargas reoccupation around 1690. The music survived the European occupation of the state post-Civil War, as well as the advent of the radio, and rock 'n roll.
"Even during World War 2, when there were a lot of Hispanic people fighting overseas, they kept hold of the music because there's just something about it that makes them feel connected to their culture and roots," Loeffler says. "It doesn't mean that other or newer music wasn't happening, just that the Hispano folk music is such a part of them, of who they are, that they fight to keep it going."
Folk legend Cirpiano Vigil agrees, pointing out that geography played an important role as well.
"The people were isolated in these small villages and didn't have access to other kinds of music," he says. "Even when I was a kid, I didn't see a TV until I was in my 20s and very few people had radios, but we had these beautiful songs and rituals that were brought here way back when and are now unique to the northern parts of New Mexico; this mix of Spanish colonial and Indigenous and Mexican, and if you go even a little further south, it's all Mexican music … this style doesn't exist anywhere else."
Globally speaking, the importance of the musical heart and soul of a region cannot be understated, and it's a lesson more valuable than ever, as mankind seemingly rushes to sacrifice the setting down of strong roots at the altar of hyper-connectivity and corporatization, or embraces the fast-paced jettisoning of our unquantifiable yet precious musical historical backgrounds. In other words, pop music ain't going anywhere, but it's sad that it can take away from the ancient styles as set down and carried on by everyday people. Not only is the intrinsic value of informal folk music incalculable, it is often taken for granted.
Yes, as people living in New Mexico, we've all been someplace or another and heard the dulcet tones of the fiddle, guitar or guitarrón wafting our way, but how many among us have truly bothered to listen? If mariachi or banda music can be considered newer musical forms, which, relatively speaking, they are, the rhythmic syncopations of Hispano folk music are more akin to that of the classical waltz than the fast-paced polka rhythms introduced much later and so common in more modern styles. Given New Mexican folk music's historical placement, however, it becomes more about lyricism than its musical delivery system. Besides, the informal aspects provided songwriters of the past (as well as those of today) a modicum of freedom to play with time signatures or deconstruct any sense of rigidity.
Certainly this music can be sonically difficult to define, especially when we take into account similarities between many Latin-based styles, but listening to the tales told by its storytellers can go a long way toward identifying that which is undeniably New Mexican.
And, it's another musical style and one that is tragically and slowly fading. According to Pascual Romero, a lifelong purveyor of folk music, "The world is a little different now than it was even when I was younger, and it's harder than ever to carry on an oral tradition." Romero is better known as a metal musician and promoter, but as a former member of Los Folkloricos de Nuevo Mexico (an act that also featured his father, Hilario, and Cipriano Vigil), he is living proof of the familial importance of New Mexico's folk music. It's something he will pass down to his young son, Felix, as well, but he does have concerns as to the future of his people's music. "We've begun to lose the most important aspect," Romero laments. "And that is that the music is and should be a community thing."
Indeed, the lore of our state's folk music exists as a sort of communal oral historical record, and like the great ancient philosophers or storytellers who passed down the history of their people, so too does Hispano folk music serve as an unofficial timeline for people of Spanish colonial descent. Obviously, the fundamental tenets of folk music are universal, and therefore, there are lessons to be learned, tragedies to process, events to absorb. And though the Rio Grande del Norte region is relatively small, there is variety based on geography—songs and stories from some villages will be different from others.
"It's not all so different from Appalachia," Albuquerque-based musician Frank McCulloch says. "There are, of course, those over-arching elements to the music, but it's similar to how what you'd hear now in the Grand Ole Opry is not what you're going to hear in smaller places in the mountains."
Still, for the gente of Northern New Mexico, what is seemingly most essential and what reaches out beyond boundaries is the joyful celebration and the formation of familial bonds that spiral out beyond bloodlines and span more than 400 years.
II: El Gente, El Jefe
"When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I'd hear musicians where I grew up in Chamisal, New Mexico, and they were what we called 'tent performers,'" Cipriano Vigil reminisces. "These were touring people who would set up tents and show films and have bands and dancing, and so I'd sneak out and volunteer to help them set up the tents so they'd let me in for free, because I didn't have any money."
Vigil, who is now 70-something and lives just north of Española in El Rito, perfectly embodies what you might imagine an aging Hispano folk musician looks like, and his bushy mustache highlights a roguish look in his eye when he performs. And though he grew up poor, what he ultimately did receive from the tent performers was far more valuable than money, and thus began a lifelong love affair with New Mexican folk music. You can ask anyone even slightly involved with the New Mexican folk tradition, and they'll tell you the same—Vigil is a living legend. And on those nights so many years ago, he'd go against his mother's wishes and sneak out to the tent performances and dances. With notebook in hand, he slowly built his own musical cheat sheets, with notations on finger placement and rhythmic timing. According to Vigil, "There were plenty of other mentors around, my father played music, but still, I did whatever it took to learn about the music and how to play it."
For Vigil, not only was the music aesthetically enjoyable, it spoke to him as the soundtrack to his very heritage. As time went by, his reverence for the music strengthened, and he taught himself to play even more instruments. These days, Vigil focuses more on the guitar (some of which he builds himself), but it isn't uncommon to see him pick up a violin or singing saw from time to time.
The idea of preservation quickly became just as important to Vigil as the learning of the music had been when he was a kid; he has recorded his own music and that of regional folk musicians since the 1960s, but in 1985, after applying for grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the National Foundation for the Arts 11 times, he was finally accepted.
"I tried to let these people know that if we didn't get some of these songs or musicians recorded, that the people were going to die, and the music was going to die with them," Vigil says. "All this music was never written down, it was just passed down orally, so I started to worry we were going to lose it. It just took me awhile to get the words right to make them see that it was important."
It took years, but the results were the 2014 book, New Mexican Folk Music: Treasures of a People. Along with the history of his culture's music and the lyrics of countless songs in both English and Spanish, Vigil compiled a priceless collection of 21 CDs that feature recordings dating back to the 1960sof Northern New Mexican performers, many of whom are no longer alive. For his own part, Vigil's music is now part of the collections at the Smithsonian. He's been dubbed a treasure.
"My whole goal was always to listen to and preserve the music," he says, laughing. "It never occurred to me that I would be called a treasure."
And his service to his musical heritage doesn't stop there. Vigil and his wife teach folk dancing in schools to this day, and his most recent effort, The Cigar Box Guitar Project, also finds him working with the school system to teach children how to build their own small, three or four-string guitars out of cigar boxes (with matching cigar box amplifiers to boot). He calls the project a "complete success" and a perfect introduction for kids to the world of both instruments and folk music. The kids keep the guitars they build, and even professional musicians order these one-of-a-kind instruments.
"I myself have over 300 instruments," Vigil says of his massive collection. "Some I made from briefcases that I call my 'day at the office' guitars; I have one built out of an armadillo shell. … If I find something that I think would work and that would be an interesting or unique instrument, I just have to make it."
He's magnetic. It's why people like Hilario Romero were drawn to him in the first place.
"We met in 1983, back when I was first teaching at Northern New Mexico College and had just shown up on campus," Romero says. "Cipriano was performing for a visit from Astrid Galindo, and when he started singing this one song I knew, I couldn't help but harmonize along with him from the back, so he motioned for me to join him up there, and it turned out I was just what he was looking for in someone to play with."
Romero, a retired professor of Spanish and Native history (and Pascual Romero's father), is currently on hiatus from music, but he was a member of Los Folkloricos de Nuevo Mexico for more than three decades. "I wanted a guitar from the day I could talk," he says.
Elsewhere, folk musicians like Frank McCulloch, Roberto Mondragon, Brenda Romero and David Garcia prepare themselves for the upcoming annual event, Nuestra Musica, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Co-curated by Jack Loeffler and his daughter Celestia, along with University of New Mexico ethno-musicologist Enrique Lamadrid, the long-running gathering of our region's best and brightest Hispano folk musicians is a perfectly engaging overview of Hispano folk music's values.
Vigil, for example, will have a number of family members onstage, including two of his grandchildren, ages 10 and 6.
"I want them to be proud of where they come from," Vigil says of his grandchildren. "This music … it's very unique and beautiful, and I know they feel it; we're trying to keep it alive so people know that it's important and that it's only found here."
III: The New Guard
"I've seen how relating to roots music can help you relate to a sense of place, and there's just something about it that helps you to navigate the layers of culture," says Jordan Wax. The Lone Piñon fiddler, who grew up in Missouri playing that region's roots music and eventually studied in Mexico to hone his Huasteco sound, is quiet and unassuming, but he obviously holds a deep reverence for his position as the caretaker of a musical style that is not born of his own culture. "It's always a process, but one that has been very fruitful," Wax explains. "The musical center of anything has the whole history, and because we're part of a scene that isn't necessarily robust, we've played on our strength as young people with a global perspective."
For Lone Piñón, a trio with two non-Hispanic members, to carry on the tradition of Hispano folk music is a challenge, to be sure, but not one that is insurmountable. Guitarist/singer Greg Glassman, formerly of Boston, thinks of it as a learning experience.
"We're constantly renegotiating our responsibility, and it feels like a privilege and also a joy to play the music, but also to be responsible to the culture," Glassman says, approaching solemnity. "We're very fortunate that everyone we've met or reached out to, including Cipriano, has been very welcoming."
Lone Piñón has only just recently released their first record, Trio Nuevo Mexicano, but according to Wax and Glassman, it's a scant offering compared to material they've compiled over their three years as a band. "We could've released three albums by now," Glassman states.
Anyway, it isn't about co-opting a culture's music or disrespecting the musicians who came before, it's a way of inhabiting something different and the absorption of the lessons learned by taking part in differing cultures.
"[This music] encodes an essential way of being that's incredibly valuable, especially as the world becomes more capitalized," Wax says.
"We're all predisposed to exploring what the roots in differing roots styles are," Glassman adds.
A one-time gospel player himself, it's clear that Glassman holds a deep respect for the musical offerings of varying cultures, and his thoughts on the topic are borderline spiritual—they've put in the requisite amount of thought and effort, and their guitarrón player, Noah Martinez, adds authenticity. Besides, if there truly is a fear that more contemporary musical styles are going to overshadow la musica del Rio Grande del Norte, the greater variety of musicians onboard, the better.
It shouldn't be about race, either. Positive cultural crossover is absolutely possible; the very existence of Hispano folk proves that. Not only that, but Lone Piñón's take on Hispano folk is undeniably gorgeous. Certainly, they've brought some newer if not more varied elements to the table, but they're keeping it accessible, and really, isn't evolution one of the more powerful and essential parts of music on a grand scale?
Let's look at Cipriano Vigil again. He's well known for writing (and rewriting) his own lyrics for pieces of music passed down for generations. Tales of morality and history aside, this proves that the ultimate upside of our region's folk music is, as Pascual Romero says, community, but it's also important on an individual basis. The most engaging part of all of this may very well be the informal nature found in how it is shared. It's what allowed Hilario Romero to meet Vigil in 1983 and join him in making music, it's in the passing down of oral history, it's what allows Lone Piñón to explore the music and it's what will help to snag new converts, too—the all-important youths.
For those of any age who are willing to listen with an open mind and open heart, there is plenty to discover. Of course, we can dissect Hispano folk music on an intellectual or even a historical level, but as always, the most important part of the music is in the feelings it can create in the listener. It is music for the people and by the people, an intangible and emotionally unexplainable process that reminds us what it is to be human and confirms that the stories we create actually matter. Who doesn't love a good story?
16th Annual Nuestra Musica:
with Cipriano y La Familia Vigil,
Roberto Mondragon y Amigos,
Frank McCulloch y Sus Amigos and more
7 pm Friday, April 15. $10.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.,
2 pm Saturday, April 16. Free.
Mine Shaft Tavern,
2486 Hwy 14, Madrid,
Editor's note: An early version of this story erroneously swapped Coronado for De Vargas. Sorry we goofed.