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Music Helps Rios-Ellis Make Point

Published: November 1, 2011

Cumbia, banda, corrido, bolero, ranchera and Norteño are all genres of Mexican music that serve as both cultural and musical milestones, a point driven home with a beat by Chicano and Latino Studies’ Enrique Rios-Ellis in his new fall class “Mexican Culture through Music.”

Rios-Ellis, who also teaches the class at CSU Fullerton and will begin teaching later this year at UC Irvine, first offered the class not long after joining the CSULB in 1997.

“One of the things that impressed me the most and makes the class a great experience is the recognition that many Latino and non-Latino students make with their musical surroundings. Everyone in Southern California listens to Mexican music, whether they like it or not—but so little is known of the multiple genres and composers that comprise our heritage,” he said. “When I ask my students about their backgrounds, I find that terms like ‘Hispanic’ ‘Chicano’ and ‘Mexican American’ are often confusing even for Latino students who often tell me in private that they are afraid to ask what box they should check when applying to school. I have met students who are still confused about their identities in their final year at CSULB, but the music always brings them home. They are very connected to their cultures but, at the same time, they often feel hesitant to express it in a university setting. When they take the class, they find out it is OK to be who they are and the class often turns out to be one of their best experiences at CSULB.”

The door to the course is open to all, Latinos and non-Latinos alike. “We don’t know each others’ histories yet,” he said. “When I bring my indigenous pre-Colombian instrument collection to class and everyone has the chance to play and sing in Mayan it is new for everyone. Latinos and non-Latinos come to appreciate a new cultural richness than they have not seen in popular culture. As what we experience in class begins to clash with negative ways in which Mexican history and indigenous cultures have often been portrayed in popular culture, all students take away a different lens from which to experience not only Mexican music, but world music as well.”

Not only does the class forge a connection between student and culture but between student and family. In what may seem like an undergraduate’s dream come true, Rios-Ellis asks his students to attend a concert of Mexican music and critique their style.

“Many students have never done that,” he explained. “When they have to attend a concert for a grade, they must make a connection and, when they do, sometimes the students even invite their parents to come along. Through that experience, many students forge a connection with their parents that brings them closer and the differences between the generations melt away as they share a musical experience. Their appreciation for each other grows, which brings them back to the importance of family in Latino cultures.

“Latin music is transgenerational,” he continued. “It means something when kids know the same songs as their grandparents. There are often different age groups at family reunions listening to and singing the same songs. Latin music is rarely ‘background’ music at our parties and events. It demands participation whether through song or dance. That builds a cultural and generational connection. And in our class, many students know these songs and artists down to their instrumentation.”

Students deliver presentations about various specialties in Latin music, whether group, artist or movement. “It can even mean performing in class,” said Rios-Ellis. “Sometimes students bring in outside experts to address the class including a 90-minute visit from Luis Perez of Los Lobos. The students were amazed not only with the music but also with how much history their generation shares with Perez’s.”

Students can expect to review everything from rock en español to ranchera. “Through this class, students can find out Mexico is something they can be proud of,” he said. “Unfortunately, in California, to be from Mexico can be portrayed as demeaning by politicians. Recent xenophobic laws passed throughout the U.S. and in California point to the ways in which we are often scapegoated and blamed for everything from the recession to the health care crisis. Our cultural assets, of which there are many, are not often celebrated or clearly understood. It always surprises me that a country as close, as large, and as rich in heritage and world contributions as Mexico is so poorly understood. This class offers valuable encounters with identity and culture that lead to a greater appreciation not just musically, but philosophically as well. Many students have told me about the transformations they experience through the knowledge they that gained and we know that when students feel better about themselves and who they are, they can better identify with the university and will perform better academically. In general, it has the reputation as one of the favorite classes students take in the CSU.”

The USC graduate with a doctorate in classical music also leads Bak’Tun 13, a Latin American jazz ensemble that plays regularly throughout Southern California. Rios-Ellis began his musical career in Mexico in the 1970s. When he was accepted to the Consevatorio Nacional de Mexico the music education system only offered the opportunity to study classical music, which he felt just wasn’t enough.

“Because my father was an artist for Disney, I had lived in the U.S. before as a child,” he said. “Ironically, my father didn’t want to raise us here because he wanted to make sure that we kept our strong family and cultural values. We traveled back and forth frequently as children and through my father’s records and my trips to the U.S. I found jazz. After playing with many popular musicians in Mexico I got a gig in Rosarito that allowed me to travel back and forth to the U.S. to study with Clare Fischer, Bill Green and some of my other heroes.

“In 1982 I began studying in Los Angeles and gigging regularly and then I went study in Eugene, Oregon with some friends. There we formed Caliente and Sandunga, started gigging every weekend, and I received a scholarship to study at the University of Oregon where I could study both jazz and classical music,” he continued. “Since then, I have always played in groups and found a combination of styles in Latin jazz I’ve found nowhere else. Bak’Tun 13 is a great combo and I invite my students to our performances every Tuesday at the House of Blues. I chose the title Bak’Tun 13 for the obvious word play with the English word ‘tune’, which is pronounced the same in Mayan…..but also for the way in which music transcends time and because our music is of this Bak’Tun, this period of time in the Mayan calendar.”

Rios-Ellis Uses Mexican Music To Make His Point
Enrique Rios-Ellis

Rios-Ellis takes a scholarly interest in Mexican music’s Mayan and Aztec roots. “I spent the summer of 2011 studying music in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula,” he said. “I do research and get in touch with the local music makers and bring home a few new indigenous instruments each year. In this class, I try to stress the connection between the Aztecs, the Mayans and European music. How did their music sound before the Spaniards arrived? My students enjoy playing Mayan music and see the European-Aztec connection almost immediately as rhythm is both innate and universal. Many of the students might not be Latinos but they love to be part of the music. This class helps to make them appreciate Mexican culture-the music permeates and becomes part of them.”

To many Americans, Mexican music starts and stops with mariachi. Rios-Ellis casts a doubtful eye on the cultural stereotype. Mariachi has its roots in the early 20th century, he explained, when groups performed with the other contemporary bands.

“One of the biggest inclusions in Mexican music was Italian composition. Listen to mariachis and you’ll hear a full vibrato, bel canto kind of operatic singing,” he said. “If you really analyze Mariachi, there is very little that is Mexican about it. The trumpets and singing are very Eurocentric. Even the look of the musicians is influenced by Europe.”

Mexican musical influences stretch as far as Africa. ”For instance, in Veracruz, there are all three influences of Mexican, African and European musical styles,” he said. “Africans were introduced into Latin American and Caribbean cultures through slavery. Today, Mexican music is distinguished by its African influences. If you listen to the music of Veracruz, you can detect their presence through the strumming of guitars, which can be both Spanish and African. It is all a matter of accent and melodies.”

Germany also takes a cultural seat with many Mexican bands. “The polka and accordion are popular in banda music, a brass-based form of traditional music,” he said. “Most banda music is very clearly a dialect of polka. There is even a resemblance between the ways Mexicans and Germans dance. They just get up and do it. Mexicans added their own lyrics to German music and it became Norteño with its characteristic accordion and bajo sexto. The accordion is a strong instrument in terms of volume and personality and that is part of why it attracts so many people. There is even a military influence,” he continued. “I have visited small Mexican towns where the residents have their own municipal bands performing polkas and mazurkas and waltzes. Part of what I want to do in class is to help my students analyze this music and understand its place in history. We also learn about the great Mexican classical composers such as Carlos Chavez, Silvestre Revueltas, Jose Pablo Moncayo and many others whose music is absolutely mesmerizing.”

Student response to the class has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Where some students come from, many family members have died in political violence,” he said. “The students identify with a freedom they’ve never known. When they arrive from countries that have experienced human rights abuses, they come from political structures that pay only lip service to human rights. Just last semester I received a long letter from a Chinese immigrant student that spoke of the human rights abuses her family had experienced and the strong connections she had made with nueva canción. She thanked me for the class and wrote about how much she had become to appreciate music as a vehicle of free expression. I have received several similar comments from immigrant students from Latin America throughout the years, and was elated to see my students building cultural connections through music that they could use to help them heal the tragedies they’ve experienced in their own lives. Music is perhaps the only thing that allows us to time travel as it transcends borders, generations, and history. The power of Mexican, Latin, and Caribbean music to weave itself profoundly into the musical tapestry of the U.S. should be both honored and treasured, and this is what I try to achieve through the class.”