By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
You don't know anything about Mexico's stunningly diverse musical traditions. You couldn't tell a son jarocho from a son huasteco. All you know about mariachi is that sombreros, machismo and a heroic intake of tequila play a crucial role. And that's exactly how the musical powers that be in the United States and Mexico like it.
Think about what "Latin American music" means: colleges and nightclubs offer always-full salsa and tango classes, yet they completely ignore the two-step polka so integral to Mexican regional dance. The American press orgasms over Buena Vista Social Club and Puerto Rican singers such as Ricky Martin, Jon Secada and Jennifer Lopez; Mexican musicians such as Banda El Recodo and Los Tigres del Norte rot in obscurity. And when the media does heavily promote a Mexican singer, it's cretins like Paulina Rubio or think-they're-revolutionary-because-they-wear-a-shirt-with-a-red-star poseurs Maná.
This ignorance and ridicule is a conscious decision, based on our country's fiendishly complex relationship with our neighbor to the south—and on Mexico's own mixed feelings about its cultural worth. But the Kronos Quartet doesn't care for diatonic discrimination; its only concern is searching for the world's great musical traditions so it can expose finicky American audiences to them. And for Kronos, Mexico has one of the greatest.
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The quartet has been proletariatizing classical music for the past quarter-century, remaking everything from Jimi Hendrix to Allen Ginsberg to Bollywood film scores. But Kronos outdid themselves with this year's Nuevo, selecting songs that span the entire history of Mexican music and creating one of the most acclaimed classical music releases of the year. Leave it to the fearless group—Hunk Dutt on viola, David Harrington playing first violin and John Sherba the second, and anchored by Jennifer Culp's cello—to show the world Mexico's beautiful beats: one day, people will consider Kronos' Nuevo one of the greatest gifts Mexico ever received from America.
From the indigenous south, they give you a Chiapan chant ("K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'Tik Kwadulupe," written in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe), weaving solemn strings around the Tzotzil prayer for a celestial-yet-terrestrial experience.
The quartet gives ranchera tune "Cuatro Milpas" the proper sense of nostalgia and longing but channels it through the stateliness of a Romantic chamber suite. And "El Sinaloense" is simply scintillating, with Kronos' screeching violins replacing the original banda trombones and tubas. If the people surrounding you weren't so stuck up, they'd bring down the Barclay with the zapateada "El Sinaloense" requires.
Modernists will love "Mini Skirt," a fanciful remake of one of Juan García Esquivel's space-age bachelor creations. That's right, tiki lovers—the man was Mexican.
"Nacho Verduzco" represents the narcocorrido, Mexico's most important musical development of the past decade. Though another selection might have been better, Kronos was knowledgeable enough to draw from the canon of narcocorrido god Chalino Sanchez. Kronos' all-string sound somehow reproduces the accordion and bajo sexto sounds of the conjunto norteño style this song usually plays in.
Ballad-lovers will delight in "Se Me Hizo Facil" and "Perfidia," both songs by legendary Mexican lyricists Agustín Lara and Alberto Domínguez—either of whom could write Porter and Gershwin into little whimpering pieces. Kronos' instrumental versions of each exaggerate the songs' cheesiness through approximately 1 billion brilliantly sappy overdubs.
Kronos hits up recent rockeros, too, collaborating with eccentrics Café Tacuba on "12/12" (itself a tiny overview of Mexican musical history) and letting the Nortec Collective's Plankton Man remix "El Sinaloense" to weird postmodern effect.
And the track that best exemplifies Kronos' ability to make any musical style into its own—without usurping its cultural integrity—is the huapango "El Llorar." Its furious 6/8 time and yelping singing style captures best what Mexico has always been about, with a simultaneously joyous-yet-anguished tone. I challenge you to listen to this song—the entire Kronos performance, for that matter—and not feel a stirring in your long-dormant soul.
But if you take my challenge and fail, you probably enjoyed the Latin Shammys a couple of weeks back, too. So you'll love dreck like Juanes, who'll be at the House of Blues; he's so beloved by the same bastards that deny the world Mexican music that he's already earned nine Latin Grammy nominations—which only shows how worthless the awards are. The media has been fawning over the tiny Colombian for the past year, as if his wimpy music will somehow save Latin alternative and end his country's 30-year civil war. Trust me: it won't do either.
KRONOS QUARTET PERFORMS AT THE IRVINE BARCLAY THEATRE, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646 OR (949) 824-2787. TUES., 8 P.M. $20-$24; JUANES PERFORMS AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 740-2000; WWW.HOB.COM. FRI., 8 P.M. SOLD OUT BECAUSE THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US.