various artists,
Rosa de Castilla
& Other Love Songs

(Rounder, 2000)

Have you ever had a friend give you a piece of music from someone you never heard of before, told you it was the greatest thing since sliced $100 bills, and told you to RUN -- not walk -- RUN home and slap that puppy on the ol' laser player and feed your ears? And, well, you meant to get around to it, but other stuff came up, the yak needed a tail-braiding or whatever, and blah, blah, blah? And one day, in a fit of remorse and colossal boredom, you unearth said disc from its position beneath the newly completed 272-disc set of the Bach Edition, and give it a listen? Have you ever done something like that?

Me neither. But for those of you who might have done such a thing with Rosa de Castilla & Other Love Songs, I'm here to save you from a grave mistake. Boy, is this disc neat!

First, a little background. It seems that, starting back in the early 1940s, and continuing up through at least the mid 1960s, there was a tiny little Slavic woman named Henrietta Yurchenco, who saw it as her mission in life to make her way into several of the more out-of-the-way corners of the musical tradition of Mexico, trusty field tape recorder at the ready, and convince the local talent to commit some of their artistry to ferrous oxides. Our diminuitive musicologist made her way to Chihuahua, where she found the formidible vocal artistry of Judith Reyes, to Jalisco for the rare voice of Chabela Villasenor, and to Mihuacan, where she convinced the Pulido and Solario Sisters to perform for her.

The results can be found on this recording, and praise be to Rounder Records for being one of the agents whereby this sort of folk art is saved so that future generations may marvel at it.

The music breaks out into three sets, each with its own distinctive hallmark. A brief technical note: the Reyes and Villasenor material sounds like it was recorded by a primitive field recorder in the 1940s, which in fact it was. You fans at home of the highest of high fidelity have been warned! The Pulido/Solario sessions are testament to what 25 or so years of improved audio technology will accomplish.

Ah, but the music, my friends! In songs 1-8, Reyes, long a voice for the politically and socially downtrodden, turns her instrument to the celebration of love, its triumphs and tragedies. Regional favorites like "Quiereme" and "Beseme Morenita" lead one to leaner offerings for the solo voice and guitar like "El Carbonero," and to the spirited polka, "Vamonos los Dos."

Chabela Villasenor was one of the best-known actresses of her day in Mexico, but the four songs found here may well represent all of the recorded singing she did. At first listen, the voice is alien, nasal, suggesting a defect in the recording. Your first thought might be "Munchkin" (mine was), but if you listen to these four a cappella songs, there is a delicacy to the singing which well serves the material.

The last seven-song set belongs to the Pulido and Solorio Sisters, aunts and nieces from the Purepecha Indian population in Mihuacan. These songs are robust and spirited, whether in the sterling guitar work of the two instrumental solos, or in the passionate delivery of the a cappella trios. As an added bonus, songs are offered with melody variants and in both Spanish and Purepecha (sometimes comingled in the same tune). The title tune itself, "Rosa de Castilla," exists in several interations: a spritely guitar piece, a Purepecha rendering with an alternate melody, and a third version rendered in Spanish. Whether singing of unrequited love, social prohibitions, or love as impediment to work (the winsome serenade "Male Bernadita"), these women sing of all that love has to offer, and close the disc with the wonderful "Ven, Nova Rosita, Ven," in which the new groom calls on his love to join him on life's long journey.

Feeling jaded? Cynical? Ready for a break from all this tiresome politics? Or maybe just want to brush up on your Spanish (or Purepecha)? Give yourself a treat, and spend a happy hour with these voices of love from Old Mexico.

[ by Gilbert Head ]

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